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Council takes on a wide swath of items at work session

Thursday, February 17, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council continues to work on its new work sessions, openly struggling with how to conduct the meetings that are held in a hot, cramped room on Wednesday afternoons. Last week, Mayor Lee Leffingwell ran through the agenda, inviting comments on items from Council members. This week, he shifted gears.


“Rather than plod through it like I did last week, I’m just going to totally open it up,” declared Leffingwell. Council members then identified items they had questions and concerns about, bringing forth staff when necessary.


They first addressed a number of items about the Waller Creek Tunnel project that appear on this week’s agenda.


The proposed 26-foot diameter tunnel will reach from Waterloo Park to Waller Beach. Joe Pantalion from the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department pointed out that the creek has seen a number of fatalities over the years, the most recent occurring in 2007.


Waller Creek’s floodplain covers 28 acres of downtown Austin and when flooded is “a very dangerous situation,” said Pantalion. “We consider it among our highest public safety needs from a watershed protection standpoint.”  Additionally, the creek presents environmental concerns. “It’s among our worst creeks in terms of water quality degradation,” said Pantalion


“The Waller Creek project is a vast project, and includes a lot of different elements. People in the community have been talking about it for a long time now,” said Leffingwell. “What I want to emphasize is that what we are talking about here is the tunnel, not trails, not amphitheaters, not parks, just the tunnel.” The mayor called it “a worthy project from the aspect of flood control.”


Leffingwell and Council Member Bill Spelman had questions about the revised financing of the project, whose capital costs will run upwards of $100 million dollars, but opted to save that discussion for the City Council meeting. Council will address all of the Waller Creek tunnel items at 4pm.


Council Member Laura Morrison had questions for staff on the upcoming strategic facility plan and needs assessment. Council will vote on approval of a contract with a Minneapolis firm to perform the assessment.


Morrison was concerned about conducting the assessment prior to the comprehensive plan, reasoning that the level of examination would be better informed after its release. Spelman also questioned whether the timing of the study would allow it to work in concert with the comprehensive plan, AISD, and the state.


“I think the fact of the matter is that we make facility decisions and investments all the time,” said City Manager Marc Ott. “What we are trying to accomplish here is long overdue. We’ve been making those decisions in kind of a disparate way, not understanding the overall context.”


Morrison also asked staff about the wisdom of hiring an out-of-state firm for the task. “I know with all the conversation going on about the work of the task force the school district had, one of the concerns that was raised was the knowledge of the consultant, being from Ohio,” said Morrison. “So that’s why I was just feeling a little sensitive about that.”


Meanwhile, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez had “one remaining question” about the proposed new Municipal Utility District (MUD) policy. He asked Austin Water Utility’s Bart Jennings what happens to excess MUD funds when they are dissolved.


When told that they could be spent on any legitimate cost of business expense, including attorney and consultant fees, Martinez was skeptical.


“When you say things like ‘you can spend excess funds on consultant fees to do legitimate business,’ what’s legitimate?” asked Martinez. “Consultants are going to love this.”


Assistant City Attorney Sharon Smith explained that any restrictions on wild consultant spending could be included in the consent agreement upon creation of the MUD.


Though yesterday’s work session was a healthy four hours long, it is unclear whether Council sufficiently hashed out their questions and concerns about this week’s agenda or whether these discussions will continue at today’s meeting.

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