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Boosters and opponents

Thursday, October 18, 2001 by

Square off over bonds

Affordability, sprawl questions divide opponents

With just a few days until the start of early voting for the November 6th election, officials with the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce lined up to encourage voters to support all four propositions on the Travis County bond package. Supporters included mayoral candidate Gus Garcia, environmentalist Robin Rather, Texas Turnpike Authority Chairman Pete Winstead and Dr. Charles Akin, who chaired the citizens bond committee that had originally been charged with delivering an $80 million package to Travis County Commissioners.

Members of the coalition itemized their reasons for supporting each of the four separate propositions, while also praising what they called the “minimal impact homeowners would feel” from the accompanying property tax hike. “The timing has never been better for financing these long-overdue projects,” said Cathy Bonner, spokesperson for the YES! Travis County Bonds Committee. “Interest rates are at an all-time low, making this the perfect time to go to bond market.” Based on a median property value of $172,000, passage of all four propositions would result in a property tax increase of about $42 per year, which Bonner described as “less than three dollars and fifty cents a month . . . The price is affordable.” Commissioners had originally directed their citizens committee to study a bond package producing no property tax increase, but agreed to a larger package after discussing the committee’s recommendation.

Akins emphasized that all parts of the county would benefit from the package, since the citizens committee had gone to great lengths to make sure projects were distributed equitably. “Each precinct will have some improvements as a result of this bond package,” Akins said. “I will be voting for it, and I hope that the citizens of this county will do the same.” Southwest Austin resident Jim Mann agreed with Akins. “Whether you’re looking in the north at SH 45 North, drainage projects in the east or straightening out a twisty, winding and dangerous road in the southwest, every neighborhood in Austin and Travis County is going to be touched by this package,” Mann said.

Marc Rodriguez, with the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, promoted the benefits of Proposition One, which would allocate $57.4 million to repair bridges, improve drainage to reduce flooding and widen 15 major roads. “The eastern portion of Travis County is disproportionately affected by bad drainage and bad bridges,” Rodriguez said. “Something needs to be done soon.” A representative of the South Austin Youth Soccer Association encouraged support of Proposition Two, which includes $28 million for parks in southeast and northeast Travis County. Terry Bray, representing the Austin Area Research Organization, spoke in favor of Proposition Three, while Susan Dawson of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce promoted Proposition Four. Those two propositions include funding for land acquisition to extend SH 45 North and SH 130, respectively.

The road projects, along with proposals to expand FM 1826 and Travis Cook Road, are part of the reason that local environmental groups including the Austin Sierra Club, Travis County Green Party and Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA) have come out against the $185 million package. While they were successful in convincing Travis County Commissioners to remove a proposal to extend Frate Barker Road, the other road projects are being criticized as promoting urban sprawl over environmentally sensitive areas.

“Most of the money is going for ‘sprawl roads.’ The roads that are proposed will feed yet more traffic from far-flung developments onto our existing road grid,” said SOSA Executive Director Bill Bunch. “That will increase traffic congestion, not decrease it.” Bunch also criticized the distribution of projects. “None of the money is going to projects that benefit folks inside the city of Austin,” Bunch said. “It’s a transfer of tax receipts from the city to suburban fringe areas where developers benefit the most.”

While the bond boosters were having their press conference, opponents were busy faxing out a press release entitled, “Growing opposition to County Bonds.” The release announced that the Sierra Club had joined “a growing coalition of community groups” in opposing all the bonds.

Mike Blizzard of Grassroots Solutions told In Fact Daily there are three basic reasons why opponents have decided to work against the bond package: “It’s unaffordable, it’s unbalanced and it’s inequitable to the vast majority of county voters who live in the city limits of Austin and other cities” in Travis County, he said. “The bonds would raise their taxes for facilities they would hardly ever use.”

Blizzard added that environmental groups might not have decided to oppose all the bonds if they had been grouped differently. For example, some projects to replace bridges and improve drainage have been bundled with highway money in Proposition 1, he said.

Karin Ascot, conservation chair for the Sierra Club, said environmentalists are “very disappointed” that the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee (CBAC) did not listen to their concerns. “Basically,” she said, “they [the CBAC] are asking central city citizens to pay for their own destruction.” The result of adding to roads and financing new ones will simply be more sprawl, she said. “All they’re doing is driving people further and further from the city and then taxing us all again to pay for it.” She said Travis Cook Road, a part of Proposition 1, would extend from Southwest Parkway to the Barton Creek Estates, thus benefiting no Austin city residents.

The coalition also includes Austin Neighborhoods Together (ANT), a political action committee put together by members of various neighborhood groups. Clare Barry, a member of the ANT Board, said, “Travis County wants Austin taxpayers to foot the bill for projects that Austin residents will rarely, if ever, use.”

Blizzard said he believes that bond boosters may have a hard time getting voters’ attention because of national news that continues to preoccupy everyone. “That’s why we urged them to put it off. These sorts of bonds—if there isn’t opposition—tend to pass. I do think support will be diminished” because of the slowing economy, he concluded.

Bond supporter Howard Falkenberg said, “I see the same effort led by Bill Bunch to try to present a sense of opposition. There are four or five people who have been rather consistent in their opposition to the bonds.” Instead of a growing opposition, Falkenberg said, he thinks opponents are really having only “a growing frustration with the broad coalition that is forming to approve these bonds. It’s been difficult for them to gain traction, and that’s because what we have is a very thoughtful outcome of a very complete process of evaluation of the need and the solution by citizens from throughout the county.”

Falkenberg agreed with Blizzard on one point, however—voter turnout is likely to be extremely low. Absentee voting begins on Monday.

Ascot urges EB to vote no

Ascot, a member of the Environmental Board, took the opportunity last night to address colleagues during citizens communication. She spoke as a member of the Sierra Club, expressing the group’s opposition bond proposals. “We’re really concerned about this because it’s a major tax increase,” she said, noting also that it’s being presented to the voters during tough economic times.

Most of the money would be going to build more roads, she said, one of which would be going in over the Edwards Aquifer. Austin has built more road-lane miles than any other city in Texas, she added. “Vote no on the Travis County bond package because it’s like shooting yourself in the foot,” she concluded.

Lowering lake every year

Could be hydrilla cure

Lakeside businesses would lose revenues

Drawing down the water level every other winter in Lake Austin to combat the overgrowth of hydrilla is working to keep the invasive water plant in check, a city official said last night, but it’s only a short-term solution.

Mary Gilroy, with the Watershed Protection & Development Review Department, told members of the Environmental Board that last winter’s drawdown definitely helped reduce hydrilla density. “During the drawdown a lot of lakeshore residents dug up hydrilla tubers,” she said, and placed bottom barriers on areas of the exposed lake floor.

Lowering the water level by 12 feet for a period of about 8 weeks, from early January through February, as the city has done every other year for the last 30 years, has been an effective tool, Gilroy said. “Doing the drawdown chokes back the hydrilla and lets the native plants come back in,” she said, noting that the hydrilla didn’t manage to reestablish itself in shallow areas of the lake this season.

Because the plant didn’t grow back in areas less than 12 feet deep, the city cancelled a proposed study designed to determine the efficacy of using herbicides on the plant. Since the herbicide would only have been effective in the shallow areas anyway, it became a moot point, she said.

Gilroy said the LCRA’s Lake Austin Advisory Panel is scheduled to vote next Tuesday on the issue of having annual drawdowns.

However, businesses along the lake that depend on recreational customers are already concerned about losing their customer base for 15 percent of the year every other year, so the subject of annual drawdowns is a controversial one. Gilroy said business owners on the lake have said it “would have severe economic consequences.”

Board Member Karin Ascot asked Gilroy if excess hydrilla also had an adverse economic impact on lake-oriented businesses and she said yes.

In addition, it costs the city money to lower the lake. The city must pay to pump the additional water when it would otherwise flow by gravity The city has also discussed an agreement to reimburse the LCRA for lost electrical generation due to the drawdowns, Gilroy said.

Board Member Phil Moncada suggested clearing hydrilla away from public boat ramps before boating season begins each year to prevent boat propellers from getting entangled in the plants, thereby chopping up the vegetation and allowing it to propagate more widely. Gilroy said that was a good idea since that is definitely a way hydrilla spreads.

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2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Watson Mayor until Nov. 9 . . . Kirk Watson, candidate for Texas Attorney General, will continue in his current job until a new Mayor is sworn in. But that cannot happen until Nov.9, according to City Clerk Shirley Brown. Brown, who gets advice from the city’s Law Department, said she and her assistants must canvass the vote between Friday, Nov. 9 and Monday, Nov. 12, which is Veterans Day. The plan is to canvass the vote and swear in the new Mayor immediately, without fanfare. Whoever wins the post, Brown says, may decide to have a party or inaugural celebration after that because there will not be time to plan and send out invitations in the usual manner . . . Lake Travis hearing tonight . . . Neighbors of a proposed septic system for the Canyon at Lake Travis have expressed concerns about the effect that system might have on the surrounding environment. The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission will hold a hearing at 7pm tonight on the matter at the Lake Travis Elementary School cafeteria, 607 RR 620. Members of the Highland Club Village Neighborhood Association are organizing against the development, which they say would dispose of 95,000 gallons of waste per day less than one-half mile from Lake Austin . . . Center seeks interns . . . The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is looking for college interns for the spring semester. The program includes eight weeks of study of Central Texas’ natural environment, followed by an opportunity to work at the center in areas such as environmental education, communications horticulture, land restoration and plant conservation. Interns may also choose to work in all five departments in rotation. The program begins in January and runs through May 2002. The internship is open to undergraduate and graduate students, majoring or degreed in a variety of subjects, including sciences and communications. For more information, contact 292-4200 ext. 102 . . . Downtown Commission elects new officers. . . The commission chose Chris Riley as its new chair, Perry Lorenz as vice chair and Beatrice Fincher as secretary. Fincher has been serving as secretary and said she would continue to do so, but not if she had to use a form supplied to her by city staff. Commissioners assured her that she wouldn’t have to do that and put the matter on next month’s agenda when Downtown Officer Michael Knox will be present. The secretaries of several other commissions are not responsible for taking notes at all . . . Day laborers documentary . . . “Los Trabajadores/ The Workers” by Austin filmmaker Heather Courtney, a documentary about Austin’s immigrant day labor community, will air Saturday at 11am at Martin Jr. High, 1601 Haskell. Council Member Raul Alvarez and workers from the community have been invited to discuss immigrant issues after the screening of the 48-minute film. The film was sponsored in part by the City of Austin under the auspices of the Austin Arts Commission, and by the Texas Council for the Humanities in conjunction with the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Association. For more information, call 371-1337.

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