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Watershed Protection Department plans higher fees, new staff in 2014

Wednesday, May 1, 2013 by Ramon Ramirez

The Watershed Protection Department is proposing an 85-cent monthly increase per household on drainage fees, as well as 10 new full-time positions dedicated to the implementation of the Waller Creek Tunnel project for the FY 2014 budget.

Members of he staff told the Environmental Board Budget Committee Monday that the drainage fee increases are projected to generate $7.5 million in revenue for the Drainage Utility Fund that is used to maintain water quality and infrastructure.

The department is also planning for the ongoing development of the Waller Creek Tunnel. However, FY 2014 expenditures for this project will only total $1.5 million in operating and management costs.

The proposed full-time Watershed Protection Department positions dedicated to the Waller Creek Tunnel come in at $789,000. New personnel include engineers, consultants, operation and maintenance techs, electricians, drainage operators and treatment plant specialists.

Yet Waller Creek’s surface developments will cost the department $22 million spread out over several years, starting next year.

“Lower Waller Creek has two of the top 10 erosion problem areas in the city,” said department Deputy Director Joe Pantalion, “We would have been doing a stream restoration project anyway . . . And part of this budget proposes $22 million toward the stream restoration.”

As such, the Watershed Protection Department is putting $1.7 million per year to pay the debt service on this $22 million in surface improvements (parks, trails, parking upgrades). The debt service on that won’t start until FY15, according to Financial Manager Diane Gonzales.

“The tunnel is currently under construction and the capital project costs for this – design  permitting, bidding, paying all the contractors – is coming from (a) TIF, tax increment financing district,” said Pantalion, “This is in my lifetime the only drainage project that we’ve had where a certain geographic segment of the city has paid for it.”

TIFs subsidize developments with future gains in taxes. Since the Waller Creek project will mean increased real estate prices for the surrounding area, the TIF is fronting the bill for the tunnel itself.

The Waller Creek work will be staggered over several separate Capital Improvement Program projects. The phases include the Master Plan’s shoreline stabilization efforts; the tunnel building phase—a 15.5 to 22 ft. diameter tunnel designed to divert storm flows and provide flood protection to 42 existing buildings and 12 roadway crossings; the maintenance piece that will fund the sediment removal throughout construction; and a phase that will provide habitat restoration for the stream.

When completed, this project will cost the city and Travis County an estimated $147 million.

Geographically, the project will span an inlet pond from Waterloo Park down to an outlet cove that spills into Lady Bird Lake, and opens the Waller Creek area up for redevelopment. The tunnel will be more than 5,500 feet in length and completion is slated for the end of 2014.

“(This) is going to create our own Riverwalk,” said Environmental Board member Bob Anderson, “It’s going to skyrocket the property values . . . It will transform the city into a place that has the financial underpinnings of what the city of San Antonio did.”

Other flood-prone areas that should see targeted facelifts include the Boggy Creek Greenbelt, Little Walnut Creek, a low water crossing upgrade at San Antonio Road. In total, the proposed FY 2014 Watershed Protection Department budget looks to prepare design for 4,000 linear feet of stream channel repairs in FY 2014, as well as construct water quality controls to reduce storm water pollutants from 6,900 acres.

Members of the entire Environmental Board will hear a budget presentation on May 15. There is no specific date for a departmental presentation to the City Council but Council members will be asking questions about the entire budget at this Thursday’s work session.

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