Council approves first ordinance reading to fund sewage treatment plant defense

Melissa Crowe By Melissa Crowe

April 17, 2012 at 11 p.m.
Updated April 17, 2012 at 11:18 p.m.

Sometimes facts and figures are not enough. You have to smell it for yourself.

When Hand Road and a proposal for a sewage treatment plant were first mentioned in the same sentence, Kevin McNary started pushing back.

Nearly seven years later, the Victoria resident is still trying to stop it.

"You need to smell it for yourself," McNary told the City Council during Tuesday's meeting. "We're going all the way and we're going to make sure that this deal doesn't go through."

McNary's five minutes in front of the Council preceded nine others - lifetime residents, nuns and concerned citizens - all speaking against the proposed $20 million sewage treatment plant on Hand Road.

Water and sewer rates could fund the city's defense in a legal dispute regarding the proposed facility.

In a 4-3 vote Tuesday, the city council approved the first reading of an ordinance that would transfer $175,000 within the water/wastewater fund balance to cover trial expenses against McNary and a group of opposing residents - Concerned Citizens for the Health and Safety of Victoria.

The second and final readings of the ordinance are expected to come up at the next City Council meeting on May 1.

Councilmen David Hagan, Gabriel Soliz and Joe Truman voted against the ordinance Tuesday.

"Whatever the outcome is ... I will perfectly accept it," Hagan said. "My concern is not at this point regarding the sewer plant, but this $175,000. We have attorneys, a very competent city staff and other avenues of addressing issues that come up through this process."

He called the transfer "a very exorbitant amount of money."

Before entering closed session, Truman explained his perspective.

"I have always been the third vote," he said. "I don't want the taxpayers to have to pay for this through water rates" when the city has a well-paid legal department.

Truman said he wants to see the expenses funded through the legal department, not public works.

The project is in Councilwoman Denise Rangel's district. She voted for the transfer, along with Mayor Will Armstrong and councilmen Tom Halepaska and Paul Polasek.

Rangel said she wanted to see mediation take place between the city and residents before the issue went in front of a judge.

"It would have given people a perfect chance to talk," she said. "If things needed to go forward from there, they could."

She said she trusts in technology and wants to see the 1950s Willow Street plant closed. Before that happens, a new plant must open.

Residents near the Willow Street plant said it affected their sleep, health and quality of life.

Linda Alvarez, who has lived near the entrance to the plant for 25 years, described it as "horrific."

"The smell: I can't even open my windows," she said. "My kids are embarrassed to have friends over. You can't go outside to have fresh air, you can't have a barbecue like everybody else ... It's horrible."

She said the neighborhood has put up with the plant and its effects long enough.

"We don't want it there anymore," she said.

Public Works Director Lynn Short opened the ordinance's public hearing with an overview of the past six years, starting from when the need for a new plant was identified.

He said the process began in late 2004 when the plant hit 75 percent capacity for three months.

A study in 2007 by the Austin-based engineering firm Camp, Dresser and McKee showed that at a 1 percent growth rate, the city would need to expand its capacity to 14 million gallons per day with a peak capacity of 35 million gallons per day.

The 1998 flood impacted the staff's decisions to not expand the regional plant after water breaching the levee, caused $17 million in damage, Short said.

The proposed plant had to meet six criteria: be out of the flood plain, have year-round access, be close to the large diameter sewer main on Bottom Road, be close to the regional plant for sludge processing, be large enough for future expansion and in an area with a low density population.

In a quarter-mile radius, 112 residences and six businesses are immediately affected by the Willow Street plant, Short said.

Study shows nine residences affected in the proposed site on Hand Road.

However, "Willow Street is a little bit farther away from Hopkins Elementary and the Boys and Girls Club than this new site will be," Short said.

The mayor said the plant needs to move forward.

"Victoria is going to experience a growth spurt similar to the one we experienced in the 1950s and none of this was factored into ... the original study," he said above quiet whispers of "Amen."

"Let there be no mistake: We need this, and the question is will it be enough?" Armstrong said. "We're required to do it and we need it. That's absolutely set in stone."

Polasek brought the topic back to the issue of funding.

"We wanted to mediate and they denied it," he said. "Here we are having to spend money on lawyers. We are not going to raise the rates to pay for this. The water fund is a self-funding system."

However, residents continued criticizing the city's handling of public money.

Russell Pruitt, of Victoria, was the first to approach the council.

"You're using our money to fight us - we're losing both ways, I'm paying the cost either way," he said. "If you're right with the permits, let the chips fall, don't hire any attorneys, just go through your procedures."

Henry Perez, who has helped spearhead the opposing group, said the affected residents need to be considered.

"The sisters and those who live down there, we still count, we pay taxes," Perez said. "You're wasting ... $175,000 to fight this little bitty group ... you could have hired a $10,000 lawyer to fight us."



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