Friday, November 2, 2018 by Jack Craver

At long last, Council approves biosolids contract

On Thursday, City Council put an end to two and a half years of squabbling over a lucrative contract to manage biosolid waste generated by the city water utility.

Council voted 10-1 to award the contract to Synagro of Texas-CDR Inc., which has been providing the service to the city for years. The contract is for an initial term of five years with five possible one-year extensions, for a total of $19.3 million. Only Council Member Ellen Troxclair voted against.

The process has been delayed due to fierce opposition from Texas Disposal Systems, a competing waste management company whose landfill in Creedmoor has a 40-year contract to receive residential trash collected by city garbage trucks.

TDS initially refused to submit a bid in 2016, arguing that the city’s anti-lobbying ordinance, which prohibits bidders from communicating with city staff while the bid is under consideration, would put TDS in legal jeopardy due to its regular communications with staff about its existing city contracts.

Staff recommended a contract with Synagro, but in December of 2016, shortly before Council was poised to approve the contract, city staff canceled the solicitation due to undisclosed “staff errors” that led to a violation of anti-lobbying ordinance, according to water utility documents.

Meanwhile, in response to TDS’ complaints, Council voted in April 2017 to waive anti-lobbying rules for waste contracts and directed a working group of stakeholders to craft changes to the rules.

Freed from the constraints of the anti-lobbying ordinance, TDS participated in the new solicitation for the biosolids contract but received a lower score than Synagro, which staff once again recommended for the contract. TDS filed a protest and staff once again canceled the solicitation.

Finally, in May, staff issued a final solicitation. But rather than a “request for proposal” where it’s up to the bidders to propose the services they will perform and at what price, staff put out an Invitation to Bid that specified the type of composting they were seeking. The contract would go to the submitter of the lowest bid. Synagro’s bid was lower than two submitted by TDS.

Also this summer, Council approved changes to the anti-lobbying ordinance that TDS denounced as superficial.

On Thursday, TDS made a last-ditch effort to stop Synagro from getting the contract. Three separate company representatives accused city staff of manipulating the process to exclude the most qualified contractor. Adam Gregory, son of TDS founder Bob Gregory, and lobbyist Michael Whellan, warned Council of a provision of the contract that will allow Synagro to change the nature of its services if the water utility agrees that it is necessary due to an “emergency” condition. In such an event, said Gregory, the utility might be forced to pay more.

Andrew Bosinger, a representative for Synagro, responded with a mixture of outrage and bemusement at what he called TDS’ “intentional misinformation.”

“I’ve been accused of a conspiracy here,” he said. “A vast conspiracy to direct this contract.”

Bosinger reminded Council that Synagro has been managing the city’s biowaste for years without incident.

“We’ve managed your biosolids consistently, reliably. We’ve had zero environmental exceptions,” he said.

Also speaking in support of the contract was Phil Gosh, owner of Organics by Gosh, a company that last year won a composting contract that was similarly opposed by TDS. Gosh said that TDS’ tactics put the city in danger of losing a competitive market for composting.

“Zero-waste is going to take all of us,” he said. “What’s it going to look like if we have one company doing everything and no competition?”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin Resource Recovery: Formerly Solid Waste Services. The department in charge of handling solid waste disposal, recycling, and--in what is still a pilot program--curb-side composting for the City of Austin.

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