Thursday, August 29, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

Travis County Commissioners balk at funds for Clean Air Force

Travis County Commissioners failed Tuesday to approve an extension of the county’s contract with the Central Texas Clean Air Force. In addition, it appears that the organization’s 2014 funding in limbo.

Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis led the charge against the program. Davis, who questioned the CAF’s effectiveness last year, abstained on a court vote that would have contractually cleared the way for the non-profit to receive $10,000 from the county in 30 days.

What we’re trying to do here is look at performance – see how things are and we pay accordingly,” Davis said. “But for this particular request you’re making…we’ll be paying before we see anything to suggest this is what we want to pay for, and I have a little problem with that.”

The item ultimately died with no commissioner seconding County Judge Sam Biscoe’s motion to approve the contract. Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was absent.

The agency educates the public about air quality issues and manages air quality improvement programs. It is popularly regarded as a source for determining if it’s a Central Texas Ozone Action Day. 

According to its web site, the organization “is funded by both public and private funds, including local government entities, the Central Texas business community and grants.”

The court approved a portion of the organization’s funds in October, 2012 at a rate half of what it had contributed in previous years. Tom Weber, environmental quality program manager for Travis County’s Natural Resource and Environmental Quality program noted that commissioners then demanded “that we work on and get improved, or more explicit, deliverables.”

“Deliverables” could be number of press conferences held, press releases sent out, or clean air partners, Weber continued. The court also wanted to measure the group’s social media activity – web site hits, Facebook friends, Twitter followers, etc. “So we could get a handle on the (group’s) effectiveness…or really just the relevance.”

Last October, former Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt also questioned whether the organization was yielding effective results. She also noted that well-intended partnerships can wane over time.

I think we are seeing that with the Clean Air Force and I think we owe it to the taxpayers to honestly assess the effectiveness, the scope and the reputation,” she said at the time. (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 4, 2012.)

Tuesday, Biscoe reminded the court of the importance of CAF’s education and alert services, putting his support behind approving the contract with a note that there will likely be a new clean air strategy for 2014.

“It’s not like we’re contracting with CAF for the first time,” he said. “We’ve contracted with them for years.”

“Judge, I hear you,” Davis said. “I’m just basically going to send them a clear message. I don’t think they’re doing as great a job as they can do. I’m going to abstain on this.”

Davis abstention, however, was not needed. Biscoe’s motion to approve the item failed to get a second, rendering it dead. Without a contract, there’s not a mechanism for delivering the funds to the organization, Weber said.

“At least a majority of the court wants us to reengage and come up with a different kind of contract,” he continued. “I think a lot of this will be resolved by the fact that the budget is being set for FY 2014 and 2013 is kind of water under the bridge.”

The county’s Planning and Budget Office did not recommend CAF funding for fiscal year 2014.

CAF’s Executive Director Deanna Altenhoff could not be reached for comment by phone, but she did respond to In Fact Daily by e-mail.

“Yesterday’s vote simply related to approval of the contract,” she wrote. “We will continue to work with the Travis County Commissioners to finalize the contract.”

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