Updated 11/21/2012 09:53 AM
Council to WTP4 Executive: ‘Where did all the money go?’
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The controversial Water Treatment Plant Number Four is costing the city more money, after more than one million hours of manpower has been put into the project.
A city audit report revealed Monday the burden of construction budget overages will be the Austin taxpayers', not MWH constructors, the project’s contractor, as initially reported.
Right now the WTP4 construction budget sits at $359 million. Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros is asking the city council for an additional $15 million--this after almost $44 million worth of construction was cut out of original plans. That money was then absorbed to other unknown costs of the project.
Part of that $44 million was the Forrest Ridge transmission line.
“A $15 million tunnel we chose not to construct,” Meszaros told the council during the city’s Audit and Finance Committee meeting Monday. “We chose to defer at this time."
Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch scolded committee members during Monday's meeting, recalling 2010 WTP4 debates where proponents promised overruns would not occur.
"We heard over and over again, 'Guaranteed maximum price, guaranteed maximum price,’" he said.
Meszaros found himself battered by questions from council Monday on exactly what happened to all the money.
"I want to know where we moved that money from, added to that column," Council Member Laura Morrison said.
Council Member Bill Spelman also recalled 2010 public hearings where concerns surrounded contractors’ bids came in that underestimated the size of the project.
"This is the other shoe dropping." Spelman said. "All of us believed, whether we voted for it or not two years ago, $359 million was what it was going to cost."
Members of the public had Meszaros in their sights, too.
"This is bait and switch,” activist Paul Robbins said. “This is how boondoggles are orchestrated."
The council listened as Meszaros explained that it will only take this final fiscal push to get the project done.
"It's a very complex project, and here we are towards the very end of it and we're about two or three percent of our original estimate, and we need a bit more money to cross the finish line," he said.
While the council grilled water utility executives, those inside city hall expect the additional funds to be approved, and it still is unclear exactly what the extra funding will pay for.
"I believe it will because I believe that until further notice that the consequences of not approving it is we get a half-finished water treatment plant,” Spelman said. “We don't get the chance to finish the thing, we need to finish it."
Two years ago, Mayor Pro-Tem Sheryl Cole was one of four who voted to build the project. On Monday, she was disappointed more WTP4 money is needed.
"When I voted for this contract I thought that was the number," she said.
WTP4 overruns are estimated as high as $60 million by some auditors.
The overall cost of the plant is $508 million, which includes construction costs and other fees things, like attorney fees and environmental impact costs. Council will have to vote before any more money is allocated to the project.