City Hall Hustle: Gas, Water, and Trash

No one rides for free

Is there a more trite expression of resource-based geopolitical woes than that old 5 o'clock news standby, "Pain at the Pump"? Maybe John McCain's dim mantra, "Drill Here, Drill Now," but that's it. (While more truthful, "Build the rigs now so we can drill sometime in my first term, then sell it to China," just doesn't have the same ring.)

Sure, the country's armed forces are overextended halfway around the world, having overseen the ransacking and destruction of the Fertile Crescent, the cradle of civilization – but have you seen what it costs to fill my Hummer H3 lately? Not to impugn people's very real economic woes, but the oceanic disconnect between our resource woes and personal economic insecurities is rarely communicated in such pithy sound bites.

I bring this up because everyone is feeling the pinch – including your friends at Solid Waste Services. SWS, the Austin Water Utility, Department of Aviation (overseeing the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport), the Austin Convention Center, and the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau are delivering their recession-ready presentations to City Council today, as part of the 2008-09 annual budget.

Solid Waste's proposal, containing the lintiest of pocketbook issues – a proposed increase in trash fees – has generated lots of discussion. Mostly negative: As Solid Waste Advisory Commissioner Rick Cofer put it, "A one-time 40 percent increase is beyond the pale." Budget officer Greg Canally, noting the increase comes in at a little less than 40%, points to another appearance of that figure: that SWS' fuel costs rose by 40% this year. "Without a rate increase," Canally says, "they wouldn't have enough money for their operations." It gets even more dire, according to SWS spokeswoman Jill Mayfield; she says SWS projects a 69% fuel cost increase next year. But it's not just gas; the city's growth is similarly stretching the department's capabilities. "The area we serve is larger than it has been in the past," says Mayfield. "In 1995, Solid Waste served a little over 127,000 households. Currently, we service almost 167,000 households – that's like a 30% increase." After nearly 12 years, she says, "We've gotten to the point where we can't go any longer without a rate increase."

Seems like trash is feeling a little compacted, too. But why worry about peak oil's effect on the economy when there's a much more terrifying resource shortage prospect?

While the Solid Waste proposal has garnered much notice, another increase is on tap – this time for water. Weighted hikes in water (9.7%) and wastewater fees (4.5%) equal a combined 7% rate increase, bumping an average customer's bill up $4.25 a month, from about $59 to $63 a month. But a financial forecast work-session presentation from May reminds us this year's increase is but one – the largest – in a series of planned increases over five years to 2013 – resulting in a combined increase of 25% when all is said and done. Not surprising when you note the utility's got a staggering $1.47 billion in capital improvement projects (one-time, major construction projects) in the pipeline. While $623.8 million, or 42%, goes to rehab of existing pipes and such, the bulk, $849.7 million, goes to new infrastructure, like Water Treatment Plant No. 4, with the controversial project being personally responsible for $353 million of that total.

Without putting too fine a point on it, the problems afflicting the entire country are the ones making the 2009 budget such a downer – the bad news not just reflected in gas prices but, more broadly, the clamoring for ever-dwindling resources from an ever-growing crowd.

Get ready kids, because it's just beginning.


Want a say? Aside from the budget presentations, scheduled for 2pm, public hearings on the trash and water rate increases, plus the 2008-09 budget in general, are scheduled for 6pm at today's meeting, Thursday, Aug. 7. Touch the Hustle at wdunbar@austinchronicle.com.


UPCOMING BUDGET PRESENTATIONS

Aug. 7, 2pm: Solid Waste Services, Department of Aviation, Austin Water Utility, Austin Convention Center, Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau


Discuss and vote on tax rate

Aug. 21, 2pm: Transportation Fund, Watershed Protection Development Review, Neighborhood Planning and Zoning, Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services, Austin Energy


First tax rate hearing

Aug. 28, 2pm: Community Services: Parks & Recreation, Library, Health and Human Services; Public Safety: Police, Fire, EMS, Municipal Court


Second tax rate hearing

All meetings have 6pm public hearings on budget; citizen testimony is welcome.


Sept. 8-10: Budget Approval Hearings


More Cash for Trash

Solid Waste Services is raising its cart costs, along with bundled anti-litter fees. Below, the proposed increases.

CurrentProposedChange(Cash/Percentage)
30-Gallon Container$14.35$18.75$4.4030.7%
60-Gallon Container$17.10$23.25$6.1536%
90-Gallon Container$19.85$26.75$6.9034.8%

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council, Solid Waste Services, budget, Water Treatment Plant No. 4

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