Landfill fight costs taxpayers more than $60k
By LPR Staff
With the Aug. 15 hearing date looming, Caldwell County officials are beginning to get a handle on exactly what the fight against the 130 Environmental Park Landfill project is costing.
Records released by Caldwell County last week reflect more than $39,000 in billing for the 2015 calendar year for
attorneys’ fees alone, connected with the case.
“That’s not even the worst of it,” Caldwell County Judge Kenneth Schawe said this week. “Coming up to the hearing, and for the two weeks of the hearing, we’re going to have more, and even higher, bills than we already do.”
Schawe, who is working with the Caldwell County Auditor to prepare the coming year’s fiscal budget, said he was unsure how much he should budget for those fees, and what impact it might have on other areas of the budget.
“Right now, that line item is $4,000 over budget for this fiscal year,” he said. “And if we budget the same amount, I’m afraid this case could eat right through that.”
In the current Fiscal Year budget, the fees to Austin law firm Allison, Bass & Magee, LLP, (Allison Bass) are paid from the “Non-Departmental Professional Services” budget, which was earmarked for $120,000. Billing from Allison Bass in the 2015 calendar year totaled $39,445.50. Additionally, two more bills, one for $13,853.61 and another for $10,467.29, will also be paid from the current year’s budget, bringing the total to $63,766.40, more than half the total professional services budget.
That budget, too, Schawe noted, covers the cost for experts preparing and testifying on behalf of Caldwell County as an “affected party” in the Contested Case Hearing, a prong in the fight against the landfill project.
“I still think that it’s not appropriate for us to be spending taxpayer money this way,” Schawe said. “There are a lot of other needs. This could help us fix roads, or give pay raises… and at the end of the day, this is the State’s decision, not the County’s.”
Though the Commissioners Court receives ledgers during each meeting, approving payment of bills, and the Allison Bass legal fees have been included in those ledgers, Schawe said it was important that the Commissioners and the community understand how much the fight has cost – and will continue to cost in the future.
“I don’t have any way of knowing right now, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this comes to another $100,000 or more,” he said. “And when you think about our budget and the funds we have available, $100,000 is just a whole lot of money.”
The Court voted in March 2015 to seek “affected party” status in the proceeding, a legal matter before the State Office of Administrative Hearings to curtail the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s permitting process for the landfill project. Days later, over objections of Schawe and Commissioner Alfredo Munoz, the Commissioners voted 3-2 to retain Allison Bass.
Schawe was on record at that time as not wanting the County to be involved in the hearing process. Alternatively, Munoz, who voted in favor of party status, said that was the wrong time to hire counsel, as many constituents had suggested that outside legal services were not necessary, and the County could assume party status without spending any taxpayer funds.
As paperwork, discovery and depositions have flooded in, the price tag continues to increase.
Additionally, in a matter related to Green Group Holdings, but not necessarily directly tied to the 130 Environmental Park project, attorneys at Allison Bass have assisted the Caldwell County District Attorney’s Office in response to a sweeping open records request from Houston-based investigator Wayne Dolcefino, who has been working against Green Group in connection with their proposed Waller County facility.
“There was no way our office could process that request,” District Attorney Fred Weber said. “We would have had to shut down all of our other operations, and couldn’t have done any other business, and that’s not something our office could do.”
Dolcefino’s request included telephone records from seated and former County Judges and Commissioners, as well as their campaign and personal finance records, and more.
“One of the biggest problems is that our elected officials, in most cases, use their personal computers and personal phones for their County business as well as their personal business,” Weber said. “So we’ve had to review all of that, line by line, to protect that privacy and non-county business.”
Dolcefino’s social media accounts indicate that he will continue to seek additional records from the County, an action which both Schawe and Weber fear will drive the legal bills higher and higher.
“Legally, we have to answer those requests,” Weber said. “And my office… we just don’t have the manpower to do that, because the requests are so broad. We don’t have any choice. We have to have help.”
That help, of course, comes at a cost. The loaded question, though, is how high that cost will be.
“I don’t know if this is something that we should re-think, now that we’ve come this far and paid this much for it,” Schawe said. “But then again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. These bills only go up until February of this year. There are still another five months that we haven’t been billed for yet, and then there will be two solid weeks of the hearing and the time they have to put in to prepare for that hearing, and the time they will spend afterward. I just don’t know if this is the best way for us to use our taxpayers’ money.”