Po­lit­i­cal dis­putes over waste con­tract per­sist

After months of de­lays, City Coun­cil pre­pares to re­view plan, in­clud­ing anti-lob­by­ing pro­posal.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By El­iz­a­beth Fin­dell efind­ell@statesman.com

The gi­ant cur­ing piles of com­post, pro­cessed from hu­man waste and yard clip­pings, had over­taken nearly all the plowed space at the Hornsby Bend waste­water plant in June, as the staff fret­ted about how to get rid of them.

An up­dated con­tract to process the plant’s biosolids has been on hold since De­cem­ber amid a re­view of city waste con­tract poli­cies, and de­spite the un­cer­tainty, Aus­tinites kept flush­ing their toi­lets. More than 60,000 cu­bic yards of un­screened com­post was on the site, staffers es­ti­mated, some of it hav­ing sat there for a year.

Soon, after more than a hal­fyear de­lay, bid­ding on a new con­tract might fi­nally move for­ward — with stricter re­quire­ments to pro­duce only com­post from the biosolids — if the City Coun­cil ap­proves rec­om­men­da­tions from a work­ing group.

Pol­icy dis­putes halted the is­suance of all new city waste agree­ments in April, after City Coun­cil mem­bers voted to nix sev­eral staff-rec­om­mended con­tracts on the ad­vice of the city’s Zero Waste Ad­vi­sory Com­mis­sion. Frus­trated con­trac­tors and staff mem­bers said they didn’t know which prac­tices the coun­cil wanted to fol­low.

On Aug. 15, coun­cil mem­bers will re­ceive rec­om­men­da­tions is­sued by the Waste Man­age­ment Pol­icy Work­ing Group, which have largely sat­is­fied stake­hold­ers and com­pa­nies vy­ing for city busi­ness in­volved in the dis­cus­sions — ex­cept Texas Dis­posal Sys­tems, whose clashes with the city staff helped prompt the re­view.

“While some of the re­sponses were good and just need to be fleshed out to be more spe­cific, some of them I was very dis­ap­pointed in,” said Bob Gre­gory, pres­i­dent of TDS. “Par­tic­u­larly how the anti-lobby or­di­nance

will be re­vised.”

In re­cent years, TDS has taken is­sue with how the city staff drafted some re­quests for pro­pos­als and op­posed a re­quire­ment, meant to pro­tect the process from po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence, that com­pa­nies at­tempt­ing to get city jobs re­frain from talk­ing to city of­fi­cials about them. TDS stopped sub­mit­ting pro­pos­als for city con­tracts and in­stead lob­bied city of­fi­cials to be hired out­side of that process.

The work­ing group rec­om­men­da­tions would scale back the time frame when lob­by­ing rules would ap­ply and al­low con­trac­tors to talk to of­fi­cials about sub­jects un­re­lated to a spe­cific pro­posal. But that doesn’t go far enough to get TDS back to the ta­ble, said Gre­gory, who ar­gued that he should be able to bring up any is­sues with pro­posal re­quests as they arise. He plans to sub­mit re­sponses to the City Coun­cil be­fore it con­sid­ers a vote on the rec­om­men­da­tions next month.

“I believe that coun­cil will ap­prove pol­icy changes that are dif­fer­ent from what the rec­om­men­da­tions are,” he said. “As pro­posed, we will not bid.”

Other waste man­age­ment com­pa­nies, many of whom have grum­bled that TDS doesn’t play by the rules, said keep­ing the anti-lob­by­ing or­di­nance ap­pli­ca­ble to waste con­tracts was a top pri­or­ity in the re­view.

“The most im­por­tant thing I wanted to see was that bid and RFP pro­cesses would con­tinue to be the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the Austin Re­source Re­cov­ery Depart­ment ... and that they’re not go­ing to be in­ter­fered with by other pro­pos­als be­ing sub­mit­ted out­side of the process,” said Steve Shan­non, pres­i­dent of Pro­gres­sive Waste So­lu­tions.

Other work­ing group rec­om­men­da­tions in­clude:

Re­vis­ing the def­i­ni­tion of “lo­cal” in pro­posal scor­ing ma­tri­ces to in­clude an area pres­ence, not just of­fices within city lim­its — a move that would ben­e­fit Creed­moor-based TDS and sev­eral other bid­ders.

Cre­at­ing cri­te­ria to di­rect which land­fills are prefer­able for re­ceiv­ing city waste, based on en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors.

Con­tin­u­ing the prac­tice of us­ing the city waste-re­moval staff as a “ven­dor of last re­sort” for some spe­cial events.

Fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tion of how to best man­age old util­ity poles and whether to con­sol­i­date some con­tract ser­vices.

The rec­om­men­da­tions sur­round­ing biosolids are to con­vert 100 per­cent to com­post, end­ing the process of ship­ping sludge to spread on ranch­land out­side the city, known as land ap­pli­ca­tion. That will pose a new chal­lenge for city staffers, who said they know of no city other than Den­ton that pro­cesses its biosolids en­tirely to com­post.

“We think we can be suc­cess­ful with the rec­om­men­da­tions,” said Daryl Slusher, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor for en­vi­ron­men­tal af­fairs at Austin Wa­ter. “But we want to make it clear that we’re get­ting out ahead of just about ev­ery other city.”

The rec­om­men­da­tions in­clude a pro­vi­sion to al­low for land ap­pli­ca­tion in case of un­fore­seen prob­lems, but Austin wouldn’t be able to do that with­out ex­ist­ing per­mits, staffers said. Still, they plan to is­sue a re­quest for pro­pos­als for com­pa­nies to han­dle the com­post­ing and sell Dillo Dirt, the city-trade­marked com­post, as soon as coun­cil mem­bers vote on the anti-lob­by­ing poli­cies in Septem­ber.

In June, coun­cil mem­bers broke the con­tract mora­to­rium to ex­e­cute a deal with Or­gan­ics By Gosh for a 36-month roll-out of curb­side com­post­ing. Coun­cil mem­bers ap­proved the con­tract over the ob­jec­tions of TDS, which ar­gued that they should wait on the work­ing group rec­om­men­da­tions.

Asked what the im­pact of wait­ing would be, Donna Gosh, wife of com­pany owner Phil Gosh, had a re­lat­able an­swer.

“Money,” she said, to laugh­ter. “Plus, we’d have to take an­other day off and come down here and spend with you lovely peo­ple. Which, we do love you, but I mean, good­ness gra­cious, please. May we just stop the non­sense and be done and get on?”

Coun­cil mem­bers agreed.

PHO­TOS BY JAY JANNER / AMER­I­CAN-STATESMAN

A worker dumps un­screened com­post, a mix­ture of biosolids and yard waste, at the Hornsby Bend waste­water treat­ment plant in June. City staffers have es­ti­mated that more than 60,000 cu­bic yards of the com­post is sit­ting on the site, with some of it there for a year.

Sludge is thick­ened on a grav­ity belt thick­ener at the Hornsby Bend waste­water treat­ment plant. Bid­ding on a new city waste con­tract could be­gin soon after pos­si­ble City Coun­cil ac­tion.

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