The Daily Hustle: 11/19/10

Waterlogged meeting for council

The Daily Hustle: 11/19/10
Photo by Flickr user gozalewis [CC]

It was one soggy session in Council Chambers yesterday, with major votes on Water Treatment Plant No. 4 and the water/wasterwater service extension request to the Formula One racing site sucking all the H20 oxygen out of the room.

The morning was consumed by WTP4, with speakers in favor (business and development types) and against (environmentalists, rate-hike naysayers, and those from the soon-to-be shaft affected Spicewood Springs neighborhood) trotting out their well-worn arguments, but the item in question – a lump-sum $300 million appropriation to the construction manager-at-risk – provided room for some new rhetorical flourishes: supporters, including Austin Water director Greg Meszaros, said the funding would provide the manager greater flexibility when looking at bids, while opponents feared it removed oversight provisions and effectively would let staff do whatever they wanted.

Laura Morrison was the first WTP4-wary council member to speak: she argued the funding decision “defers completely to staff,” which was “not a comfortable position” for her. Bill Spelman joined her, saying it was “I'm not clear that this particular approach is going to improve value for taxpayers. But I'm persuaded that it probably will be more flexible. Whether that flexibility actually works to the advantage of the water utility or the taxpayers remains to be seen..” Chris Riley honed in on the scope-of-work in contract, vis a vis lingering questions about whether the $300 million would include construction of the Forest Ridge transmission main, which the utility hasn't been especially forthcoming on., having focused their attentions on the Jollyville transmission line. Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza's short answer was “if we can build it withing $359 million, yes,”

“What we heard about the forest ridge transmission main is a good representation of the issue,” said Riley “There are still judgments to be made about whether in fact we will need that main. In fact, the action today will enable you to build it, as long as they are under the $359 million figure they can build it without any further action on the part of the council. I think that it's inappropriate for us to defer those decisions.”

But as with all things WTP4, the appropriation passed by a familiar 4-3 vote. The Hustle was speculating to himself whether Sheryl Cole's budgetary concerns would allow her to vote against the one-time spending, but she prefaced her vote with a lengthy discussion of her concerns, peppered with questions for staff. After establishing that regular reports would be delivered to the Audit and Finance committee, along with other city boards and commissions. “ … Although today we might disagree about the timing of when or the necessity of this plant,” she said, “we are all firmly committed to keeping the city on solid financial footing.”

…. As for the other omnibus issue, F1, the Hustle had to duck outta chambers. However, resident racing reporter Richard Whittaker monitored the proceedings and files this report:

By comparison to the seemingly never-ending battle over WTP4, the first ever vote by council relating to the Formula One project was both brief and painless. Well, relatively painless.

At stake was the infamous service extension request. After an hour of public testimony – including Sierra Club Austin Chapter president Chris Lehman presenting the same anti-F1 slide show that he had previously delivered to the Environmental Commission to little effect – council voted 7-0 to reimburse the project for a maximum of $13 million for building water and wastewater mains into this corner of the county.

When the vote came down, council members Sheryl Cole and Laura Morrison both made the same point: That, regardless of the F1 track, the city was going to have to put a water main in this area eventually anyway. As Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros pointed out, the terms of the deal mean that, at the end of the day, the city takes over a water system designed to meet their long-term needs, thereby avoiding the "spaghetti-works syndrome" of constructing the same system piecemeal.

The one part of public testimony that seemed to trigger some interest from the dais came from former Stop Domain Subsidies chief turned ChangeAustin rabblerouser Brian Rodgers, back on his hobby horse of opposing city subsidies. His major complaint was that, between the reimbursements and the low fee charged to connect a tap to these mains, the city could never break even on the deal. However, the discussion triggered amongst council was less about this project, and more about the general economics of water infrastructure investment. After a few minutes of clarifying questions to Meszaros about the city's fee schedules and reimbursement rates, even terminally skeptical council member Bill Spelman simply asked for more details after the meeting, saying he didn't want to “spend any more time chasing down this rabbit trail.”

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