Victoria council keeps controversial sewage plant permit in place

Melissa Crowe By Melissa Crowe

June 12, 2012 at 1:12 a.m.
Updated June 13, 2012 at 1:13 a.m.

Victoria's proposed sewage treatment plant almost hit the fan.

After a three-hour meeting, City Councilman Emett Alvarez's attempt to pull the permit for the plant Tuesday was met with silence, thus putting the fate of the plant in the hands of the contested case hearing judge.

Although the permit will move forward, the council needs to revisit the issue of the hearing's legal expenses. The ordinance to cap attorneys fees at $76,000 failed in a 3-4 vote with Alvarez, David Hagan, Josephine Soliz and Joe Truman voting against it. However, the ordinance to approve a $45,000 cap on engineering fees was approved in a 4-3 vote, with Truman, Soliz and Alvarez voting against it.

While council members debated about site proposals, costs and need analysis, many residents who spoke during the meeting urged them to move ahead and quickly.

Jan Scott spoke first, repremanding the council for making "erratic and impulsive decisions."

"Save us money, save us time and get this thing going," she said.

She told the council to keep the permit where it is established.

"Most people don't like change in their neighborhood," she said. "They come with seemingly good arguments, but the bottom line is people don't adjust to change. You are the leaders, the people who have to protect us."

Tuesday's meeting lasted about three hours, and included several residents' comments and an in-depth presentation from engineers at Camp, Dresser and McKee.

To move to any of the other eight locations could cost between $500,000 and $50 million, said Allen Woelke, vice president of the engineering firm.

Woelke said it is unusual that this proposal has entered a contested case hearing.

"We've been permitting wastewater plants for 30-some-odd years ... this is the only one that's gone through contested case hearings," he said.

The engineering shows the permitted site off Ben Jordan Street has the lowest population density for the price, and is out of the flood plain, he said.

"The evaluation that Urban Engineering did said this was the best site of the nine we looked at," Woelke said.

However, Alvarez and several residents in his district disagreed.

Alvarez is a member of the plant's opposition group, Concerned Citizens for the Health and Safety of Victoria. He originally made a motion on Tuesday to table the vote on the permit, but that died with silence from council members.

"Let's keep the emotion out of it and make the best decisions that represent our constituents," Alvarez said. "The people who will be mostly affected by this voted for me ... I'm trying to uphold my promise."

Donald Day, a Victoria resident, urged the council to support the permit, and to be statesmen, not politicians.

"Remember that you were elected by the people to serve the people for doing the people's business," he said. "You're not elected to only represent a specific number of people, you're elected to represent the community as a whole."

Several members of District 1, including Henry and Emily Perez, who have been vocal opponents of the plant, and the sisters at Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament of Victoria, expressed concern about the plant.

Perez joined councilmembers Tuesday afternoon at the proposed site off Ben Jordan Street. He is holding onto the hope that the judge will deny the city's permit.

"We'll meet in September and let the judge decide," Perez said.

He said the attorney for the citizens' group and the city's attorney could potentially agree to mediation before the judge makes her decision in early 2013.

However, "the city's not going to change their minds and we're not going to change ours," he said.

Perez's objective has been to protect the sisters.

One said she was concerned about health implications from the plant, while others said council should consider more than price.

Even so, cost has been controversial throughout the process.

From the $343,901 land purchase of the proposed site to the city's legal expenses, council has yet to vote together on the plant.

Alvarez said he voted against the spending cap Tuesday because he wants city staff to work on the issues.

"I'm very surprised that we wouldn't pull the permit, but we'd vote to cut spending for outside attorneys," he said.

Councilman David Hagan presented a motion to lower the spending cap to $56,000, after City Manager Charmelle Garrett cut it 25 percent from $175,000.

"I'd like to spend zero money on this," Hagan said. "I'd like to see us spend the minimum amount necessary. I felt like $175,000 was too much. I'd like to see us cut this back."

Councilmen Paul Polasek and Tom Halepaska questioned his thought-process.

"I'm happy the permit is staying in place," Polasek said. "I don't understand the lack of understanding on hiring attorneys."

He said he expects the attorneys will bill the city and the council will have to vote to amend the budget to pay them.

Council will revisit the issue at the next meeting on June 19.

Halepaska said because the attorneys gave a detailed estimate of the fees, the council should not vote to pay only half.

"True, it's too much, but that's what they estimated it would take to get the job done," he said.

The mayor urged councilmembers to plan ahead for growth from hotels, apartments, Caterpillar and spin-off businesses.

"We're going to build a sewer plant, but we have to work out some of these details," he said.



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