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Commissioners settle on flexible

Wednesday, September 5, 2001 by

Language for upcoming bond ballot

Lesson of 1984 bonds: Money locked up without projects

County Commissioners spent a lot of time yesterday tweaking the language on the November ballot to ensure the county is not bound by words that could unduly limit its project options.

Both the city and the county hold bond money they can’t spend because ballot language required that the money be used only on one particular project. This is one reason why the city created a Bond Oversight Committee before the last bond election. County commissioners, still holding bonds from the 1984 bond election, referred to it as “a lesson learned.” And County Auditor Susan Spataro stressed to commissioners that obstacles like underestimated right-of-way acquisition had turned seemingly solid proposals into projects the county could no longer afford to build.

“We were paying interest and running up arbitrage costs. This money was kind of stuck,” Spataro told the commissioners. “I don’t know if you’re going to issue your bonds at once, but that was the problem we had the last time. We issued bonds for a project and we couldn’t go forward, but the money was sitting there. It was kind of a mess in ‘84.”

And commissioners haven’t forgotten those problems either. Commissioner Ron Davis said he had talked with the county attorney’s staff to make sure the same problems would not happen to this bond issue.

“I want to make sure what happened back in 1984 won’t happen again because it’s a real legitimate concern in Precinct 1,” Davis said. “What happened was very unfavorable to Precinct 1.”

After some discussion, language was added to the five bond propositions that outlined just how excess funds could and would be spent. If bonds are not spent in a precinct, or the project comes in under budget, commissioners agreed to use the excess money for unfunded projects already planned for that precinct. Bond funds for parks would be used to finish other identified park projects, road bonds would be used for other road projects, and so on, in the same precinct where the bonds were to be spent.

Language was added covering the eventuality that if all projects in a precinct are funded, the bonds would roll over to another county project commissioners agreed could use them. This falls in line with an Attorney General opinion on the subject. Of course, the idea of excess funds may only be wishful thinking. “We’re being real optimistic,” County Judge Sam Biscoe admitted.

The total cost of the bond package is just over $199 million. The ballot is broken down into five propositions: $57.4 million on local roads, drainage, bridges and pedestrian access; $14.1 million for Frate Barker Road; $28.6 million for county park projects; $32.7 million for right-of-way for State Highway 45 and FM 1826; and $66.2 million for right-of-way for State Highway 130.

Davis wanted some assurance from city staff that the numbers were firm on the various projects, but Joe Gieselman of the Transportation and Natural Resources Department could not give him that assurance. Engineering plans—which usually signal the best estimate of cost on a project—have yet to be completed on a majority of the bond projects. Most are still in the conceptual stages. High priority items like right-of-way costs and utility placement are still only theory at this point in the process, Gieselman said.

“Those types of surprises could still happen,” said Gieselman, referring to the obstacles that can hike the price of a project. “I’m hoping they won’t, and we try our best not to do that.”

Gieselman said proper engineering should mitigate some of the smaller surprises during the design process. “The big surprises may be a problem,” he admitted.

A question of constituents

Some tense words were exchanged between Commissioners Todd Baxter and Karen Sonleitner over the Anderson Mill project, which is on the bond ballot for expansion between Spicewood Parkway and FM 1431. The road project will change hands from Sonleitner to Baxter when redistricting is approved. Baxter wanted to be reassured that he would see no surprises in the multi-phase project because, as he candidly admitted, the success of the project would impact the next election.

Baxter’s words put Sonleitner on the defensive for a moment. She assured Baxter the project was well on its way to seeing a cost savings. More than $1 million left over from the Howard Lane East project was being transferred to the expansion of the first section of Anderson Mill, from Spicewood Parkway to FM 620. Sonleitner said she had a vested interest in the success of the project, whether it was in her precinct or not.

“In two years you won’t have as much of a vested interest,” Baxter said, to which Sonleitner shot back, “I disagree. I still consider them to be my constituents. I’m certainly going to have a vested interest.”

Baxter cooled the discussion by saying he never questioned Sonleitner’s commitment to the project. The success of the Anderson Mill project, Baxter said, transcended any one commissioner or precinct.

Commissioners will review campaign material on the bond election next week, as well as revised figures on how the bonds would impact taxpayers. Early voting starts Oct. 22 for the Nov. 6 election.

Council approves Montopolis Plan

And new zoning on 1st reading

Chages consistent with housing for Jockey Club tract

The City Council unanimously approved a version of the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan at its most recent meeting. The plan passed on first reading, with Council Member Raul Alvarez adding several modifications for specific tracts to the staff recommendation. While the Council also addressed a host of zoning changes, the thorny issue of zoning for the“Jockey Club” tract is being set aside temporarily. Instead, the Council made only land use recommendations for the site.

The “Jockey Club” tract has been the subject of extensive debate. (See In Fact Daily, Aug. 02, 2001.) Neighbors opposed a zoning classification that would have allowed construction of a horse racing facility. In addition, a natural gas pipeline and an electric transmission line cross the property. Another complicating factor has been the debate over the boundaries of the airport overlay, designed to limit residential development in areas dramatically impacted by noise from nearby Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

All those items have figured into the city’s efforts to buy part of the lot for affordable housing. “We have been working with the staff and trying to negotiate a sale of a portion of that property to the city for affordable housing, and I think that’s going very well,” said attorney John Joseph, who represents the owners of the property. The Council’s actions should allow those negotiations to continue. The measure approved by the Council followed a staff recommendation on suggested borders for residential use on the tract, rather than the recommendation from the Planning Commission which left a gap between the boundary of the airport overlay and the pipeline. But the Council’s decision only involved land-use recommendations, not actual zoning changes. The Council could take those up in the next few weeks.

One lot that may not be the site of affordable housing is the so-called “drive-in” lot in the 1800 block of Montopolis Drive. The owners are working to secure government funding to build on the former site of a drive-in theatre. But the staff recommendation, in accordance with the wishes of the neighborhood planning team, did not include that as a possibility. William Carlisle, attorney for the property owners, told the Council there had been a valid petition submitted in opposition to any downzoning from the neighborhood plan.

While debate over the plan had provided some contentious moments during previous Planning Commission meetings, Thursday night’s discussion was fairly calm. Supporters of the plan were succinct in their comments. “The plan as passed out of the Planning Commission meets with the acceptance of the majority of the planning team members,” said John Stratton of the South Montopolis Neighborhood Association. Other speakers focused their comments on zoning matters related to their individual tracts. The plan, and associated zoning changes approved on Thursday, still must be approved on second and third readings.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fall politics begins in earnest . . . If you call the headquarters of mayoral candidate Gus Garcia, you may hear a familiar voice— Alta Ochiltree. Ochiltree, who retired from the office of Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman eight months ago, said she is helping campaign manager Paul Saldana with scheduling. Ochiltree, who worked for the city for 27 years, said Garcia’s first official fundraiser would be tonight at 6 p.m. at the Zilker Clubhouse. The party is being sponsored by the Hispanic Contractors’ Association . . . Nimble players consider their options. . . With the announcement by Senator Phil Gramm that he will not seek re-election in 2002, a wide array of Republican candidates are considering the possibilities such an opening may give them. Attorney General John Cornyn, for example, has told the press he would be discussing the matter with his family and making a decision very soon. Cornyn scored highest among four Republican choices posed by Montgomery and Associates between August 10-20 to more than 1,000 Texans who had voted in at least one of the last two Republican primaries. According to Montgomery’s trial heat, nearly 35 percent of those voters were undecided. But of those choosing, Cornyn led with 26.6 percent, followed by Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, at 16 percent. San Antonio Congressman Henry Bonilla garnered 13.9 percent and Tony Garza, a Texas Railroad Commissioner, drew 7.3 percent. Harvey Kronberg reports in the Quorum Report that even Congressman Ron Paul is considering the race . . . And that leaves Mayor Kirk Watson a happy man . . . If Cornyn decided to vacate the Attorney General position, Watson would be running for an open seat. His fundraising is reportedly going well, but an open seat would certainly help even more. Of course, Cornyn does not have the edge in fundraising that Dewhurst has—namely deep pockets. It’s a fun time to be watching politics . . . Politics and the Barton Springs salamander . . . David Frederick, Supervisor of the US Fish & Wildlife Service Austin office, has gone to Washington, D.C. to meet with officials of the Environmental Protection Agency on the question of steps needed to protect the endangered salamander. Bill Seawell, assistant director, told In Fact Daily that FWS Regional Director Nancy Kaufman of Albuquerque would also be attending the meeting. In response to questions, Seawell confirmed that the Austin office has already drafted a final biological opinion and sent it to Kaufman for her signature. However, Seawell said Kaufman had not signed the opinion, which was “not much different” from the draft that upset developers and homebuilders when released in July. The EPA had asked Save Our Springs Alliance attorney Bill Bunch for additional time to reach a decision. But Bunch declined to agree to extend the deadline without some sort of quid pro quo. The local FWS office has recommended that the federal government stop issuing construction general permits for construction within the Barton Springs watershed immediately. (See In Fact Daily August 23, 2001.)

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