Thursday, June 8, 2023

Our New City Council Discusses Water, City Hall, and Texas Leg

Source: City of Richardson.

The City of Richardson's new City Council held their first substantive meeting June 5, 2023. We've already covered what the Council had to say about Richardson's long-range water supply situation. That only got us to the 90 minute mark of the three-and-a-half hour meeting. The agenda was packed with so much more — the city's water infrastructure, new city hall, and Texas legislature. I'll try to be briefer covering what our new Council had to say on those topics, but I make no promises.

Water Infrastructure

Let's start with Richardson's water and wastewater infrastructure strategies: water tanks, pumps, water mains, sewer lines, etc.

After asking a lot of good questions about NTMWD's reservoirs and water treatment plants, the Council had surprisingly little to say about the part of the water story the City itself is responsible for. Mayor Pro Tem Arefin asked about why the capital costs for water maintenance are so volatile year-to-year (see for example, the slide shown above). City Manager Don Magner explained that "a lot of this has to do with the timing of projects." No one asked what I thought would be an obvious question. If a year-to-year look is so volatile, why don't we show a long term actuals and forecast, perhaps using a three year rolling average, going out a decade or more, so we can see what trends are developing. NTMWD showed one graph showing supply/demand out to 2080. Does Richardson have such a long-range forecast for the cost of maintaining Richardson's own infrastructure? If so, it wasn't in this presentation and no one on the Council asked for it to be produced.

Justice asked a polite, small talk type of question. Council member Curtis Dorian asked a low level detailed question about where 3-inch meters are used. Mayor Bob Dubey then moved on to the next item on the Council's agenda, only to be told that the staff presentation on this item wasn't over with yet. City staff hadn't said anything yet about the so-called "825 Pressure Zone" improvement project. The Mayor is maybe still getting his sea legs with how to run a meeting.

If you travel through northwest Richardson, you can't help but notice all the construction going on along Renner Rd and inside Point North Park. In case you don't know, that's not all temporary inconvenience. The City is permanently sacrificing a large part of a public park for a place to store water. Council member Joe Corcoran asked what the City is doing to minimize inconvenience to residents. Council member Ken Hutchenrider asked the City to reach out to cyclists to let them know that "while we're doing this project, it's going to be near impossible for them to be able to cycle in that park or on Renner." Always keeping the residents in mind is good, but my dream is that, one day, the City will sacrifice a lane for automobiles instead of a bike lane during construction. My bigger dream is that the City doesn't sacrifice parkland for utilities at all. Corcoran also asked what benefits Richardson residents will get from all this construction. I can imagine critics already complain it's all for UT-Dallas or for Texas Instruments. Corcoran sounded like he was asking for talking points he could use to respond to critics.

Arefin asked if there could be efficiencies gained by combining this water supply project with any anticipated sewer replacements in the same area. He also asked if the City has researched if it's possible to eliminate any of the five lift stations the City uses to transfer waste water. His engineering background is showing. It's a good skill to have on City Council, representing the public interest. That he didn't identify any glaring holes in the presentation is reassuring.

New City Hall

With the public approval of a bond issuance for building a new City Hall, Don Magner showed a "a really aggressive schedule, as to, hopefully, a final conceptual design by about September, October...While it's aggressive, it still hits that right balance of making sure that the public is engaged in the process and we really hear from the community about what they want to see in their city hall." What I heard in all that, was "schedule first, public input second."

Let's find out what the City Council thinks. Justice said, right off the bat, "I want to say thank you for the public input and engagement piece... I would just sort of push you to make sure that we don't skimp on that piece." She gets an honorable mention for that, but not full credit because she didn't do any actual, real pushing.

Dorian asked for clarification about how the public engagement meetings would be run, given that we'll be having public engagement meetings for the update to the Comprehensive Plan at the same time. Don Magner sees some of them being held concurrently in different rooms, so the public can go freely between them. Dorian also asked if public engagement would be cyclical, so the public can see proposed concept plans and give feedback on those about whether their inputs were heard, and if not, get another draft. Magner said that the process would not be cyclical (again, because of the need for speed). Dorian gets honorable mention for raising this issue, but not full credit because he didn't push to get more public engagement in a cyclical process. Given Magner's push for speed, Dorian's not going to get adequate public engagement without more insistence and support from other Council members. Note to Justice: Magner just telegraphed his plans to skimp and you let him get away with it.

Arefin, referring to the fast schedule for public input, said, "I think even though that's really fast, I think we should be okay, I'm very optimistic." He may be optimistic, but I'm not. In my mind, the only way we can go that fast is if we ignore some fundamental questions. Like, is this best use of that prime piece of real estate? Maybe City Hall should be located somewhere else. Even if we really want it in the same place, should it be a standalone building surrounded by another sea of surface parking just like the 1980s building it replaces? Or should we consider something else, perhaps seek additional private investment for a modern, mixed-use design, with portions for retail/office/residential and a shared parking garage? Even if we build a standalone building, Arefin made an offhand comment that makes an assumption that needs to be explicitly considered, not just assumed. Arefin said, "Hopefully, this [building] will stay there hundreds of years." Well, only if that's what we want and what we design for. We could save money by designing a building with a useful life of 50 years, like the city hall we're demolishing. No way can we get to a conceptual design by "about September, October" unless basic questions like this are decided already with no public input, which is what I fear is the case, but no council member asked that.

Hutchenrider asked about how we are paying the consultant to help achieve a satisfactory settlement with the insurance company. (Answer: we're paying an hourly rate.) I wish Hutchenrider would have asked about the recommendation to use a construction manager at risk (CMAR) delivery method to guarantee against cost overruns. Even though I'm still at the stage of wanting to know *what* we're building, Hutchenrider is right to ask even this little question to show someone is watching how the City is going to control costs.

With that, Mayor Dubey moved on to the next agenda item without having any comments, questions, or requests himself.

Legislative Session

The City Council heard from Chief Financial Officer Kent Pfeil, who briefed the Council on the recently concluded Texas legislative session. He summarized the session, "I think through this session, at least in my experience, I think we've come out pretty well compared to prior sessions with the exception of House Bill 2127." Translation: The State legislature usually screws cities and this time cities got screwed again, although it could have been worse.

Although I'm not sure it could be worse than House Bill 2127 which pre-empts city regulations relating to fields with state codes, such as "agriculture, business and commerce, finance, insurance, labor, local government, natural resources, property, and occupations, unless expressly authorized." Fun game: with that broad of a reach, which city ordinances are *not* pre-empted? There were some other bills that reached the governor's desk, but HB 2127 is the big one. Even though the regular session has adjourned, the governor has already called one special session and could call more.

Justice said just reviewing Richardson's ordinances for compliance with HB 2127 is a "monumental amount of work." She also noted that HB 2127 may be unconstitutional. Honorable mention to her for recognizing the bill's huge scope and questionable constitutional underpinning.

Corcoran had no questions but said he was "really disappointed that two of our state representatives not only voted for it, but co-sponsored it as well." He didn't name names, but the Richardson representatives who voted for HB 2127 were Angie Chen Button (District 112) and Justin Holland (District 33). They are no friends of cities. Ana-Maria Ramos (District 102), also representing Richardson (in the literal and figurative sense of the word), voted against the bill.

Readers here know I have little respect for Texas state government and the lip service it pays to supporting small government and local government while at the same time passing laws stripping small government and local government of powers to decide things on a local level. That's doublethink. So it's heartening to know that the government of the City of Richardson recognizes it and calls it out.

And with that, Mayor Dubey moved on, again without having any questions, comments, or requests of his own. If he keeps up this practice, he'll earn my "First Do No Harm" award.


Mark Steger said...

Re: New City Hall. The City Council was shown progress on demo and refurbishment of an existing building in the IQ that will be the new, temporary home for City Hall and the Library. No one thought to ask, "Why not just stay there for a couple of years and see how things work out before deciding whether to spend $85 million on a new building? We could use the time to learn whether we really need to build a new City Hall at all, and if we still do, we ought to know better what we really need and not just want."

Alastair said...

I totally agree with you on the need to rethink either the location or footprint of city hall. It would be a shame if we just build another standalone 2 story building with a giant parking lot and large empty fields.

Mark Steger said...

Correction: the original post said the meeting was June 5, 2024. The correct date was June 5, 2023.

Mark Steger said...

Correction: In a comment above, I said the temporary home of City Hall is "in the IQ". In fact, it's at the corner of Greenville Av and Plano Rd, which is close to the IQ, but not in it.