TDH: 8/17/11

Spelman on WTP4, politics and conspiracies

TDH: 8/17/11
Photo by John Anderson

Not listed on the City Council agenda, but still supposedly due to council tomorrow, is an estimate from CDM Engineering on the cost of a five or 10-year construction shutdown at Water Treatment Plant No. 4. Will prohibitively high numbers mean an end to debate over whether to keep building? Or will they simply be more grist for opponents?

We spoke with City Council member Bill Spelman – who’s asked the Office of the City Auditor to scrub the estimate council receives – for this thoughts on the subject, last week at council’s special-called meeting at the WTP4 site.

It started discussing his questioning of Rudy Garza, assistant city manager over Austin Water, a few weeks back; Spelman drew a sharp rebuke from Mayor Lee Leffingwell over his questions as to whether the utility sped up the contracting of the Jollyville water main so the contract could be signed before council passed suspended the issuance of new “Notice to Proceed” permits. Spelman was sanguine, saying “always err on the side of bureaucratic action, because even if it’s a conspiracy, usually the bureaucracy isn't able to mount a conspiracy effective enough to get it done. It’s true of all conspiracies, they're not very good.

Spelman continued: ”In that case, I think they went through all the bids, said ‘I like this bid, its a lot cheaper then the rest of them’ – they vetted it in the usual way, and said, ‘Hey, there's no need in delaying this; let’s just issue it a few weeks ahead of time because it passes all our inspections. … They're just trying to put petal to the medal and get it done as fast as they can.”

Spelman noted that the release of the construction stoppage estimate is just the first step, albeit one in a condensed process. “I suspect we’re gonna have a lot of information coming back at us about a week or so after” the release, he said, including that assessment from the auditor’s office he requested. “I’m hoping to make a decision about those cost estimates about a week or two after we receive them, so I would like for the beginning of September to have a clear sense of what we’re up against.”

When, by a 5-2 vote, council requested the estimate, it also stipulated that the issuance of “Notices to Proceed” on new construction projects at the plant would resume Sept. 2. “If it turns out, for whatever reason, that the cost estimates we get are insufficient, are incomplete – we can always move that September 2 date back,” Spelman said. “But I would prefer we get cost estimates that are sufficiently complete that we can vet them in a couple weeks and meet that Sept 2 deadline.”

The effect mothballing WTP4 would have on the city’s bond rating and borrowing ability was greatly debated when council called for the estimate. Spelman summarized his thoughts thusly: “I think that what the credit rating agencies are mostly concerned about is that we make prudent decisions. And if the prudent decision is we don't need the water right away, and it’s fiscally prudent – it’s not going to cost us an arm and a leg for us to halt construction, then halting construction is a fiscally prudent decision which the rating agencies will reward. If it’s not – if it’s gonna cost us a lot of money to postpone completion of this plant for five years or a longer period, then we need to make the fiscally prudent decision,. Otherwise the ratings agencies will, quite properly, take us to task for that.”

Lastly, since it’s impossible to separate the politics from the policy of WTP4: Does Bill Spelman have any plans to run for mayor?

“I have no plans,” Spelman laughs. “The only plan I have is to come up with a syllabus in the next week, to hit my mark and get ready to teach class next week.” (Hope he got it completed!)

The Hustle will live-tweet council’s meeting tomorrow. Follow along at the link below.

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