Newly-elected city council members Bobby McClung, Martin Sauceda, and Al Turner were sworn in June 12 at the beginning of the regular meeting of the governing body of Blanco. Council members unanimously elected Bobby Mack as the mayor pro tem. But retiring council member Rebecca Howerton was the focus of attention as Mayor Chuck Homan thanked her for her years of selfless service to the city and presented her with a plaque.
“I started this journey in 1998,” she responded. “Now I am happy to turn it over to others—specifically, Bobby Mack.” She gave an emotional thank-you to Retta Martin, who she said, “helped me all the way.”
Retta responded, “Rebecca has gone far beyond what is required. I helped, but she worked hard.” In particular, she cited Rebecca’s tireless efforts to clean up the city and her work with Keep Blanco Beautiful.
Mayor Homan’s comments included commendations for the successful Lavender Festival, joking that everyone he talked to was from somewhere else. He also called attention to the new roof on the historic Byars Building, where city council meetings are held. He said that sales tax revenues are up 16 percent for the quarter and four percent for the year.
“The country may be in a recession,” he concluded, “but Blanco is not.”
Speaking in the Public Comments portion of the meeting, Thaddeus Millard referred to a letter from PEC to the city explaining why they are no longer able to hang banners for the city. He said that hopefully the city will not miss out on financial support from PEC, since the city gives them a lot of business.
Keith Neffendorf of Neffendorf, Knopp, Doss & Company, P. C. presented his report on the annual audit of Blanco’s finances after praising Rebecca Howerton.
“Not only was Mrs. Howerton a good council member, she was a good English teacher. She taught me 34 years ago.”
He characterized the city as being “in good financial shape,” with net assets of $9,139,939. He pointed out that in spite of major purchases, such as a fire truck for $199,981, the city still has “a pretty good fund balance.” Although the fire truck is financed through Security State Bank, the total cost must appear in the budget the year it is purchased. He thanked city secretary Bobbie Mowery and her staff for their help in providing the needed documentation for the audit. “We always appreciate their cooperation,” he concluded. Council members voted to approve the audit for fiscal year 2011-12.
The controversy over the city’s decision to open Blanco Avenue continued with protests from residents complaining about traffic using the street as a cut-through, “kids in pick-up trucks” kicking up rocks, and the lack of a stop sign at the Loop 163 end of the street.
Resident Kim Brockway served as spokesperson for the group, recalling, “I have lived on Blanco Avenue since I was six years old and it has never been a road.” She said that she has had permission for a fence from the last three mayors, but that now she has gotten a letter that she will be fined.
Resident Jerry Wisian added that he fears for his grandchildren’s safety because of speeders and trucks coming through. “I have been here six years, and I love Blanco,” he said, “but I strongly oppose opening the road unless the city fixes it.” He added that there was a little speed bump in the road, but that someone brought his own equipment in and removed it. Another resident said debris is scattered along the road from that equipment.
Brockway has a petition that residents on the street have signed to request re-closing the road.
City attorney Eddy Rogers responded, “It’s a public road—it has to be open. It’s been a road for a hundred years.” Both the mayor and Rogers said that a unanimous vote of council in 2007 opened the road. Council member Bobby Mack said he was at that meeting, and the vote was simply to take down the fence.
Public Works Director Nathan Cantrell said the road is like Cherry Street and several others in Blanco; it is unimproved, but residents can drive down it. He added that as Blanco grows, more streets will be opened.
Police Chief Milton Willmann expressed concern that people come out of Blanco Avenue onto Loop 163 without stopping.
Resident Richard Vandewater also cited safety concerns, but as a justification to have the road open, since emergency vehicles could not come down it when it was closed. “There’s more than myself that want this road open,” he said. “There are many signatures of people who want it open.” He also claimed that there was a pistol pointed at him while he was smoothing out the speed bump, but one of the residents said it was a camera.
The mayor assured residents that the city will improve the road when funds become available. He also promised to contact TxDOT immediately to have a stop sign installed and asked Nathan to go out and check the condition of the road.
Planning and Zoning Commission chair Tony Vela reported that members voted at their June meeting to recommend granting a sign variance to the Lowe’s Super Market, formerly Super S. Several representatives from Lowe’s presented plans for the proposed sign, explaining that the height and width of the new sign will not change. The other signs on the existing sign support will be lowered to accommodate the Lowe’s sign.
In response to a question as to how much larger the sign is than the dimensions allowed in Blanco’s signage ordinance, Vela responded that it is 25 square feet larger. He justified the variance because the location of the sign requires that size for it to be seen as vehicles travel south on Highway 281. Council member Danny Ray made a motion to grant the variance, and council approved it unanimously.
Old Blanco County Courthouse Preservation Society president John Whitesides updated council on expenditures for water to maintain the landscaping on the historic courthouse square. In the interest of maintaining a green and inviting city center, the city approved a 12-month agreement to assist OBCCPS with watering expenses one year ago. The cost of watering in 2010 was $400 per month and rose to $485 in 2011, explained Whitesides. He confessed that watering “has significantly impacted our budget” and asked the city’s help “to keep the square beautiful.” Council voted unanimously to extend the discount for water for another year.
Council postponed a decision on purchasing a COPSYNC system used by many law enforcement agencies across Texas until budget workshops in July.
“It’s an expensive piece of software,” commented Bobby McClung, “and we’re getting close on our budget.” He also asked if the money would come out of the General Fund—clarifying, “the one we were in the hole by $10,000 last year.”
Council member Maria Guerrero added, “It’s a nice records management system, but we need to look at the needs ahead of the wants.”
COPSYNC representative Chris Chaney said the system “is not just a records management system but also an intelligence system. It creates one network that every department can access in real time, connecting all agencies.” The cost of the system would be $20,000 per year for five years. Guerrero moved to table the issue until budget discussions and workshops, and council members agreed.
Police Chief Milton Willmann reported that the call volume for the department was up to 120 calls in May and that 134 citations were issued. He said that the Lavender Festival went well, with only one break-in of a vendor trailer.
Council voted to let a project for bids to remove sludge at the wastewater plant lagoons. Bobby McClung asked if the proposal could be worded to allow the possibility that the sludge could be sold, explaining that GeoGrowers in Dripping Springs buys sludge from the City of Austin to make its organic Dillo Dirt. City engineer Marvin Reavis responded that the sludge is not Class A sludge, but that it could be processed to be used in that way.
A lengthy discussion followed concerning a proposed Waste Water Ordinance which the city wishes to pass in order to avoid fines from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
City attorney Eddy Rogers explained, “Real remediation of the sewer plant can only be corrected by reducing the BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) and TSS (total suspended solids) levels in the water system to levels required by other localities. An ordinance will extend the life of the sewer plant by five to ten years. We need to pass an ordinance so that we can go to TCEQ to tell them something is being done. They are frustrated with us.” The current levels discharged by the brewery are 3200 BOD and 644 TSS milligrams per liter.
Rogers explained that the ordinance started as a template of an ordinance from the city of Shiner, home of Spoetzl Brewery. McClung asked if the majority of violations were related to ammonia and E. coli levels unrelated to brewery discharge, and Rogers said that was not correct.
Rogers continued, “We will be fined. We have worked on it for seven months and have had difficulty getting the brewery to commit to much of anything. The plant is suffering from a number of issues related to the brewery—heavier loads, flow. It will take the brewery some time to get their show on the road. Once the ordinance is passed, the brewery has thirty days to get a permit. If we—Marvin (Reavis), Nathan (Cantrell), our environmental lawyer in Austin, and I–do not reach an agreement with the brewery, we will bring it back to council. If they go over a little, they pay more for processing. If they go over a lot, they will be fined. We were told it would take six months to put in a pre-treatment plant; it has been seven months. In July they will begin trucking out solids. They will have a year to bring down levels to 600 BOD; they will have a schedule for lowering the levels to required levels. We have to pass an ordinance for the brewery to know what the deal is. We have to decide what the level will be allowed in the permit. By July the brewery will have to lower levels from 2500 BOD, TSS, to 1500 or so.” In answer to a question by Guerrero as to whether Shiner’s was the only ordinance looked at, Reavis responded, “We looked at a number of cities.”
Real Ale Brewery owner Brad Farbstein protested the city passing the ordinance in haste, responding, “If the ordinance were passed tonight, we would be in violation. We’re offering to haul solids at a $500-600 per month cost. The city would be better off allowing us to haul off than to charge a surcharge.” He said that brewery engineers Harry Boyd and Jack Medcalf have estimated a forty percent drop in levels once the hauling begins. He defended the brewery as a good citizen, saying, “We employ forty employees and increase the city’s tax base. We worked with the city in 2005 to win a Capital Funds grant, and the city agreed to treat the brewery discharge. We helped the city put in infrastructure to provide water and sewer service and fire protection. When the brewery agrees to haul off solids, that is going beyond what was agreed. We paid Marvin Reavis as a consultant. It needs to be reasonable; we are running a business.” Farbstein’s understanding of the 2005 agreement was that the brewery reach 60,000 barrels of capacity before levels in the discharge would be an issue.
Brewery CFO Chad Stoner explained that the brewery’s first priority is to finish their newest building by this year. The second priority is to fund equipment purchases such as a canning line. The third priority is to build a pre-treatment plant. It is estimated that it would take nine to twelve months to build that facility.
Rogers’ rejoinder was, “The brewery has expanded to a $3 million plant but has not put in a pre-treatment plant. When will you put in a pre-treatment plant? If the brewery went away, the city would be just fine.”
The brewery’s engineers countered that a sample of the city’s water quality showed levels of 560 BOD and 276 TSS, above the 200/200 level proposed as the brewery’s desired levels.
Farbstein concluded, “The brewery is not the silver bullet, but it is willing to help the city. We would propose to pass the ordinance and approve the permit at the same time. The brewery is committed to having an ordinance and a permit. We would like a city council member to be part of the group to fine-tune it, and we could get it passed next time.”
McClung asked, “Are we setting up the brewery to pay large fines? How can we do this without being punitive to the brewery?”
“If we table the ordinance until July, that’s fine with me,” responded Rogers. “TCEQ will come down on the city, not the brewery.” Other suggestions included passing the ordinance but exempting the brewery from fines for 30 or 60 days. The final decision of council was to table the ordinance until July.
Following Executive Session, council voted to approve the hiring of Carlos Witkohl and Josh Lake as Public Works employees and vacation buy-back for Public Works Director Nathan Cantrell and City Secretary Bobbie Mowery.