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Mark Richardson is a multimedia journalist, editor and writer who has worked in digital, print and broadcast media for three decades. He is a nationally recognized editor and reporter who has covered government, politics and the environment. A journalism graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, he was recently awarded a Foundation for Investigative Journalism grant and has three Associated Press Managing Editors awards for excellence in reporting.
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Commission urges Council to suspend Hauler License Fee ordinance
Short of breaking the speed limit or ripping the tag off of a mattress, there is probably no law in the City of Austin broken more often than the ordinance requiring a fee to haul construction waste. And after more than two decades of study and controversy, the city’s Solid Waste Services Department wants the City Council to repeal the ordinance.
Dozens of companies have operated services in Austin that haul waste from construction and other sites via “roll-off” containers and take it to local landfills. Very few of them have ever bothered to register with the city and pay the annual fee required to provide such services. And fewer still are ever ticketed for operating illegally.
Members of the Solid Waste Advisory Commission, many of whom have grappled with the issue for years, passed a resolution Wednesday night calling for the Council to take the law off the city’s books and use the Solid Waste Services Master Plan process to start over.
Fayez Kazi, chairman of the SWAC’s Hauler License Fee Subcommittee, said that after a series of meetings with stakeholders, including city staff, law enforcement, and many of the haulers, their path was clear.
“What we learned in these meetings was that the current ordinance simply does not work,” Kazi said. “What we heard, particularly from the haulers themselves, was that there is no evidence of a connection between the fees being collected and any actions being taken to enforce the ordinance.”
The law, written in the early 1990s, was designed to “establish a fair playing field for private haulers by requiring a permit for all haulers who do business within the city limits,” SWS Director Bob Gedert wrote in a memo to subcommittee members earlier this year. “As time progressed, some haulers either did not know about the ordinance or made a decision to not pay the fee due to of a lack of enforcement of the ordinance.”
Gedert went on to note that “rogue haulers … may be driving unsafe loads and not (be) properly licensed with the state as well as not carrying the city permit.”
Over time, opposition to the fee arose from those haulers who did pay the fee, angry at those who operated without doing so. Ron Torrey, owner of Captain Hook, a waste hauling company, began a fight with city officials about eight years ago after being told that they would fine him and/or shut his business down if he did not pay his license fee.
“This (the resolution) comes as a result of eight years of work by Captain Hook trying to make a change, and resisting the city’s attempts to intimidate and harass us into complying with an illegal ordinance,” Torrey said. “So the city finally decided now to punt, which is fine by me.”
Other than getting haulers to register and pay the license fee, enforcement of the law has been the biggest problem over the years. The main agency in charge of enforcing the ordinance has been the city’s Code Compliance Department. However, Fayez said, the office has a number of limitations, not the least of which is its inability to stop a moving vehicle.
“During our hearings, we asked other city departments, such as the police and code enforcement, if they would be able to assist in enforcing the ordinance,” he said, adding that their response was not positive. However, Fayez said the consensus among the stakeholders was that they were generally in favor of some sort of oversight by the city.
Fayez said the resolution, which points out that the law is unfair to those who comply with it, asks the Council to suspend the ordinance’s fees and other requirements; replace that with a requirement that all haulers must register with the city and file an annual report; reimburse fees already paid for FY 2010; and initiate an education program for residents, businesses and haulers about the proper and legal way to conduct the business.
The resolution also calls for the Council to utilize the upcoming process to devise a Master Plan for the Solid Waste Services Department to institute a new plan for registering haulers, collecting fees, setting reporting regulations, and getting multiple city agencies involved in enforcing any new ordinance.
The resolution, which was approved on a 6-0 vote, is scheduled to go before the Council before the end of the year.
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