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Commissioners add $30 million to bond election

Wednesday, August 31, 2005 by

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe put one “last call” on the county’s proposed bond issue Tuesday and picked up another $30 million for transportation and open space in the county’s November election, bring the total bond election amount to $151 million.

Yesterday was the last day county commissioners could call a bond election for November. Last week, a split court voted for a $121 million bond package proposed by County Commissioners Karen Sonleitner and Gerald Daugherty. That package gave the county a comfortable $69 million cushion under its proposed debt cap.

After a week of discussion and e-mails from constituents, however, Biscoe called for the reconsideration of three issues: the amount of open space/transportation spending, the status of Reimers-Peacock Road and Arterial A on the bond ballot.

Biscoe proposed an extra $15 million for both mobility projects in Proposition 1 (up to $65.2 million) and the parks/open space in Proposition 3 (up to $62.1 million). Commissioner Ron Davis suggested the designation of additional top-tier mobility projects under Proposition 1: Decker Lake Road, from FM 973 to SH 130; Braker Lane South, from US 290 to future Parmer Lane; and Parmer Lane, from US 290 to Braker Lane.

Travis County’s commitment to those three projects would swallow up about $10 million of the additional $15 million proposed by Biscoe. Davis also proposed adding another $8.6 million for the purchase of open space under Proposition 3.

Sonleitner said she opposed the proposal for a number of reasons. The additional debt, she said, plus another $24 million currently in dispute in regards to other potential projects, would bring the county dangerously close to its debt limit, possibly within $15 million. And, she pointed out, that debt would be incurred without the one project that the county really needed to put on the bond ballot—a new civil courthouse.

Sonleitner also questioned Davis’ choice of projects. Two of the three road projects, which were recommended by Ted Siff during public testimony, would soon be annexed into the city. Siff called the projects “small but powerful additions” to the bond package. Sonleitner said a city staff member, but no one from the Council, had stated the city was willing to participate in the projects. Even so, that would make the split on the public-private partnership of the road projects 66-33, instead of the typical 50-50.

“Can we recall Frate Barker?” Sonleitner asked. “We made representations about the project, and the City Council had a different perspective and that road got pulled out.”

Gomez agreed to the Biscoe-Davis proposal, shifting the majority to 3-2 in favor of the new spending. Sonleitner and Daugherty were left in the minority.

In other motions, commissioners unanimously agreed to pull Arterial A from the bond list. Biscoe said the project was clearly too contentious to be on the ballot. It also put the county in an inferior bargaining position and would stir up animosity, he said. Neighbors were clearly split on the roadway – some seeing it as support for Waste Management’s potential expansion plan and others seeing it as a much-needed north-south artery. The court agreed to pull the project, 4-0, with Sonleitner abstaining from the vote.

Commissioners also agreed to push Reimers-Peacock Road out of the second-tier of mobility projects for funding. The project was strongly supported by the Southwest Growth Dialogue but opposed by some neighbors along SH 71. The county will continue to pursue design of the project – and possibly right-of-way acquisition – but will not pursue the construction of the project. That was a unanimous vote.

County cuts tax incentives for building on aquifer

Travis County has followed the lead of the City of Austin on tax abatements and rebates, voting to eliminate any potential incentives for building over the environmentally sensitive Edwards Aquifer, except when the court can gather a supermajority for a waiver.

In a series of motions under one item on Tuesday, Travis County updated its economic incentive policy on tax abatements for up to 10 years and rebates for up to 20 years. The difference in terms and length of each program is due to the fact that the economic incentive programs were created under separate sections of the government code.

To complete the work, commissioners also approved a 10-year tax abatement package on a reinvestment zone for the Home Depot at 1300 Park Center Drive. The final documents for a 20-year tax rebate for Samsung – which will total about $45.6 million over 20 years – will be up for a final vote before the Commissioners Court next week.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner fought hard to make sure the county would not supportive incentives in environmentally sensitive areas. Sonleitner said such a policy was already a battle fought by the city and was counter to what county voters wanted. Sonleitner said the policy would not stop an AMD from relocating to Oak Hill; it simply wouldn’t reward those companies with tax abatements.

“This is one more way we could steer development in a positive way to our desired development zone and away from areas where it’s not appropriate or appreciated,” Sonleitner said. “This is something that can be moved that would not be subject to waiver.”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was less certain, saying that he wanted to see some ability to negotiate a deal that the county might not want to turn down. By adding the environmentally sensitive clause, it basically ruled out any incentives for southwest Travis County, which Daugherty represents.

“What I have a hard time with is just drawing a circle around Southwest Travis County and putting a line through it and saying there is nothing you can do out here, even if you are asking for some fairly innocuous considerations,” Daugherty said.

Sonleitner said Austin had no problem working its way through the Freescale deal. Incentives were offered on the East Austin operations, not the Oak Hill site. Hence, the city could still honor its commitment to protecting environmentally sensitive areas while still rewarding a company that wanted to expand in Austin.

Former Mayor Kirk Watson, who was on hand for the Samsung incentive proposal, reinforced Sonleitner’s comments, saying the city had built policy to minimize the “winner take all” stakes that had often arisen with environmental challenges. The policy was intended to steer development where it needed to go, rather than letting a blanket environmental policy drive where development would happen.

The court eventually agreed that the terms could be waived, but only with a four-fifths supermajority of the court. Other terms that are necessary for the rebates include an investment of up to $100 million and the creation of 500 new permanent full-time jobs and a waiver of no more than 80 percent of value from the tax roll. Additional favorable consideration will be provided for those companies that provide strong HUB participation, public amenities, best practice design, additional community commitment and a preference for a location in the desired development zone.

Daugherty pointed out the Samsung incentive package maybe allow Samsung to avoid paying taxes on 80 percent of its $3.7 billion value, but that still left the county $700 million to tax. That’s a significant boost to county offers, Daugherty said. Sonleitner added that the hospital district would tax on the full value of the property.

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

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