The Austin Chronicle

ECSD Plays Musical Chairs, but the Music Never Stops

Environmental Shuffle

By Robert Bryce, December 15, 1995, News

The City of Austin

can't decide what to do with its environmental department. Six years ago, the city decided it needed to unify its environmental tasks, so it combined three departments -- solid waste services, resource management, and the environmental department -- to create the Environmental and Conservation Services Department (ECSD). Since its inception, ECSD has won national and international recognition for its programs. In 1993, it was the only agency in North America to win an award at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero. It got the award for its Green Builder program.

Then, last year, the city decided to take the solid waste section away from ECSD. The new agency, now called the Office of Solid Waste Services, still collects trash and recyclables, and operates the city dump; but it operates independently and answers directly to the city manager's office.

More ECSD desks will be moving soon. According to plans now being developed by the city manager, 80 water quality personnel within ECSD will soon be moving into the yet-to-be-created Drainage Utility Department. The new department will put the city's water quality, flood control, and erosion control specialists into one agency. At present, the flood control and erosion control people are employed in the Public Works and Transportation Department in a division called Stormwater Management. The move will mean that all the money the city collects from its utility customers will be dedicated to one department.

"I have been wanting to get one unified way to deal with flood erosion and water quality issues. A drainage utility helps do that," says ECSD chief Austan Librach. Librach, along with City Manager Jesus Garza, was a leading advocate for splitting off a significant part of his own department.

The ECSD, which employs 197 people, operates on a budget of $25 million, $6 million of which comes from drainage fees. Observers close to the situation say that ECSD supported the creation of an independent drainage utility because it would allow the water quality programs to have a dedicated funding source. In the past, water quality programs were funded by the general fund.

Under the plan, ECSD would retain its programs on air quality, energy conservation, biological services, and water conservation.

The drainage utility fees, which will amount to some $18.4 million this year, have been controversial in recent months because the city has used some of the funds to defend the Save Our Springs Ordinance against lawsuits brought against the city by Freeport-McMoRan and other land owners.

The ECSD has been in the forefront of many of the development battles of recent years. And because of that, it has been the target of developers, who want to weaken the department's oversight of development projects. Councilmember Ronney Reynolds has championed the reorganization because, as his aide Marion Armstrong says, "We have too many supervisors." Armstrong says Reynolds has been pushing the city manager to take the reorganization further because Reynolds believes the city needs to reduce the number of workers on the payroll. But no one seems to know if or how many jobs will be trimmed by the ECSD shuffle.

ECSD and Public Works will both lose about 80 employees. However, ECSD will gain 22 workers from the city's Planning Department. The workers from Planning who will move to ECSD focus on transportation, planning, and economic development issues. And the department will get a new name: ECSD & Long Range Planning. The idea behind bringing the planners into the department, says ECSD Assistant Director Roger Duncan, is to "infuse the environmental ethic into the long-range planning of the city and to infuse the sustainability concept throughout all city departments."

The shift in ECSD is part of a broader reorganization of city functions. In addition to the new Drainage Utility, plans call for the creation of another new department to be called Development Services, which will take over many of the duties formerly handled by the Planning and Development Department. The move has been supported by some members of the council as a means of streamlining the development permitting process, including building inspection, traffic review, and site plan processing.

The ECSD reorganization, which has been rumored for months, still has not reached any definitive execution date and the city has generated very little paper on the subject. But some city workers are already wondering if the move will weaken the ECSD.

Mary Arnold, former head of the city Planning Commission, and longtime environmental and community activist, says the changes at ECSD and the drainage utility could be good or bad. "It depends on who is named head of the drainage utility," she said. "The concerns of the environmentalists over the past few years [have] been to assure an independent voice for the environmental review staff." She says that under current policy, the environmental review staff reports to Librach, a system that she thinks has worked well. "It also depends," says Arnold, "on whether the assistant city manager would exercise a veto or a stifling voice against independent environmental review."

City officials would not speculate on who will head the new utility.

Almanac Online

A few weeks ago, I talked about the spiffy new Texas Environmental Almanac, which was written and published by the Texas Center for Policy Studies. But you don't have to get the book; you can check it out online. The Texas Environmental Center (TEC) is in the midst of putting the entire tome on their Web page at The first two chapters are online now and subsequent chapters and graphics will be added over the following weeks. TEC's home page also includes Greenbeat, an online environmental magazine. For more info, call 479-6669.

Midge Loses, Will Appeal

Midge Erskine, Midland's "Bird Lady," lost her federal lawsuit against the City of Midland. A decision handed down on November 29 by U.S. District Court Judge Royal Ferguson deemed that Erskine and her husband, Woody, must cut, to a height of 18 inches, all the trees and shrubs they have grown on their property in north-central Midland. The land, which the Erskines have let grow wild for two and a half decades, provides a home to numerous birds and other wildlife. The Erskines claim to have seen more than 300 bird species on the 4.4-acre tract. They and their attorney, Gregg Owens, are planning to appeal the ruling.

Maxxam Gets Another Hickey

Houston-based Maxxam, which has begun clearcutting the largest remaining stand of virgin redwood forests in North America, was named one of America's worst environmental offenders in a recent report by the Council on Economic Priorities, a business ethics watchdog group. Calling Maxxam a "grand offender" for the destruction of the forest formerly owned by Pacific Lumber, the CEP also included Southern Co., Dominion Resources, Exxon, Occidental Petroleum, Formosa Plastics, Stone Container Corp., and Wheeling-Pittsburg Steel Corp on the "offender" list.

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