Tires on the Move: What About Fleet Services?
Questions pile up as the pile of tires comes down
After more than a month of negotiation, the city of Austin last week began cleaning up the mess made by its Fleet Services Division, ultimately responsible for abandoning roughly 6,000 scrap tires moldering on property in Southeast Austin. The city has contracted with a new national vendor – Pittsburgh-based Liberty Tire Recycling, with regional offices in Baytown – to handle the collection and processing of all of the tires it scraps every year, ensuring that the tires "picked up ... go directly to the final disposer," Fleet Officer Gerry Calk wrote to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Dec. 21, 2009. But while the external mess has apparently been cleaned up, questions remain about the internal problems that precipitated that enormous scrap pile – and about whether officials within Fleet Services have been forthcoming about what they knew of the ongoing problems with the scrap tire program.
In December the Chronicle first reported that a mound of city-owned scrap tires had been accumulating since 2003 on land leased by Victor Almaguer (see "Tire Mound of Mystery," Dec. 4, 2009). Almaguer's family business, Vic's Tire Service, had previously held a contract to fix flat tires on the city's fleet of vehicles. Although he was not contracted to transport or dispose of scrap tires, Almaguer said the city's tire program manager, Bill Janousek, had him haul thousands of old city tires to the property he leases a few miles southeast of Downtown. Under state environmental rules, the city is required to document in a five-part manifest the removal and final disposition of all its scrap tires; however, we found that the city had not properly tracked its disposal of tires since at least 2006. Shortly after our first report, Janousek was placed on administrative leave.
In December, the city said that it had been unaware that the tires had been abandoned on Almaguer's property. However, a memo provided to the Chronicle via an open records request raises questions about what the city knew – or at least should have known – about problems with its manifesting, a process that should have made managers aware that the city could not account for the final disposition of thousands of its scrap tires.
The memo was written in August 2009 by three Fleet Services administrators, to Calk, in response to an allegation that the city was overpaying for the removal of tires. According to the officials – Deputy Fleet Officer Jennifer Walls, Fleet Operations Manager Irvin Schmidt, and Acting Deputy Fleet Officer Urcha Dunbar Crespo – a review of the city's manifests "revealed that the process [for accounting for scrap tires] is being followed." Moreover, the officials noted that "comparing collective manifests to collective invoices revealed no significant discrepancies in the number of scrapped tires and the number of scrapped tire disposal fees paid by the city." (See an excerpt of the memo, right; see the full text here [PDF].)
The managers' August report is puzzling, though, for as we noted in our original coverage, the manifests in fact reflect that the city did not comply with the state's tire-tracking rules for at least three years, meaning it would have been nearly impossible for them to have accounted for the tires that had been scrapped. Moreover, Almaguer said that he had not been paid for the work he'd done at Janousek's request for at least three years – if he had been paid, he says, he would have had the money to dispose of the tires and they would not have been left on his property. Under those circumstances, how is it that the Fleet officials could have audited the system and then concluded that it was accurate?
Moreover, the memo reflects on its face rather basic ignorance of the regulations governing scrap tire tracking and disposal – referring to supposed "federally required" manifests when in fact it is state law and TCEQ that govern this process. Since the document presumes to approve manifests that in fact do not track the discarded tires and incorrectly cites the relevant regulations, it raises the question whether the managers, before writing their memo, had in fact reviewed the actual scrap tire situation at all.
Asked about the August memorandum, Fleet Officer Calk released a statement saying that since November, the city has moved to fully comply with TCEQ regulations and to dispose properly of the scrapped tires. "We have substantially revised our tracking procedures and added additional control steps," wrote Calk, "to fully reconcile manifests and invoices."
Concerning the August memo, Calk continued: "The result of a staff investigation described in that memo revealed that when the number of tires disposed was compared to the disposal fees paid over a period of time, there was no significant discrepancy between the number of tires disposed and the fees which should have been paid. That staff investigation focused on this single issue, and was not intended to address the scrap tire tracking or other disposal procedures." Despite Calk's assurances, it's not at all clear how the staff could have determined "the number of tires disposed," since the manifests designed to track those numbers were entirely inadequate and incomplete, and the proper disposal of several thousand such tires had never taken place.
In spite of this background, it appears that Janousek is currently the only employee in management's crosshairs. According to city spokesman Reyne Telles, Janousek remains on paid administrative leave, pending the outcome of an Austin Police Department investigation into his role in the scrap tire mess. "We won't make any decision on his employment until that investigation is completed," Telles said.
As for Victor Almaguer and Vic's Tire Service: Almaguer had first asked the city to pay him roughly $500,000 for his work collecting the tires and then storing them on his property over the last six years. On Jan. 21, after the city balked at that sizable request, Almaguer's lawyer Thomas Kendrick wrote a letter to the city dropping that figure to $24,000, or about $4 a tire. As of this writing, however, the city has not agreed to pay Almaguer anything. Although he says he was doing only what city officials had asked him to do, he was also apparently violating state environmental regulations by removing and storing the tires – as well as processing them (cutting the side walls and collapsing some of the dead tires) – without being registered with TCEQ to do so. However, because the city has cleaned up the mess at Almaguer's property, TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said that the tire-related violations sustained against Almaguer have also been administratively closed.