Friday, September 13, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

Austin, Travis County cut program funding for Clean Air Force

The City of Austin and Travis County are planning to shift some of the funding they’ve traditionally contributed to the Clean Air Force of Central Texas to a different air quality organization in the upcoming year.

 

The move appears to be motivated in part by a general murkiness around what the Clean Air Force does.

 

Part of the mission of the non-profit is to educate the public on air quality issues and manage air quality improvement programs in Central Texas. CAF is widely known for sending out electronic Ozone Action Day alerts. The organization also manages several programs aimed at encouraging emission reduction strategies.

 

CAF is staffed by Executive Director Deanna Altenhoff and her assistant.

 

The organization is funded by a combination of private and public money. According to Altenhoff, who responded to In Fact Daily by e-mail late Thursday, 50 percent of funding comes from the public sector and 50 percent from private entities.

 

According to the city, in each of fiscal years 2010, 2011 and 2012, it contributed $90,000 to the organization. To date, in fiscal year 2013, the city has given it $70,000.

 

The City of Austin has been a member of the Clean Air Force for years,” said Samantha Park, the city’s public information officer for transportation. “This upcoming fiscal year the Council approved a $10,000 annual partner membership. We will continue addressing the ongoing challenge to improve air quality in Central Texas by working with regional partners including the Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG) Clean Air Coalition, Commute Solutions, Movability Austin and others.”

 

Park said the reduction in funding is an effort to streamline regional air quality efforts, and that CAPCOG will advocate, plan, and coordinate clean air initiatives on a regional basis.

 

“Regional air quality is an issue that extends beyond Austin’s boundaries and is benefitted by having a regional approach,” Park said.

 

Other officials are more critical of CAF and cite performance reasons for pursuing partnerships with other clean air groups.

 

During a Travis County Commissioners Court meeting in August, Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis asked if it were possible to hold off on releasing $10,000 in fiscal year 2013 funding to CAF until it was more clearly specified what tasks were to be delivered. Davis is on the organization’s board of directors.

 

“What we’re trying to do here is look at performance – see how things are and we pay accordingly,” he 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.”

As far back as a year ago, at least one other Travis County Commissioner voiced concerns about the efficacy of the group.

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

A motion to approve a contract with CAF died. Without a contract, there is no mechanism in place for delivering the $10,000 in funding to the organization.

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, who was chair of the organization about six years ago, said these issues of performance have come up before.

When you do this kind of work, I don’t know that you really can expect typical performance measures,” he said. “People have kind of wondered, ‘exactly what are we getting here?’ For a lot of people, that’s kind of fuzzy.”

Jim Marston, founding director of the Environment Defense Fund and former CAF chair, defends the organization.

 

“I think these complaints are unfair and unfounded,” he said. “Commissioner Davis is in theory the representative of Travis County on that board. He has not come once. He has not met with people. I’ve tried to meet with him about what’s going on and he won’t meet with us. I think he’s being misled by staff people.”

 

Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who is also on CAF’s board of directors, said he has attended one CAF board meeting. His policy director attends in his place. Leffingwell said while he’s not unhappy with the work the group does, he’s also not clear on exactly how the city benefits from the investment.

 

“They sponsor the ozone action days and public outreach,” he said. “But, I don’t have much of a feel for what form that outreach takes. I think we do need to nail that down.”

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