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Travis Commissioners wary of endorsing Hill Country Water Authority

Friday, May 10, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though holding back from an outright rejection, Travis County Commissioners remained skeptical Tuesday about endorsing a state bill that would create a regional water authority for the Hill Country.


The Commissioners Court voted 3-2 to oppose House Bill 890, with Commissioners Sarah Eckhardt, Ron Davis and Margaret Gomez voting to oppose the bill. However, the number fell short of the super-majority required to officially oppose it. In limbo, it will return next week for further discussion.


State Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) is sponsoring the bill, which will be represented by Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) as Senate Bill 508. If approved, the bills would create the Hill Country Regional Water Authority. The water authority would be converted from the existing West Travis Public Utility Agency.


The proposed governance for the Hill Country Regional Water Authority was the biggest sticking point for the county. Currently, if approved, it will be governed by a five-member appointed board. This board will consist of one member selected by the West Travis County MUD Number 5 board, two members selected by the Bee Cave City Council and two members selected by the Hays County Commissioners Court.


“In its current form, even the appointments made aren’t regional. Since this is billed as a regional authority, how do we get to regional without having regional representation, either elected or appointed?” asked Eckhart. “I one-hundred percent support the pursuit of a regional water authority, but as this bill stands, it is not regional in representation. That, for me, is a deal killer.”


Judge Sam Biscoe was more succinct in his criticism, noting, “The idea of an elected board strikes Democrats as being rather democratic.”


The county expressed similar concerns in April, when the bill was brought before them. Since then, “interim study language” was added to the bill, stipulating that a public process to address the future governance of the water authority. The change didn’t impress many of the commissioners, including Eckhardt, who wondered why a study was even necessary given decades of Municipal Utility District and Public Improvement District governance structures.


Hays County Commissioner Ray Whisenant said that, though he couldn’t promise anything, he “had been given no reason, from the Hays County side of it, that Travis County Commissioners Court would not be welcome and considered a part of that overall governance, quite frankly.”


“Let’s do that now, before we pass this legislation,” said Eckhardt.


Intergovernmental Relations Coordinator Deece Eckstein said he was skeptical that the “governance” problem would be solved prior to a May 27 deadline.


Save Our Springs Executive Director Bill Bunch spoke against the bill, saying it was a way for developers to bankroll major expansions of infrastructure into the Hill Country on the backs of ratepayers. “As written, this thing can expand across the whole Hill Country. There’s no limit on the service area, and there should be,” said Bunch.


Whisenant disagreed.


“Development is going to happen on its own nickel, and it’s going to be the type of development we want, not just rampant growth,” said Whisenant.


Though Biscoe and Commissioner Gerald Daugherty did not vote to oppose the bill, they did vote in favor of a postponement earlier, hoping that they could speak with Senator Watson about changing the bill before it is approved.


“I fear this bill will happen regardless of what we do here,” said Daugherty.

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