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Commission rejects Water Utility request for full WTP4 authorization

Friday, November 12, 2010 by Michael Kanin

A major funding package that would authorize the remaining construction work for the city’s fourth water treatment facility was recommended for denial by the Water and Wastewater Commission on Wednesday. Its next stop is the City Council, where it will be debated on Thursday.


Though a defeat for the package there would likely do little to stop the hotly debated plant’s construction, its failure to pass the relatively plant-friendly commission represents the first victory for opponents of the facility in some time. To stop construction of the plant, however, they must break the solid 4-3 pro-WTP4 majority on the Council.


The vote at commission level was overwhelmingly against the idea. With Commissioner Dale Gray absent, the panel voted 4-1 to recommend against the funding package. Commissioner Chien Lee, who is part of a subcontract for the facility, recused himself.


Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros told the commission that the $359 million authorization would help with flexibility and better bidding. “Seeking one large authorization, instead of incremental amendments – in the opinion of myself, staff, (and) the City Manager’s office – is going to result in increased flexibility in responding to requests from prospective bidders,” he said.


“As we’re getting requests from prospective bidders, we often get (feedback) that another week or two would help them formulate more competitive bids,” he continued. “We think under this structure that gives us (this) flexibility. Right now, we are tied more to the boards and commissions and Council schedule.”


He added that all of the environmental reporting would stay the same – even if the individual contracts didn’t come back before the Water and Wastewater Commission or the City Council, which would be the case should the package pass.


He also noted that the approval of large project funding efforts wasn’t entirely unprecedented. “The Council has approved large authorizations before,” he said. “In 2006, they approved (a) $132 million authorization to have (Austin Energy) procure 250 megawatts of power. In April of 2006, they approved a $685 million procurement for 225 megawatts of wind power, and, more recently, in August of 2009, they approved a quarter billion dollars to build a solar farm on the Webberville site.”


Austin Sierra Club vice chair Roy Whaley took issue with that statement. “Those were all projects that had been fully vetted and there were very few questions on those projects at the time that the money (was authorized),” he said. “Right now, we haven’t finished all of the environmental impact studies – particularly on the transmission lines.”


He urged the commission to put the brakes on the project. “I’m asking you to step up tonight and say ‘let’s do slow down, let’s do take a look at this, let’s ask for more information from the Council,’ ” he continued. “I would like to see more conversations between the advisory board and the people who will ultimately be making this decision.”


When it came time for questions, Commissioner Sarah Faust latched on to a comment that Meszaros had made about community participation. “I think you raise a good point,” she said. “I think that after extensive community input, the Council and the utility decided to move the treatment plant. I also think after the community input and participation from the neighbors . . . and everyone working on the transmission main, that that project has become a much better project for all parties. To me, all of those things demonstrate why continued community input, public participation, and oversight from the Water and Wastewater Commission is important.”


The total amount of the contracts that Meszaros had asked the commission to recommend is $359 million. That figure represents all of the remaining unfunded construction costs for the project. It would cover work that is scheduled to begin in phases up through September 2011.


After the meeting, Meszaros told In Fact Daily that, should the $359 million authorization fail at Council, the utility would go back to its incremental approach. “That was the way that we were proceeding before, so we would just revert back to that process,” he said. “The benefits I described in the presentation – where having one single authorization would, I think, create a more attractive bidding environment, notice to proceeds would appear more quickly, the ability to customize the bidding schedule. . .you would lose some of that. (It’s) hard to quantify—what translates to potential dollars.”


He added, “We’re still going to recommend to Council that this is the right step to take.”

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