Saturday, November 03, 2018

Mayor Asks, City Staff Ignores

Mayor Brenda Gunter made a clear request of San Angelo city staff during the October 16, 2018 Council meeting.  It was not recorded in the minutes or acted upon for the November 6, 2018 City Council meeting.

Mayor Gunter asked staff to present the financial results from the just closed fiscal year.  This item is not on the November 6th agenda as requested.  The Mayor made a clear request that the minutes do not document in that section or under future agenda items.

The Water Enterprise Fund Balance rose to $10.3 million as of 9-30-18.  That's 158 days of budgeted water revenue.  The city said its target is 75 days.  Other water fund balances total $20.5 million.  That does not include the Lake Nasworthy fund of $14 million.  With massive runoff the last two months the City's water supply is the healthiest I've ever seen. 

The Solid Waste Fund Balance rose to $4.3 million.  Council will deal with the solid waste contract in Executive Session.  Republic Services requested to walk back its recycling commitments.

Council makes strategic budget decisions and should hear the results of their actions prior to the completion of the fiscal audit.  I applaud Mayor Gunter's request for timely feedback.  Time will show if staff intend to deliver. 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

City Staff to Bring New Water Conservation Incentives to Council

San Angelo's City Council held existing water conservation credits in place until staff can bring new water conservation incentive program(s) to Council.  I wasn't sure the program was ill conceived and researched City Council history on the credits.  The City's Slideshare repository produced the following.

In April 2011 City Council heard a presentation on the impact of the 2006 Water Conservation Credits.

The City had two water rate increases, one in 2007 and another in 2011, during the evaluation period below.

Citizens conserved greatly between 2011 and 2015, reducing daily water usage by 37%.  The 10% conservation credit was in place during this period of significant conservation.

Two thoughts entered my mind as the 10-2-2018 discussion ensued.  First, hadn't prior City Council's asked staff to bring updated water conservation incentives for consideration?  The Alvin New, Kendall Hirschfeld and Paul Alexander era had leaders high on water conservation and pursuing new options.  A number of faces changed since Councilman Kendall Hirschfeld asked staff to do this very thing.  In May 2013 Hirschfeld called for advancing:

 "user conservation efforts via incentives for improvements such as rainwater collection, drought-tolerant landscaping, and high-flow toilet replacement, as examples".
Kendall Hirschfeld served on a private citizen group that proposed water conservation strategies to City Council in June 2014.  Hirshfeld was appointed to a re-constituted Water Advisory Board in 2016 where he echoed his call for a comprehensive water conservation program with incentives for citizens.  Despite the calls for new, updated conservation incentives city staff never delivered.

It's 2018 and staff, albeit different due to turnover, are still working on a water conservation incentive package. City staff's recommendation to cut the 10% conservation credit for low water use until they had time to bring back a more comprehensive updated program looked lazy in light of this history of waiting.

My second thought centered on the increase in water rebates from $150,000 in 2006 to $400,000 for 2018.  As water rates have gone through the roof since 2006, most of the huge increase in conservation credits occurred solely because of city induced water rate increases.

The City enacted water rate increases in 2007, 2011, 2016, 2017 and 2018.  Another water increase is coming January 1, 2019.

2007 - Average increase of $13.22 per month
2011 - Average increase of $14.75 per month
2011-2016 - Additional fees of $5.42 per month added.
2016 - Average increase of $5.88 per month
2017 - Average increase of $6.56 per month.
2018 -Average increase of $7.32 per month
Two more rate increases are planned for 2019 and 2020.  Combined they total $7.96 per month.

Math shows rate increases to be the sole cause of increased conservation credits since 2011 for the 3,000 gallon a month user.  It's not fair for the city to act like conservation credits rose rapidly outside their repeated jacking up of rates.

It looked like another $400,000 grab from citizen pocketbooks, but fortunately City Council put that on hold.  We'll see how the proposed conservation incentives compare to the current program.  That is if staff present cost projections in a regular agenda item.  

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Ruffini Parking Lot Nearly $200,000 More Expensive than 2018 CIP Budget

Staff presented San Angelo's City Council with an October surprise, a $279,000 parking lot for the Ruffini Chapel and Station 618 Senior Center.  The background information made no mention of the history of the project under a prior City Council.

The December 6, 2016 City Council background packet stated:

"This project, to construct the parking area, is funded and moving forward."

The December 2016 agenda item was for an amendment to the Old Town Conservancy agreement allowing for construction of the chapel. 

"There is no cost to the City for approving the amendment to the agreement. In fact, approving this item will add funding from the Conservancy for development of the City property.In terms of development of the City property, $175,000 was allocated to abate and demolish the old building (which has been accomplished) and to develop the parking lot. At present, about $90,000 remains for development.

Staff also omitted the $85,000 capital improvement budget for Station 618 parking lot (CIP 2018-2023) approved by this Council in February 2018.  Assistant City Manager Rick Weise left out these key details in representing the project to Council.

Staff informed the public via a Standard Times article by Parks Chief Carl White.  His piece on 9-27-18 stated:

The property upon which it sits was acquired by the City about 20 years ago for construction of a parking lot. That budgeted parking lot project, pending successful bid and Council approval, is planned to begin in the late summer or early fall. 
Neither the newspaper piece or staff's presentation gave an explanation as to the scope of project changes that drove it from $85,000 to nearly $280,000. 

Weise did say they could reduce the project some by eliminating a few decorative planters such that it would give them more parking spaces.  Don't planners used site specifications/requirements, like the number of parking spaces required for optimal/peak use, to design a project?

Apparently the requirement is spending excess city dollars without detailing the history of a nearly $300,000 project and why it changed so dramatically in such a short period of time. 

Thursday, October 04, 2018

City Rams Through Wastewater Reuse

The City of San Angelo discussed future water supply in Executive Session on 9-18-18.  Only Council members heard the presentation by hired consultant Scott Hibbs.  With no discussion of the facts or their deliberations Councilman Tommy Thompson made a motion for the city to apply for permits that would allow for discharging treated wastewater into the Concho River for a short distance then pulling that water back out of the river for citizen use.   There was no public comment.

The Water Advisory Board learned of this on 9-24-18, nearly a week after Council acted.  Consultant Scott Hibbs updated the water board as to City Council's planned strategy.  This may explain the poor attendance as four members missed the meeting.  It's hard to see any advising from this board if City Council already acted.  Educated and talented people don't like to be used as a rubber stamp. 

The Water Board did hear from members of the public concerned about the city pursuing groundwater south of San Angelo.  One did ask about the city's arrangement with the Tom Green County Water Control and Improvement District #1 (TGCWCID).  Water Chief Allison Strube said City Council would address the irrigation contract with TGCWCID but hopes the city could send effluent water to the district during times when the city does not need treated water for citizen use.

The City's broken pipeline to Lake Spence will remain unusable.  There are no plans to fix the intake or pipeline for the city to garner 3,000 acre feet annually.  City staff may wish to remove Lake Spence from the water supply web page after Council passed on a workable Spence strategy.

On 10-2 the city published a video on Council's strategy staring two hired guns, the lead consultant and the city's water rights attorney.  This video mentioned the city's current use of wastewater one time.

For all the discussion of process the video failed to mention City Council decided the top water supply strategy behind closed doors without any public comment.  Continuing the lack of disclosure theme was Water Chief Allison Strube who said the city wanted the water fund balance to be "closer to 75 days cash on hand or greater."

She failed to mention the gusher of funds currently in that account, nearly $9.4 million as of 8-31-18.  That's double the amount needed for citizen water rebates cited by staff in November 2017.

How does all this nondisclosure happen under the leadership of City Manager Daniel Valenzuela and Executive Director of Public Works Ricky Dickson?  Why does City Council allow it?

Update 10-14-18:  Another level of nondisclosure arose with SanAngeloLive's piece by Yantis Green on the change.  Green is the former Executive Director of the Tom Green County Water Control and Improvement District #1.  He left the position after embezzling over $60,000 in public funds.  Author Yantis Green provided no disclosure as his history with the TCGWCID. 

Friday, September 28, 2018

City Staff Want to Eliminate Water Conservation Credit

City staff recommend the cancellation of the 10% conservation credit for water customer users who consume 3,000 gallons or less on a monthly basis.  Not on the October 2, 2018 City Council agenda is staff's botched billing of the conservation discount since 2009.

Staff recommends the 10% conservation discount be removed.
Water Chief Allison Strube indicated in the decade long over-billing press release:

“Many of the customers who earn the discount currently are not actively seeking to do so,” Strube said. “They manage to earn the credit simply by circumstance, such as the case with a realtor briefly needing water service for an inspection or a single person living alone in a home. We want to create a robust conservation program that encourages our customers to actively take steps to save water.”
Horse hockey!  Our household regularly uses 3,000 gallons per month due to conservation.  We have low flow shower heads and water sparing toilets.  We have not operated our sprinkler system since our last major drought when Council worked hard to bring Hickory Water online.

At the time City Councilman Kendall Hirschfeld suggested the city not charge citizens the monthly base fee if they turned off their sprinkler meter.   That was never implemented.  Our contribution to conservation is low water use in the home and no sprinkler use in the yard.  For this we pay $100 a month in the smattering of water associated fees.  That's $33.33 per thousand gallons used.

The city wants to take away the 10% discount we received or were supposed to receive.  I haven't seen how much the city owes for not applying the discount since 2009.

Rather than come clean with Council on their decade long billing errors, city staff will propose taking away the conservation credit, the only means currently in place for citizens to get a portion of their ever increasing bill returned to them.

The Water Enterprise Fund Balance stands at $9.37 million as of 8-31-18, nearly twice the level the city cited as needed for a citizen rebate in November 2018.  Council dropped the regular review of the water fund balance for possible rebate.

There is no urgency to drop the conservation credit while staff look for other programs to incentivize conservation.  City Council should retain the credits until a substitute program can be designed, shared with the public and be evaluated for potential impact.

Update 9-30-18:  SanAngeloLive ran a piece on the proposed change.

Update 10-3-18:  City Council did not eliminate the conservation credit as proposed by staff.  They may in the near future when staff has another incentive program to offer in its place. 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Republic Gets Answers from U.S. Cities on Recycling Concerns

San Angelo's City Council heard from citizens last night about possible changes to its trash contract with Republic Services.  The public meeting is worth the watch.

Republic has approached San Angelo about needing to rethink a 10-year contract - signed in 2014 - after local processor Butts Recycling quadrupled its price last month. The San Angelo Standard-Times reports that options include raising rates, scaling back the program or cutting it entirely. 
Republic Services employed various strategies in response to recycling changes in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and West Virginia.

Arab, Alabama denied Republic Services request for a contract change.  WasteDive reported:

Republic Services asked Arab for a cost increase in June, but after exploring its options, WAFF reports that Arab decided to stay the course. Its contract terms are technically still valid through May 2020.
Alaska municipalities are wrestling with the same concern.

Multiple communities were informed by Republic Services and others that markets for their mixed paper, and in some cases mixed plastic, no longer existed.
Arizona communities experience includes:

Municipalities and MRF operators throughout the state begin reporting more issues, with hints that some material is now being disposed, according to The Arizona Republic. Republic Services tells CBS 5 News that it continues to meet with municipalities about potential contract changes. The town of Bisbee considers cuts to its drop-off program, according to the San Pedro Valley News-Sun, and is landfilling low-value materials.

Arizona Daily Star reports on wide-ranging issues in the state, focusing on a host of potential changes in Tuscon such as reduced collection or higher fees. The city's recycling program is projected to run a $500,000 deficit this fiscal year and local MRFs are reporting high contamination rates. Green Valley News later reports that Republic is still moving material at its local MRF and has even offered skeptical residents ride-alongs to prove recycling continues as usual.

Kankakee, Illinois held Republic to the terms of its contract.

Republic Services, the city’s waste hauler, recently stated the curbside program was being discontinued because so much of the recyclable materials in the containers were not acceptable.
However, the city administration explored the matter and determined Republic would not be living up to the terms of the contract, and after discussions with the company, it was agreed the program would continue as it has for several years.
In Indiana Republic will raise prices.

Republic Services is nearly doubling rates for Indianapolis residents, the maximum allowed under its contract.
St. Lous, Missouri citizens are luckier:

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports on cost pressures for the local Republic Services MRF and its regional customers. Mixed paper is reportedly moving at a loss, though Republic said pricing is better than it was a couple months ago and no program changes are currently being considered.
Missoula, Montana restricted the types of plastics that could be recycled:

Republic Services and Garden City Recycling stop taking mixed plastics #3-7 in the Missoula and Lake County area, according to the Missoulian. Glacier National Park does the same, while Yellowstone hasn't made changes yet.
The City of Brotherly Love will pay Republic more while other Keystone state communities have long term contracts with Republic.

Philadelphia's recycling budget could take a $2 million hit this year now that it's paying Republic Services $38 per ton, according to The Inquirer. Others, such as Camden County, may be spared for now due to long-term agreements.
The City of San Angelo has a long term agreement with Republic Services.  Will City Council hold Republic to it, amend the agreement or rebid a new scope of trash/landfill services?

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

City Owes Citizens Conservation Credits from 2009-2018

 A City of San Angelo news release stated:

The Water Utilities Department is seeking to refund $284,138 to 25,031 water customers who did not receive conservation discounts they have earned since 2009.  City officials unearthed an error in a handwritte, 48 page computer code that a former City employee created in 2006 to determine who receives the discount. 
It's not clear why refunds don't apply to bills after the computer code was implemented in 2006.  The City's website describes the credit:

A conservation credit applies to customers who use less than 3,000 gallons in a month. Ten percent of the base rate and usage fees credit the customer’s account in the following month.
This is the latest decade long billing error by Public Utilities.  It follows the city's overcharging commercial trash customers.  Executive Director of Public Works Ricky Dickson was aware of Republic's overcharging commercial customers in August 2011. 

City leaders promised a rigorous response to that overbilling, including auditing utility bills for compliance with local ordinances.  That did not happen.  The city's practice of ignoring compliance with city laws went beyond public utility billing. 

Ten year over-billing of water customers is hardly a "mishap."  It's the latest sign that the City of San Angelo is lackadaisical about complying with local ordinances.  The city charges citizens late fees for paying their water bills.  Council should implement an incompetent billing refund bonus for effected citizens in recognition of the time value of money.