City Hall Hustle: Taking Out the Trash

Delayed 'Master Plan' for Solid Waste Department is tip of the landfill

Last week, City Council delayed consideration of the seemingly unremarkable Item 12, which would've awarded a contract to develop an integrated management master plan for the Solid Waste Services Department. Thrilling stuff, I know. But what might have seemed like a routine postponement was instead the latest example of a department increasingly embattled and out of step.

The delay came after the Solid Waste Advisory Com­mis­sion voiced its concerns about the contract. A resolution the commission passed May 13, urging that the contract award be revisited later, spells out several of the reservations commissioners have, one being that "the process used to select the consultant currently recommended [HDR Engineering] did not involve the ... SWAC or community input in the development of the ranking matrix used." The resolution goes on to describe the "significantly minimal differences" between the applicants. The matrix reveals that HDR scored 105.5 – ever so slightly edging out competitors URS Corp. (105.15) and R.W. Beck (104.15).

In a scenario familiar from other recent city contract awards, the winning points came from the "optional" staff interview that HDR Engineering aced, garnering 20 points to URS' 19.75. As commissioner J.D. Porter said when SWAC moved that council postpone its decision, "That's a pretty slim margin for a company that's going to determine the future direction of the department for the next 20, 30, or 40 years." There's also the question of cost. "The Comprehensive Plan, for the entire city of Austin, costs $1.3 million," says SWAC commissioner and former City Council candidate Rick Cofer. "Why in the world does the plan for just one department cost $1.5 million? ... They're not moving dirt or anything; they're writing a plan, a report. Why does it have to be an engineering company that's hired to do that? And shouldn't we wait until the leadership evaluation of the department is complete before we figure out what their master plan should be?"

It's not surprising that a review of Solid Waste Services, a department headed by the venerable Willie Rhodes, is ongoing, as Solid Waste Services and SWAC have recently clashed several times. As Cofer explains it, "SWAC, the community, council, and others requested there to be a department review to evaluate the leadership and management performance of this department." He expects the ongoing review to be completed in June, with a report by July. And, he says, "I am anticipating the report will recommend leadership changes, for a variety of reasons."

It's fitting that the impetus for the evaluation, not to mention the master plan in question, stems from Solid Waste Services' latest original sin: lack of progress on a materials recycling facility. MRFs ("murfs" in wonkspeak) serve as way stations for sorting and expediting recyclables. The city famously spent a million dollars drawing up plans for our own MRF, only to have it, as the Chronicle's Richard Whittaker wrote, "disappear in the decision-making process." (See "Single-Stream Recycling," April 17.) It's also the reason Austin is locked into a recycling contract with Greenstar North America that costs the city more than $900,000 a year while other Texas cities earn money through their programs.

To Cofer, such setbacks reflect the current culture of the department. "I think there's sort of a competing vision of what the plan should be. ... Willie [Rhodes] comes from the background of the Water Utility – building stuff and doing services. I think they view this plan as a timeline for how things are going to get built, where they're going to get built, doing surveys of the land. ... All that's very important, of course; you've got to do that. But the flip side of the coin is the fuzzier question of what type of services will the department provide? How does that integrate into the green economy and suitability? ... They're both important when you're building something, but if you're doing a long-term plan, it can't just be one or the other."

Council's kicked the can down the road to June 11, when the master plan returns for action. As for the future of the Solid Waste Services Department, the Hustle recalls an axiom apropos to recycling: What goes around comes around.


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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Solid Waste Services, Recycling, City Council, Materials Recycling Facility, Willie Rhodes, J.D. Porter

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