Jackie Be Good, Man
The Swing Vote Leaves Council Watchers Dizzy
Bill Cosby once said he didn't know the secret to success, but the secret to failure was trying to please everyone. But this is politics. You compromise. And Goodman's plaid politics, most notably evinced in her diverse Citizens' Planning Committee initiative, won her re-election last May without a run-off. But the stone-throwers are still out there, most of them coming from her base camp of environmentalists and community activists, and recently, they've had plenty to complain about.
For the past couple of months, she's been giving mouth-to-mouth to a proposal from the Davenport Municipal Utility District (D-MUD), which hopes to become a pick-up point on Austin's wastewater system. The proposal has had two near-death experiences, most recently last week, as it awaited council approval to the horror of environmentalists, who dread suburban sprawl around Davenport's Lake Austin environs. Goodman's support has kept the plan alive, even though Davenport hopes to evade annexation into the city. That could have disastrous consequences for Austin. Besides allowing more developmental sprawl, it could keep the area's potential $334 million tax base out of the city's revenue stream.
Fellow environmentalists such as Mary Arnold (who, like Goodman, is a member of the Save Barton Creek Association) don't want Davenport to receive city wastewater service prior to annexation. Arnold and her colleagues on the Environmental Board passed a resolution two weeks ago recommending that the council consider witholding sewer service from the Davenport MUD until it is annexed. Only one of eight Environmental Board members voted against the recommendation -- Ronney Reynolds' appointee Stuart Garner. But Goodman, a former planning commissioner and the council's designated "Planning Guru," is listening to a different beat -- the drums being pounded by the wastewater boys and girls at the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA). If the city doesn't provide sewer service, the LCRA is waiting in the wings to buy and operate Davenport's mini-plants. Goodman doesn't want that; she fears that the LCRA will amass a collection of wastewater plants as joints for their own centralized sewer system, endangering Austin's wastewater revenue, and its leverage in directing growth. More importantly, Goodman fears that the LCRA's involvement could limit Austin's ability to annex Davenport, presumably because legislators will be more willing to grant annexation exemption rights to a MUD that's partnered with a state agency.
So Goodman wants annexation in the long run, she just thinks catering to Davenport's immediate needs is the way to achieve it, even if it means bowing to their threat to run off with the LCRA. But providing service now doesn't ensure annexation. That the 1,400 Davenportites aren't eager to be annexed is clear. Davenport has refused to deal with Austin when the discussion turns to annexation. In December, when city lawyers tried to include a terminator clause in an earlier wastewater contract proposal, to ensure that Davenport not fight annexation at the Lege, the city's phone stopped ringing -- Davenport had backed out. But Goodman continued to give ear to Davenport's lawyers, and they forged ahead.
The latest deal, which lawyers are currently working on, also seems a device to delay annexation. Davenport will purchase the wastewater service from the city at wholesale prices, then sell the service to nearby entities -- Eanes ISD, the Riverbend Baptist Church, St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Davenport West neighborhood, and the Hermosa PUD. Originally, these entities would pay Davenport for individual pipelines to their doorstep. But now, according to assistant city attorney Nancy Matchus, these nearby neighbors want Davenport to annex them, so they can issue low-interest debt through Davenport's MUD. By law, Austin can annex the area as early as this September. But upon annexation, the city must assume the municipality's debt. Davenport's debt currently stands at about $9 million, but if the other entities issue debt through Davenport, that increases the city's liability. Thus, the new plan provides incentive to Austin to delay annexation until the additional debt is paid off.
Councilmembers Beverly Griffith, Daryl Slusher, and Gus Garcia refuse to provide service without annexation first. Because Davenport may opt to do as Freeport-McMoRan and Circle C did in the 1995 Lege -- pursue a law to exempt it from annexation -- the three councilmembers want to use sewer service as a bargaining chip to get Davenport's consent; with annexation, Austin will have all the growth control it needs, whether Davenport is getting its sewer service from the city or the LCRA. But Goodman seems ready to go ahead with a deal that does not require annexation first. Of Goodman's position, Environmental Board Chair Arnold says, "I don't know why Jackie would provide service without first annexing Davenport." Neither do we, since Goodman wouldn't return more than half a dozen calls placed to her residence and office.
Goodman is also causing concern with her support for the extravagant electric rate reduction granted to our Electric Utility Department (EUD)'s industrial ratepayers: Applied Materials, Seton Hospital, Texas Instruments, Motorola, Advanced Micro Devices, and IBM. The latter four of these corporations comprise FAIR (the Federation of Austin Industrial Ratepayers), and are capitalizing on apprehension that once the Lege deregulates the industry, the competition will descend upon them with blue-light specials and romance them away from the EUD. FAIR members threaten to bail unless all six corporate ratepayers get a $4.2 million annual subsidy pronto. In return, the corporations promise six years of fidelity to the EUD, if deregulation occurs. Goodman is embracing the deal, although she wants to tack on another two years, tying the corporations to an eight-year marriage to the city-owned utility, and Bruce Todd, Ronney Reynolds, and Eric Mitchell have joined her in approving her plan on first and second readings.
Shudde Fath, another longtime friend of Goodman's, and a 19-year member of the Electric Utility Commission, is perplexed with Goodman's behavior. Fath notes that the corporations already have an interest in sticking with the EUD. Since the EUD heavily subsidizes the general fund, and since the corporations provide a large share of the EUD's revenue, their departure will deplete the general fund. And that will cause property taxes to increase, while city services supported by the general fund, like police and fire, will become endangered. As residents of Austin, the FAIR members will likely want to keep the quality of life for their companies' employees high, notes Fath. So as long as the EUD matches a competitor's price, they have a bargaining advantage with regards to the provision of basic city services that makes an electric rate subsidy seem unnecessary. "Goodman's just giving money away needlessly," says Fath.
Goodman is also acting a little odd with regards to the city's purse. She's always been considered the council's free-spender, but lately, she's acting like a 16-year-old with Daddy's credit card. Two weeks ago, she tried to award city lobbyists Don Adams and Angelo Zottarelli a $60,000 open account (in addition to the $475,000, three-year contract they already have). Goodman says that Adams & Zottarelli can use the money on an "as-needed" basis. What those unmet needs are, she cannot say: "It could be for anything. A brochure to help present issues, for example." Garcia, Griffith, and Slusher went along, and Goodman praised their heroics. But last week, with Garcia out of town, Slusher had second thoughts and deserted the proposal on second reading. He now says he'd like to make sure there's a concrete need before the budget is amended. Makes sense, especially since Slusher ran on a fiscal conservative platform.
Goodman is also likely to face skepticism from her council colleagues with regards to another excess she's promoting, and that the Statesman reported on Wednesday. Goodman wants to spend $400,000 to hire attorney W. Scott McCollough and consultants to oversee another consultant, Metzler & Associates, which is evaluating the EUD for $2.2 million. Goodman has a point that the process of analyzing the utility to make it lean and mean has so far been biased in favor of selling our city's most valuable asset. But $400,000 bucks? Why don't we just fire Metzler and hire McCollough?
As to why Goodman is acting so strangely lately, well, we're just as perplexed as anyone else. She's not up for re-election, so there's no direct political or financial pressure. Rather, Goodman is probably doing what she feels is right. But even then, Goodman's political openness threatens to backfire as she slips further away from her root constituency of average citizens. As Save Our Springs Counselor Bill Bunch says: "It's safe to say that Jackie's done some things lately that have a lot of people very concerned."