City Hall Hustle: Wood Waste to Burn

One big, bad biomass behind; one bigger, badder budget to go

Matrimony is on the agenda for political rivals on the City Council. Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken is planning to wed one Sarah Groos, while Council Member Mike Martinez popped the question to Lara Wendler. Both weddings are planned for November.
Matrimony is on the agenda for political rivals on the City Council. Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken is planning to wed one Sarah Groos, while Council Member Mike Martinez popped the question to Lara Wendler. Both weddings are planned for November. (Illustration by Doug Potter)

If it feels like much has happened since the new ­council held its first meeting, July 24, well, so it has. While there's been a fair share of thumb-suckers – Batfest, anyone? – some major decisions have indeed gone down.

For starters, there was the inevitable, now formal scuttling of the Mobile Loaves & Fishes RV park for the homeless (a casualty of neighborhood opposition) and initiatives to examine building-crane safety, both from Council Member Mike Martinez, who's also announced his intention to address cell-phone usage while driving, with a prohibition against texting; Laura Morrison has announced plans to update and overhaul the city's historic preservation policy, together with Lee Leffingwell; Leffingwell has joined with Martinez (and potential rival for the mayor's seat Brewster McCracken) to add teeth to local campaign finance laws, making it an enforceable misdemeanor to play fast and loose with cash in local races.

But the two recent issues that have loomed largest – politically and financially – were the controversial Austin Energy biomass plant and the fiscal year 2008-09 budget.

After a hastily called open house (and a perfunctory week's delay proposed by Sheryl Cole, in order to bring in outside legal teams to eyeball the deal), the $2.3 billion biomass plant was approved last week. Some still felt flummoxed by AE's light-speed handling of the proposal; Morrison called the public process "far from ideal," and Randi Shade noted that "with more public input, we do get a better product" – yet the contract was still approved unanimously. Unsurprisingly, Mayor Pro Tem McCracken launched into one of his poor man's Thomas Friedman soliloquies, waxing about market trends, the California market meltdown, and other issues arguably above his pay grade. He did have the good sense to acknowledge that a wood-burning power plant "obviously is not a long-term strategy. Our strategy for clean energy is not from burning sawdust. However, this does have some environmental superiorities, particularly as a midterm solution."

As for that other monetary behemoth – the city budget, totaling $2.8 billion in expenses, $620.7 million of which makes up the General Fund that pays for city agencies – the bill is coming due. Council meets next week, Monday, Sept. 8, for the first of three scheduled budget adoption dates. If the past is any predictor, don't look for them to spend all three if they don't have to. The yeomen's work on the budget was done over the course of several months of presentations and discussions, so if they have the chance, they'll pass it on all three readings. (For another window into the council's specific concerns, go to www.cityofaustin.org/budget, and click on "Council's Budget Questions" to read council questions and responses from city staff.)

While some major concerns have been closed – including revision of a blanket trash-throwing fee in response to critics who said the fee did nothing to incentivize recycling – there's still a big wish list of items publicly unaddressed. They include the potential closure of all branch libraries one additional day to offset $420,000 in costs related to required security and janitorial improvements, aiming to fit street repairs for more than 8% of city streets per year in the Transportation Fund budget (the preferred goal is 10%), and, even more troubling after the falling tree branch at Zilker Park, any reconsideration of holding 24 vacant positions empty at the Parks & Recreation Department – a full 5% of the work force.

After the adoption, council doesn't return to the dais until Sept. 25. And with the decisions they're facing, would you want to return any earlier?

Budget in some e-mail correspondence to wdunbar@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

biomass plant, Mobile Loaves & Fishes, city budget, Brewster McCracken

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