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Mayor opposes increased budget

Thursday, July 14, 2005 by

But Wynn favors large bond election next May

Mayor Will Wynn says he will advocate lowering the city’s tax rate for the coming year in hopes of boosting chances that voters will approve a large bond package next spring. Wynn told a gathering of South Austin Democrats Tuesday night that he would like to see the City Council adopt the effective tax rate—the rate that would raise the same amount in revenues as the current rate on existing properties—for FY 2006. That means that the actual rate would go down because property values have, on the average, increased.

Based on a preliminary presentation by City Manager Toby Futrell and her staff, it seems likely that city management will ask for a rate that is somewhat higher than the effective rate in order to add some personnel that was cut during leaner times, buy some new equipment and restore library hours, among other things.

"We're about to have a big City of Austin budget debate," Wynn said. He said he is concerned that taxpayers will react negatively to an increase in property taxes, which many will feel on January 31, 2006, the final day to pay those taxes. The Mayor wants to hold a bond election in May, only three months later, so that the Council can set a new tax rate the following September, based in part on successful bond propositions.

Council Member Lee Leffingwell, who attended the SAD meeting, told In Fact Daily he would not favor adopting the effective tax rate unless the city can restore some cuts made during the past three years. He is especially concerned about the impact such cuts have had on health and human services, he said.

The current tax rate is 44.30 cents per $100 valuation. Based on numbers previously supplied by the city, the effective tax rate for 2005-2006 would be 42.97 cents. For the average homeowner—whose city property tax bill was $831 last year—that would amount to a total increase of $25, or just over $2 per month.

If the Council keeps the current rate, city budget writers expect about $7 million more than they collected last year. Futrell has already said she hopes to add more than $8 million to last year’s budget, including $2.3 million for community services, $2.3 million for employees’ salaries and $2.1 million for public safety.

One bond proposal that interests Wynn is investment in a water treatment plant to serve the SH 130 corridor. Wynn said the City of Austin could do that in partnership with water supply corporations like Mustang Ridg e and Manor. “We need to help finance the infrastructure that dramatically changes what otherwise is going to be piecemeal development up and down that corridor….With 50 square miles of developable land of the SH 130 corridor, we could in fact deliver the housing units and employment opportunities for a disproportionate amount of the next million people that come here,” he said.

Wynn pointed out that the Council has appointed a committee to help decide what will appear on the bond ballot but that existing departmental needs would be taking up a major portion of items voters would be asked to approve. There might also be broad topics such as transportation, a central library, and “a handful of line items with a price tag and tax rate tied to each of those items,” he said. “

Wynn said the city could finance between $200 million and $300 million in new bonds without raising taxes, “but my strong instinct is that’s not big enough.” The Mayor is hoping that voters will have a chance to consider $500 million or more. “Let the voters decide how much to raise their own taxes,” he said, explaining his belief that passage of all the proposals in such a large package would not be necessary to declare victory.

Wynn has dubbed next year’s bond election the Envision Central Texas (ECT) bond election. He hopes the election will include the type of infrastructure needed to deliver the vision the majority of 12,000 respondents said they wanted to see in responding to the ECT questionnaire.

County considers designating historic buildings

County commissioners are considering the creation of a historical designation process for buildings in the county, following a recommendation from the Travis County Historical Commission.

This week, Travis County agreed to follow the city’s new guidelines on tax exemptions for historic buildings. Those guidelines, however, stop at the Austin city limits. During discussion of the motion to approve tax exemption changes on Tuesday, County Judge Sam Biscoe opened the door to designating historic buildings in the county.

A couple of dozen buildings located in Travis County, but outside the city, are candidates for historic designation. City Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky noted a number of buildings in Manor and outlying areas could be strong candidates for designation, as well as an old plantation house just outside the city limits on Hergotz Lane.

“The Coxville Store on North Lamar got torn down a couple of years ago because it was not in the city limits and didn’t need a city demolition permit which, of course, would have triggered a review by the Landmark Commission in the city before demolition,” Sadowsky said. “I don’t know how the county will regulate demolitions, or if they are even interested in doing that, but maybe by recognizing important historic buildings in the county, developers will realize that there is some public interest in preserving them and that will discourage demolition.”

The question is how it might be done. One easy solution would be to give tax exemptions to buildings that have already been “plaqued” by state or federal standards as landmarks, Biscoe said. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner was leery of anything more involved, which could be a process reviewed and completed by the Travis County Historical Commission.

“I can tell you from having watched the Historic Landmark Commission at the City of Austin on occasion, that those hearings are long, lengthy and contentious about whether something should or should not be saved,” Sonleitner said. “It’s about things that are being imposed on owners who are not necessarily in sync with somebody else trying to impose historic zoning on their property, or vice versa. Or somebody may want it, but the property may be beyond repair or not.”

At the least, the county needs to catalog and recognize historic buildings within its jurisdiction, with or without tax exemptions, Sadowsky said. During this week’s meeting, Biscoe said he was open to considering some sort of process over the next couple of weeks.

“I’ve never quite understood how the city does its process. I just assume that it was fair and equitable,” Biscoe said. “It seems to me, that’s the least we could consider.”

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Adopt a park . . . The Austin Parks Foundation is launching a web-based survey this week to gather community opinions on the “neediest parks in Austin.” According to new executive director Charlie McCabe, the foundation is encouraging a citywide response to the survey. In September, it will adopt two or three of the top-voted parks, and seek volunteers and financial support to improve the adopted parks. The city’s Parks and Recreation Department is facing a $78 million parks maintenance backlog and McCabe says the foundation wants the community to help fill in the gaps and support the health of Austin's parks. English and Spanish versions of the survey are available through August 31 at http://www.austinparks.org and at selected locations around Austin. . . . Big Band concert . . . Get ready to swing this Sunday at Wooldridge Park, as the Austin Symphony Orchestra’s Big Band ensemble breezes through a few dance tunes beginning at 7:30pm. It’s part of a summer-long series of concerts in the park on Sundays that will continue through August 21. The concert is at the park’s gazebo at 9th and Guadalupe streets across from the courthouse. Check http://www.austinsymphony.org for more information. . . . Community forum . . . The Hispanic Advocates and Business Leadership of Austin (HABLA) is inviting the community to a panel discussion and forum entitled “Rebuilding a Working Relationship with the Austin Police Department -Tailored to the Culture and Values of the Hispanic Community.” The forum is scheduled 6-8pm on Monday at the Austin Community College Eastview Campus, 3101 Webberville Road, in the Health Science Building, Room 8500. Several civic organizations and city officials, including Police Chief Stan Knee and City Manager Toby Futrell, have been invited to participate . . . Meetings . . . There will be no Austin City Council meeting today. . . .The Barton Spring Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Board meets at 6 pm at the district headquarters, 1124 Regal Row in Manchaca. The board will consider ordering Stage 1 drought measures for its service area, based on recent hydrographs from the district’s monitoring well network. Board members will also consider filing an amicus brief in a lawsuit against a rock crushing company and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and discuss the Longhorn Pipeline’s request to federal regulators to delay scheduled safety tests on the Austin section of the pipeline.. . . The Travis County Hospital District Board of Managers meets at 6:30pm in Commissioner’s Court chambers at 314 w. 11th Street. The agenda contains mostly routine business items. . . The Williamson County Democratic Party holds its monthly meeting at 7:15 today at the Williamson County Annex, Room 204, 350 Discovery Blvd., in Cedar Park. For information call 515-0486, or go to http://www.williamsoncountydemocrats.org.

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