Locally, The West Texas Water Partnership glows in the post-nuclear attack environment of Councilwoman Charlotte Farmer’s YouTube allegations that city staff improperly spent more than authorized on San Angelo’s one-third share in the Partnership. San Angelo’s continued membership in the Partnership is uncertain as the combined municipal enterprise enters Phase II.
The Partnership is comprised of the municipalities of Abilene, Midland and San Angelo and its purpose is to share costs and combine our clout of political representation to find enough drinking water for the economic health of all partner cities.
San Angelo agreed to join the partnership under Mayor Alvin New and the administration of former City Manager Harold Dominquez in 2011 to kick off Phase I (watch the YouTube video of the press conference announcing this).
The contract to form and fund the partnership was drafted by the primary partner, the City of Abilene. City managers from each community jointly signed the same contract after their respective city council’s approval.
The contract did not have a cap, and the then-city manager or mayor should have brought the item back up to reauthorize additional spending after the City of San Angelo’s pre-authorized $100,000 spending cap was met.
The spending was on autopilot up to $148,000 above the cap. It slipped through the cracks of an administration change of city manager and a city council change until discovered.
Mayor Dwain Morrison stresses that the lack of council approval of the amounts spent above the $100,000 cap on the Partnership was a “colossal mistake” that could breech the trust of each and every citizen of San Angelo. But, Morrison says, there was no cover-up, no fraud, no one personally profited. “It all went to Abilene,” he says. Abilene is the partner with fiscal duties to pay the Partnership’s invoices.
Despite the funding error, Morrison believes that being a member of the partnership is not an error. It’s essential to our survival.
“About 80% of the population in Texas lives either on the I-35 corridor or east of it. There are more state reps and senators in Harris County [Houston] than there are in the entire west Texas region,” Morrison says. “And we’re in west Texas in the middle of a drought.”
Not only is San Angelo running low on water (“We have about 14 months of water left for San Angelo,” Morrison says), but the rapid growth of the urban centers of Texas are running out of water too. Water is the gold rush of the 21st century. There is wild speculation of water rights and the applying of political pressure on state politicians and regulators to favor one region over the other.
“The state water board just changed a lot of faces, and I want to make sure that our voice is heard loudly there,” Morrison says, citing an example of the opportunities to apply the combined political clout of the Partnership.
Morrison, who just returned from a Partnership meeting in Midland Wednesday, explains the financial benefits as a three-way split on shared expenses:
“Look, it takes spending “x” amount to find a water source, to do your due diligence, to get the permits and to develop it. We can do it all on our own and spend exactly “x” dollars. But we are all looking for water in west Texas,” he says. “Why does each municipality need to spend three times as much for the same amount of work? Whether or not to be in the Partnership is a decision to spend “x” on obtaining more water on our own, or spending “x” divided by three with the Partnership.”
Morrison says that in her public complaints, Councilwoman Charlotte Farmer broke the city charter by revealing confidential information from executive session. “Farmer breeched confidentiality,” Morrison asserts. And she may have put the trust of the City of San Angelo in jeopardy with the other city councils in the partnership.
“[Former Mayor] Alvin New was hesitant to share information with us on the council about it because it was so sensitive,” Morrison says, referring to his days as a regular councilman during Mayor New’s term.
“Everyone is searching for water in west Texas in the middle of a drought. If word gets out that we’re wanting to buy specific water rights, everyone is suddenly in the water business,” Morrison says. “It’s the same as if I am wanting to buy a specific house, I don’t put an ad in the paper telling every real estate speculator to bid the price up before I can buy it.”
“City council works under the understanding of a majority consensus when we’re in executive [session],” Morrison says. The scarcity and expense of obtaining water, and the sensitivity of negotiating water rights is one reason why.
Now that the West Texas Water Partnership has blown up in the local media and notices have been sent to the State Attorney General in Austin about the unauthorized spending, San Angelo’s future as a member of the Partnership is uncertain.
Council approved continued expenses and retroactively approved the overages at Tuesday’s meeting. This completes the spending for Phase I of the partnership. Councilwoman Farmer voted in favor of the retroactive spending Tuesday despite her YouTube protests.
The city’s annual budget exceeds $100 million per year. “With the caveat that every taxpayer dime should be under our careful stewardship, the $250,000 we’ve spent on the Partnership is a very small percentage of the city’s operations budget,” Morrison says.
Council decides whether to continue in the partnership with Phase II in October. City staff estimates that San Angelo's share of Phase II will cost a tad more than $1 million over an 18-month timespan.
Some council members were hesitant to support future spending on the Partnership without knowing or understanding specific benefits of the money spent. Morrison, who supports continuing the Partnership, was mum about Phase II’s prospects. “We’ll discuss it and vote on it when we get there,” he says.