By SHELLY WILKISON
As administrators of the school district and the City of Liberty Hill plant their heels firmly in a utility turf battle that has many scratching their heads in confusion, the question of who should provide sewer service to the new high school has become a political hot potato just in time for local elections.
The back-and-forth exchange between the Superintendent and the City Manager escalated two weeks ago when Dr. Rob Hart suggested the school district’s application for city wastewater service had “suddenly gone missing from the City.
“And that’s funny because we still have our copy of it,” Hart said.
Hart said Assistant Superintendent Robert Parks filed the application for service on Feb. 28, 2011, on a form provided by City Hall. Parks swore to it in an affidavit.
But City Manager Manuel De La Rosa says the City had no record of receiving the application until a copy was included in a packet hand-delivered to him Jan. 27 in which the Superintendent requested a decision be made promptly. And even then, De La Rosa said the application was incomplete.
“I don’t consider this matter funny by any means,” De La Rosa said. “It is serious for all parties. We want to reach an amicable solution to the issue. As much as Dr. Hart’s interest is in protecting the school district, mine is to protect the interests of the City.”
In summer 2013, the school district will open a $71 million high school and athletic complex on 96 acres outside the city on State Highway 29. But, 14 months out and there is still no final plan for connecting the facility to water or wastewater service. Hart blames the City for delays that he said could soon impact the construction schedule, which would add costs to the project and potentially delay the opening.
“We don’t believe that we’re the cause of any delays,” said De La Rosa. “They have provided us with an incomplete application and through previous applications for service, they have shown that they do have knowledge of how the process works.”
De La Rosa, who was not employed with the City at the time Hart said the application was filed, said city staff searched for evidence of the application and did not find it. But after the district delivered a copy of it Jan. 27, some pages were not included.
In response to an Open Records Request, the City provided The Independent with a blank application packet as a point of reference.It contains a page that provides for a connection fee.
It’s that page that is missing from the district’s current application.
De La Rosa said the school district should have known to submit that page because just one year earlier — January 2010 — it filed an application for wastewater service for the Administration Building. The page was part of that packet, which was also provided to The Independent, and contained a provision for a $4,500 connection fee that was paid.
Hart did not know why the page was missing from the current application, but said the district requested the application form from the City, completed all the pages that were provided and turned them in Feb. 28, 2011. He said Mr. Parks was told by a city employee that staff would contact him further if anything else was required.
The dispute, however, is not just about incomplete application forms. At the heart of the issue is the school district’s disagreement with the City that the City should be both the water and sewer provider to the new school facility.
Hart says it’s about saving taxpayers money. When district officials learned LHISD could save just over $1 million by using Chisholm Trail Special Utility District for water, it made sense to ask Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to release the new school site from the City’s water service area so it could be served by Chisholm Trail.
For sewer service, Hart says it is in the district’s best interest to use the City of Liberty Hill, and he thought things were headed in the right direction until the City Council passed an ordinance that changed the rules.
The Council adopted an ordinance last fall requiring customers seeking wastewater service to also be customers of the water system and be annexed into the city limits.
Hart said he was taken aback by the Council’s action because he had previously met with De La Rosa who assured him that connecting to sewer would not be a problem. Hart said on a different occasion, he got the same assurances from Mayor Michele “Mike” Murphy.
But still he thought the district was exempt from the ordinance because the application had been filed seven months earlier.
“We assumed all was fine because we were doing all the work,” Hart said. “At no point were we told that our application was not on file, was incomplete or that we needed to pay fees.
“We were meeting regularly with Steger Bizzell (the City’s engineers) on the wastewater project,” Hart said. “We had agreed to pay to upsize the (sewer) line as they requested, and made progress through the summer and early fall.”
Hart said when the contractor for the high school said things were moving more quickly than anticipated, they contacted Jim Cummins with Steger Bizzell and asked for a price so it could be budgeted.
“He (Cummins) said he was ordered to stop working on our project by the City Manager,” Hart said. “That was about a week before they (the Council) passed the ordinance.”
The dispute escalated in mid-December when both parties learned that TCEQ staff had approved the district’s request to be released from the City’s water CCN.
De La Rosa said the City filed a motion to appeal the staff decision to the Commission Board. He said TCEQ had already set a precedent on such matters and the ruling in LHISD’s favor conflicted with that.
In response, the Liberty Hill school board authorized Hart and district attorneys to do whatever is necessary to fight the appeal, which could take another 45 days.
In addition, the district filed another request with TCEQ to be released from the City’s extended CCN. The City applied for the extension in the midst of the ongoing disagreement between the two entities.
The district’s request will likely be granted because the rules provide an exemption for property that is larger than 25 acres.
While the school district fights to free itself from having to use city water, De La Rosa contends that using the City to provide both wastewater and water makes better sense and believes the City did not get fair consideration.
De La Rosa said the City’s proposal included costs for engineering and consulting fees that were not contained in a plan submitted by Chisholm Trail. He said the school district didn’t compare “apples to apples” before deciding to use Chisholm Trail.
“We designed our specs, and the fire department’s requirements for water supply made it more expensive for the City to deliver it,” Hart said. “The costs of delivery are what we’re talking about and their methods of delivery were different.”
Hart said he didn’t need to put the project out for bids, and added that only a “sliver” of the 96-acre property touches the City’s water CCN.
After talking with engineers for Chisholm Trail, Hart said he was impressed with their plan to deliver water to the site.
“We have been impressed by the costs, their organizational structure and the way they are meeting challenges (for the future),” Hart said.
On the other hand, Hart said he is concerned about the City’s shortage of water.
“The City has no water for anyone,” he said.
However, during drought conditions last summer and fall, Chisholm Trail put water use restrictions in place for area customers just like the Liberty Hill Water Supply Corp., which is now under City control, was forced to do.
Hart said Chisholm Trail’s shortage was different, and is not a concern now.
“Chisholm Trail’s problem was not overall supply. It was its inventory of drinkable (treated) water. While that was happening last summer, the company was building more water treatment facilities that have since come online,” Hart said.
Monday’s Council meeting
In his letter to De La Rosa on Jan. 27, Hart requested that the water and wastewater issues be added to the City Council’s regular meeting agenda for Monday, Feb. 13.
“Due to the clear disconnect between the District, City officials and the City Council, the District feels that these pressing issues should be discussed as soon as possible,” Hart wrote.
“I do want to address the Council,” Hart told The Independent. “I think it’s important that they hear from me how all of this came to be.”
It will be the first time Hart has attended a City Council meeting and addressed the panel.
The public discussion comes one month before the filing deadline for Liberty Hill City Council and LHISD Board of Trustees. At press time Wednesday, no one had filed the paperwork required to seek any of the seats on the Council or school board.
“The Board has been with me 100 percent on all of this,” Hart said.
He said he has met privately with some members of the Council and shared his concerns, and believes the conflict can be resolved to the district’s benefit.
“That’s a City and this (the school district) is a community,” Hart said. “We all need to work together.”
In recent weeks, the Council has been divided on the issue of whether to extend the employment contract of De La Rosa — an item that also comes back for consideration next week.