Friday, June 19, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Environmental Commission recommends Watershed Protection Department budget

Among the coronavirus pandemic’s many consequences is an impact on the Watershed Protection Department’s proposed budget for the 2021 fiscal year.

Even with the decision to cut back in areas, the department is still proposing a $107.1 million operating budget for 2021, with $101.2 million in expected revenue.

“Based on what we’ve seen in our revenue, we are not seeing a whole lot of dip in our revenue yet,” Anupa Gharpurey, Watershed Protection’s chief financial manager, said at the Environmental Commission’s June 17 meeting.

She explained to the commissioners that 95 percent of Watershed Protection’s budget is collected from a Drainage Utility Fund fee that is billed monthly to homeowners. Drainage Utility Fund fees are based on the amount of impervious cover on a site, a number that remains steady from year to year. The fee is packaged in the monthly bill from Austin Energy.

While there has been an uptick in residential customers who have asked to participate in the city utility’s customer assistance program, the Watershed Protection Department still anticipates meeting its revenue target goals for the current fiscal year.

By 2023, the department is forecasting a substantial increase in revenue despite federal interest rates hovering at near zero and customers requesting bill assistance from the city. Gharpurey explained that the rate charged for the Drainage Utility Fund, which has not changed since 2016, will need to increase to adequately support the department.

“We will need to increase the rate by 7 percent, which will substantially increase our revenue,” Gharpurey told commissioners, explaining that this hike in rates will primarily increase the funding coming from commercial properties. She clarified for the Monitor that this rate increase will depend on the amount of development in Austin and the corresponding increase in revenue it generates. “If we observe good growth in Austin construction, we may not need to increase the rate by 7 percent,” she said.

When Watershed Protection increases its fees, it will funnel a large portion of the revenue to the department’s capital improvement projects, for which the department requires $337 million. Currently, this revenue source supplies $53 million for the 93 projects slated within the 2021-2025 time frame.

Gharpurey told the Austin Monitor via email that the rest of the funding will be made up from ongoing Drainage Utility Fund fees, 2018 bond money, tax increment financing for the Waller Creek District, and development fees generated by the Regional Stormwater Management Program and the Urban Structural Control Fund.

Of the $337 million in planned projects, the city will spend $64.8 million in 2021. A majority of the projects will be focused on flood risk reduction and flood buyout initiatives.

Commissioner Curtis Smith called the map detailing the location of the drainage and infrastructure projects a “moral document,” adding, “right now I’m not totally convinced that … District 2 is really receiving its fair share.” City Council District 2 is in Southeast Austin, where flooding has caused mass property buyouts by the city and remains a persistent problem.

Gharpurey sent the Monitor a list of projects scheduled for District 2 that total $14.5 million between 2021 and 2025. Flood risk reduction projects accounted for $9.6 million and erosion control efforts made up $4.9 million. The total spend is 4 percent of the overall capital improvement project budget. Gharpurey noted that this funding does not include historic funding spent before 2021 or projects that have citywide benefit.

Other commissioners indicated that the presentation of the projects made it difficult to discern the specificity of each design and determine the spending plan behind it. “Right now we don’t have any info for us to make a decision about anything,” Commissioner Mary Ann Neely said. “I think it would be very useful for us, by district, to know what is happening and what will happen.”

The commission unanimously voted to recommend Watershed Protection’s 2021 budget and its five-year capital improvement project plan, and requested more details about the department’s current and future projects at a later date.

Commissioners Katie Coyne and Peggy Maceo were absent.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

city budget: The city’s plan for expenditures based on income.

City of Austin Environmental Commission: An advisory board to members of the Austin City Council. Its purview includes "all projects and programs which affect the quality of life for the citizens of Austin." In many cases, this includes development projects.

Watershed Protection Department: The city's Watershed Protection Department works to reduce the impact of floods, erosion and water pollution in the city. The department is mostly funded by the city's drainage fee.

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