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Municipalities get Travis County support for LCRA utilities purchase effort

Thursday, July 7, 2011 by Michael Kanin

The Travis County Commissioners’ Court will contribute $12,000 to the efforts of a consortium of municipalities that will bid to acquire the Lower Colorado River Authority’s municipal water utilities. The court is expected to take further supportive action next week, when it will offer a resolution in favor of the consortium’s bid.

 

The move came as representatives from the consortium testified about the progress that they have made. As In Fact Daily reported last week, both the Travis County Attorney (See In Fact Daily, June 29, 2011) and the Texas Attorney General (See In Fact Daily, July 1, 2011) found the LCRA in violation of the Texas Public Information Act. The offices respective rulings came after West Lake Hills filed open records requests in search of information about the bidding process for the LCRA’s utilities.

 

West Lake Hills Mayor Dave Claunch says that the city has yet to receive what it believes is a complete set of documents. The court’s contribution will go to assist with the consortium’s legal efforts.

 

Leander Urban Design Officer Pix Howell offered the court an update from his perspective “The last time I spoke to you about this was in February,” he said. “We were still being told then that they were not interested in any offer that we might want to make – that they never intended to talk to us about buying their … systems. I think as a result, in part, of your help – but others – we have finally gotten to a point where we are part of their process.

 

“In fact,” Howell continued, “we have open support from the chair of the LCRA board and other board members. So, we’ve come a long way, I think. As you might suspect, much of that is politics.”

 

In addition to his roles with the City of Leander, and the consortium looking to buy LCRA utilities, Howell also serves on CAMPO’s Technical Advisory Committee. He is also a former member of the LCRA’s board.

 

Howell was optimistic about the consortium’s chances. “The board has come to the realization that we may be their best option,” he says, citing numerous encumbering governmental regulations and oversight concerns that the winner of the LCRA’s utility auction would have to face.

 

Claunch was more cautious. “I have been negotiating with the LCRA for two years on the purchase of our wastewater system, so I’m a little bit more cynical than others about the LCRA’s ability or willingness to bow to political pressure and do what’s right,” he told In Fact Daily. “I think they had a broader agenda that they’re determined to see through to its end, regardless of the legal and ethical complications associated with it.”

 

Claunch presented Travis Commissioners with a draft version of a resolution he proposed for their passage. In it, he suggests that the court use strong language to signal its preference that the LCRA award the utilities to the consortium.

 

In it, Claunch asks the court to proclaim its “full support for the (consortium’s) efforts to acquire the systems”; its “encouragement of LCRA to consider its historical commitment to the many communities served by the systems and to consider that the LCRA’s desire to divest itself of these critical utilities should not place undue burdens, financial or otherwise, upon those very same communities” and that it “call upon the LCRA to consider the many positive benefits of selecting the (consortium) as the winning bidder.”

 

Members of the consortium have suggested that its bid will almost certainly be lower than any offered by a private firm they’ve also claimed that, should the LCRA’s water utilities be awarded to a private firm, rates could double or triple.

 

The court signed off on the $12,000 contribution by a 4-0 vote on a motion from Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber. Precinct 1 Commissioner Ron Davis was absent.

 

Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt asked for a week to work on a resolution.

 

Claunch was pleased with the court’s action. “It’s a great show of their support,” he said. “We’re thrilled to get the money to help with the legal efforts. But we’re really thrilled to see unanimous support among the court members for our efforts to fix this situation. It’s going to take substantial political pressure on the LCRA for us to reach our goals.”

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