Between Round Rock and a Hard Place
Tiny Northridge Acres is a colonia on the border -- of Austin
The people who live in Northridge Acres are pretty sure about two things: "Shit floats" and "Water flows toward money."
Planners, developers, and people in the water and sewer business hear that kind of stuff all the time. They laugh about it. The people in Northridge Acres haven't been laughing for a long time.
Northridge Acres is a sad-sack old subdivision spread between two sparkling counties and lost between two booming cities. It is home to a few hundred mostly low-income people. Their lives don't have much sparkle or boom.
When it rains, their septic tanks overflow, and have overflowed for so many years that there are rumors of large, green, mutant crawfish along the ditches. Residents are experts on what floats -- sometimes, right atop the pipes that carry "fresh" water to their homes. The pipes aren't buried all that far down; in some places they're right on the surface. Some of the pipes are PVC, some aren't, and some are nothing more than electrical conduits, never meant for water to flow through them. All of the pipes are too small and hooked to too many houses.
For three years now, since the community well failed, all of Northridge Acres' water comes from a Round Rock fire hydrant that sits across a weedy gully at the end of Prairie Lane. Even that water has at times been so contaminated by human waste that it had to be boiled. Most people quit drinking anything that flows through their inadequate water pipes long ago. They haul in their drinking water.
Because people in Northridge Acres don't have very much money, they can't get anybody to send very much water their way. The water from the fire hydrant is controlled by a private water system and costs $40 a month for the first 2,000 gallons -- more than double what Austinites pay -- and goes up from there. Water bills can add up to hundreds of dollars without explanation. Residents claim their water is shut off without notice. Some people live without water. Others move away.
Northridge Acres used to run its own water system, but that ended badly. The system originally comprised a couple of wells, a storage tank, water lines, and meters installed and maintained by volunteers, and it was run for decades by the homeowners' association. The Northridge Acres Water Supply Corp., with a volunteer board and a minimally paid operator, was formed in 1998 because the community needed an entity with legal standing as it sought grant funding for a sewer project -- which it later abandoned.
One year later, the well went dry and the community found itself relying on a fire hydrant for running water. In addition, complaints spawned by the abandoned sewer grant application brought threats from the Texas attorney general over violations of the state Open Meetings Act. And state environmental regulators also took an interest in the substandard system, threatening fines of $5,000 per day and citations against the Northridge Acres water board for its fire hydrant hookup. The water board resigned in 2000, and the system was placed in receivership a few months later.
Patrick King, the man who runs it now, is applying for a state loan to hook Northridge Acres up to Austin water. If he gets it, the people in Northridge Acres will pay for that too, even though King has no plans to repair the rest of their crummy water system, according to the engineering study he presented in support of the loan. In fact, the proposed water line seems set up to help one developer who doesn't even live in Northridge Acres.
Meanwhile, water is flowing toward money and away from Northridge Acres in every direction: toward the La Frontera development up the hill, toward the gated communities to the east and north, toward the industrial park next door. People don't know exactly why Austin, Round Rock, Travis County, and Williamson County seem so willing to let them go on living this way. With all the fancy developing going on around them, and the neighbors moving out because of the bad water and the worse water bills, and a few sly phone calls beginning to come from realtors claiming to represent "unnamed investors" willing to pay them what residents claim is only about 80 cents on the dollar for their property, they are getting a little more insecure all the time. They feel stuck between Austin, Round Rock, and a hard place.
Josephine Lopez has lived in Northridge Acres for 30 years, since it was so far out in the country that "there were cattle on one side and cattle on the other side." She also remembers being visited back then by one of her new neighbors, an older white guy who dropped by to inform her that Mexicans really weren't welcome. "His daughter brought a cake over later and apologized," Lopez said. She stuck it out. She has seen the neighborhood welcome a mix of people. It is home.
The Hard Place
Northridge Acres is a mix of small houses and mobile homes. Looping cul-de-sacs spread wide like bent scissor handles, and some streets die in the weeds. Some houses are tidy and well kept. Others are not. There are scruffy lots and weedy ditches. Several houses, some in disrepair, are for sale. The streets are narrow and look as if a thin layer of asphalt was simply poured over a dirt road.
Northridge Acres is old sprawl from years ago, when developments first began to leapfrog away from Austin toward cheaper land. Part of Northridge Acres is in Travis Co.; part is in Williamson Co., and all of it sits in Austin's extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ), though the city limits of Round Rock are right next door. A water tower that says "www.round-rock.net" sits just up the hill, tantalizingly close.
The area around Northridge Acres is all boomtown razzle-dazzle. Businesses in the Corridor Park development get Round Rock water and sewer service. A fancy apartment development called Limestone Ranch gets Round Rock water and sewer. A tall chain-link fence separates it from Northridge Acres. And La Frontera features offices, apartments with gates, a hotel, and hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail. The whole place has Round Rock water and sewer. In June 2000, the Statesman boasted of La Frontera, "Build a $700 million commercial development next door, and you've opened the door to major improvements for everyone." But nothing changed for Northridge Acres.
Round Rock officials say Northridge Acres is not their problem, that it's already helping out by letting the community take water from the city's fireplug, which was meant to be a short-term thing. "It's Austin's problem," said Round Rock water utility director Jim Nuse. Austin disagrees, and likewise feels it's already doing more than it must to help Northridge Acres.
Travis Co. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner says Northridge Acres is not the county's problem either, and blames residents at least in part for their own troubles. "They want modern conveniences, and they want the rest of us to pay for them," she said. Sonleitner also believes the community is paying the price for mismanaging its old water system for years. "They want anybody but themselves responsible. When we don't get out the checkbook, they get mad. They need to take a look in the mirror."
Sonleitner's Williamson Co. counterpart, Mike Heiligenstein, is even more critical of Northridge Acres. "I'm going to say it. They are very corrupt. When they were managing that water system they were funneling money in so many directions you couldn't keep up with it." He didn't explain further, but he said he has no intention of ever helping Northridge Acres with its water and sewer problems. "Drainage, yes, water and sewer, no," he said before his cell phone faded somewhere in West Texas.
Sonleitner and Heiligenstein especially agree on one thing. In Sonleitner's words, "We [counties] are not in the utility business." They clearly are tired of the people in Northridge Acres.
They are particularly tired of Nettie Brown, who keeps on talking about Northridge Acres to anyone who will listen. Brown was the last member of the old water board to resign in the face of what she calls "threats and intimidation." Sonleitner says she has suggested that Brown back off on her demands and let someone else speak if they want to. Brown won't back off.
And there is Kenneth Snyder, who repairs bicycles, lives in a house surrounded by old camper trailers, and visits every meeting of the Travis Co. Commissioners Court to talk about Northridge Acres. Sonleitner said Snyder haunts so many meetings she sometimes feels she is being stalked. Snyder says he plans to keep it up. "I'm not going away. I'll be here till I die," he said. He also designs fliers that include rants against saving the harvestman spider, cartoon babies who complain about drinking from a fire hydrant for three years, dogs that keel over after drinking from the local ditches, and cracks about Sonleitner and Heiligenstein and others. He faxes them and hands them out all over the place. He has even interested a group of Mexican officials in visiting what he calls "the colonia on the county line." The idea of a colonia on the edge of "Austin: City of Ideas" has a certain appeal south of the border.
Josephine Lopez said the community wants clean water, not something for nothing, and she doesn't recall ever seeing Sonleitner anywhere in the neighborhood. But she doesn't like the personal turn the debate sometimes takes. "If it gets personal, it's not worth it. But we are tired of that fireplug."
Patrick King runs the Northridge Acres Water Supply Corporation. A videotape made by one resident of a King community meeting is entitled "Patrick King: Dictator in Northridge Acres." On the tape, dressed in khakis, a white knit shirt, and a cap, King looks casually businesslike and harmless. That is, until he stands up, declares himself a "board of one," throws up his hand in what locals call "his little Hitler salute" and single-handedly approves the corporation's application for a state loan of more than $500,000.
Michael Conway of the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ, formerly TNRCC) said, "We see nothing but positive coming from Patrick King. We don't see any problems. He's one of our better professionals in the state." Conway confirms that King was once an employee of TNRCC.
The people in Northridge Acres would be required to repay that loan, and some of them disagree with Conway. "Patrick King is a snake," said Nettie Brown.
Brown and her husband Charles had a hand in running the old water system. She said its board gave up under pressure from the state and out of fear that the system would be red-tagged and homes would be condemned. The attorney general was looking into the association's business affairs, too. Hence, King's receivership and the fireplug.
For Northridge Acres residents, King has become the symbol of something worse than the fireplug -- what Brown calls "the good ol' boy network" that controls water in Texas. Closer to home, he is the symbol of outright greed. He has become what Brown and a few others call the "water Nazi."
King was named receiver of the Northridge Acres water system, and became keeper of the fireplug, three years ago. He sees his duty as upgrading, into compliance with state regulations and demands, a system that he said was "cited for violations of drinking water standards" and under "a black cloud" when he took it over. All of that is true. That is what a receiver does. Water rates have soared.
The people in Northridge Acres pay, at a minimum, $40 per month for their water. Their nearby Austin neighbors pay, on average, only $16.72 per month, according to the city. People in Round Rock pay an average of $26.88; in Cedar Park, which has the metro area's highest municipal water rates, customers pay $33.54 on average.
Northridge Acres' $40/month minimum does not include various other fees: $25 for paying late (Austin has no late fee); $100 to reconnect if water is turned off (Austin charges $20, with an additional $55 tacked on for after-hours reconnects); $150 membership fee in the system; $25 service trip fee; $50 fee to test a meter (free in Austin); a $10 fee to get a record of past water use; $10 to get a duplicate membership certificate; and finally, a $10 fee "to request your personal information ... not be disclosed to the public." King says the charges are in line with what other small water companies charge across the state.
With the minimum payment and additional fees so high, cumulative charges quickly mount. Arthur Herrera's bill was $952 a few weeks ago. He is used to bills of $60-$70, but not this. "My grass is dead. I don't have a pool. We don't even drink the water," he said. Another resident, who asked that her name not be used, said her water was shut off after she failed to pay a bill for $740.75. She said she has six children and no water "and the only way to get it turned on is if I pay the whole bill." She was infuriated, she said, that King's workers had climbed her fence without notice to shut off the water.
Nettie Brown says that before King took over, the Northridge Acres water system charged $15 per 2,000 gallons and $3 for every 1,000 gallons after that. King counters that rates that low meant the system never set aside money to repair the kinds of problems it faces now. The difference between the old neighborly rate and the new corporate rate seems to fall within the county commissioners' claims of mismanagement and King's claims of the cost of doing business.
King won't say much about Northridge Acres these days, on the advice of his lawyer. Some Northridge Acres residents went to court to try to pry King's hand off the faucet. They lost. (Sonleitner describes this as "hauling [King] into court to try to get him yanked" as receiver.) Now King sounds like he might be pondering his own legal action, though he won't elaborate on what that might be.
King describes himself as "a prudent person, prudent with my business" and says that nothing he does violates industry standards. "There are industry standards out there. I don't deviate from them," he said. And he said his work in Northridge Acres "will continue until the system is in compliance."
Though King is often very open when talking about the system, openly defending his methods and the high rates he charges, other times he turns cagey. When asked how many water systems he runs in Texas, he said, "Several. I would rather not give a number." And when asked about the half-million dollar loan from the Texas Water Development Board, he claimed he didn't know the exact status of the application.
King did not seem to be the kind of businessman who would not know such an important thing. Perhaps that is because the Texas Water Development Board is taking a long look at the loan application approved by Northridge Acres' "board of one." The loan would help finance a plan to hook Northridge Acres up to Austin water. It would seem like a community dream was about to come true, but Brown, Snyder, and others are fighting it. And for the moment, they seem to have at least slowed it down.
Kevin Ward is the executive administrator of the Water Development Board. Right now, he is doing the talking about Northridge Acres. A few weeks ago, Deputy Executive Administrator Leonard Olson was the only Water Development Board source of Northridge Acres information. Someone named George Green has been the official source, too. And Ward says Ignacio Madera, deputy executive administrator for the Office of Project Finance and Construction Assistance, will be the only person to talk to pretty soon.
Water and Money
The spokesmen aren't all that has changed. When Olson was asked about the loan that King is seeking, he said it was for $537,000. He even said in early October that there was a chance the application could go before the board for approval on Oct. 16. That didn't happen. By Oct. 28, Ward said the loan application currently under consideration was for $390,000 and that there is no timeline for placing it on the board agenda for a vote. There was no explanation.
Northridge Acres has been tossed around the Water Development Board like a leaky diaper over the past few weeks, but Madera might be the one most able to look into the messy heart of the matter. He worked with colonias on the border for five years. Though Sonleitner and Heiligenstein think it's grandstanding when pesky residents call their community a colonia, "it is," Madera said without blinking. "It meets the criteria. There are inadequate water and sewer services. And there is a low enough income level that the residents can't alleviate the problem."
On a rainy Monday morning in October, Ward, Madera, a staff engineer, and a staff lawyer walked around Northridge Acres with Brown and some other residents to look at the problem themselves. They crossed the poison ivy to look at the fireplug. There was standing water in the ditches. Water pipes peeked above the surface.
Brown was skeptical of the tour before Ward showed up, suspecting the whole thing was just a show, but Ward seems to have allayed her fears. "I went on my own volition," he said. "We went out there to genuinely see what the problem was. This project intrigues me. Mrs. Brown doesn't believe [King's] project would serve their needs. We are looking into every issue she has raised. People generally don't get this involved unless there is something wrong."
Brown and others believe the prime beneficiary of King's project will be Mike Williams, who owns one RV park in the neighborhood and wants to develop a second, larger one. King is proposing an eight-inch line from the Austin hookup, and a six-inch line into Northridge Acres, but that would connect to the existing system of overburdened two-inch pipe, except in expansion areas such as the one Williams wants to develop.
King's proposal seeks a variance from the TWDB to not replace the two-inch lines or remove water lines from septic fields. "Why should we pay for that?" Brown asks. "We are poor people." What's worse, she says, King intends to obligate community members to pay off the loan, adding to their already high water bills. "We don't need a debt so big we are forced out of here."
The community has nothing against Williams, said Brown, but thinks any improvements should help everyone. Nearly a decade ago, Northridge Acres refused to sign off on a grant application that would have improved sewer service for some, but not all, of the residents. That decision is one of the things that, Sonleitner said, soured her and other officials to the community's plight; they see the community as refusing to help itself.
In Northridge Acres, a minister and his wife run a small trailer park where they try to provide housing for recent immigrants and other poor people. He didn't want his name used for fear it might detract from what he called his "real work, God's work." He opposes King's loan proposal for the same reason he opposed the sewer grant. "It does nothing for the poorest of the poor," he said. He said he already is limited in his ability to provide mobile home space by what he considers exorbitant water bills. "I even tell my residents they can't have washing machines," he said, "but the bills still are too high."
Ward says his office is looking into variances and whether King's proposed improvements will help with health issues, and that the proposal remains under review. "It's got to be [a loan] we believe is going to be paid back. And we have to know there will be someone in charge over the 40-year period [of the loan]," Ward said. "We don't know what [King's] current proposal does to solve the issues, but we will be looking for something with a reasonable bill [to consumers] at the front and that looks good for the long term."
However, Ward also notes that King, as receiver, is under pressure to bring the system up to state standards and end the receivership, and that seeking a developer such as Williams is an appropriate business action in that context. Turning the system over to King was "an enforcement action," Ward said. "People don't necessarily like that." But in the end, his department's goal is the same as the community's: clean water at a fair price.
It's easy to feel alone when you live in a place like Northridge Acres, with "Austin: City of Ideas" on one side and "Round Rock: Dell's Delight" on the other, and you are drinking water that flows from a fire hydrant and through your septic field. But the people in Northridge Acres are not alone. The TWDB says there are more than 600 communities in Texas lacking adequate basic services. Those people have approximately $3.8 billion in water and sewer needs. And none of them can pay for it. Leonard Olson at the TWDB says, "There are hundreds of Northridge Acres all over Texas. They are the price we are paying for the sins of lax development laws."
While the purpose of ETJ regulation is to counteract those lax laws, Bart Jennings of the Austin Water and Wastewater Utility says the city has no "authority over the internal system" in Northridge Acres and has no legal obligations to its residents. Austin has already begun building the line that King wants to tap into, coming to within a few hundred feet of Northridge Acres. "We will have our portion done by Christmas," Jennings said. "It is our Christmas present to them."
King believes getting a regular and dependable source of water for Northridge Acres is the best thing he can do right now. "If there are alternatives to the path we have chosen, I would certainly like for anyone who knows about them to bring them to the table," he said.
But Nettie Brown sees more costs being heaped on an already strapped community. "He wants us to pay extra to keep the same system. We don't need a debt so we're forced out of here. We want new water lines and sewer lines, [or] the health hazards are still there. Without new lines, we'd just as well stay on that fire hydrant."
Josephine Lopez's house is paid for and she wants to keep living where she is. "I want drinkable water at a reasonable price," she said. But she also is doubtful that things will improve very much. "I think they are trying to run us out," she said.
And an anonymous voice from deep inside the Austin planning establishment hinted that there could be some reality to those fears. "Can you imagine what that place would be worth if it had water and sewer?" he said.