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Hays County Commissioners split over spending parks funds

Wednesday, November 12, 2008 by Jacob Cottingham

Hays County Commissioners are at odds over how to spend the remaining funds from the 2007 park bond money. At its most recent meeting, the court upheld a moratorium on some of the remaining park bond money, much to the consternation of citizens belonging to Swimberley, a recreational sports group from Wimberley.

 

Over the last year, the court has taken action on several different items, allocated funds toward open space and additional funds for recreation. Further complicating matters is the fact that there have been a few exceptions to the moratorium.

           

The topic of park bond money came up when Judge Liz Sumter introduced an item calling for $8.7 million to be committed to endangered species habitat. In July, the court set aside a minimum of $13 million for recharge land, endangered species habitat, open space and access to water, with the rest of the funds, $2.5 million, presumably to be used for recreation.

 

The court later spent $1.6 million of that on Purgatory Preserve and $4.9 million for Dahlstrom Ranch. In January, the court had voted to place a moratorium on park money to use for recreation. That was later whittled down to $2 million after $350,000 went toward Dahlstrom and $266,000 to Dripping Springs Youth Sports Association.

 

The judge explained to the court, “What has happened here is the committee for the habitat has asked us for the next 60 days not to spend any more funds while they flesh out their finances.” Although she refused to get into any specific deals and numbers, she said the $8 million could change after a financing discussion in executive session.

 

This appeared to be news to some of the commissioners. Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley said “I started the conservation fund three years ago and Commissioner Ford has been working with me since her first day on the Court… there is a moratorium on our funds and quite frankly the two commissioners that have been working on this issue weren’t even consulted before bringing this to the agenda.” He said the process needed to be followed. Pct. 4 Commissioner Karen Ford, normally an ally of the Judge, had a rebuke of her own, “I was disappointed that we hadn’t talked about this,” she said, though she also acknowledged the good intention of the project.

 

Conley said that the process of the court’s moratorium had to be respected, “…and I think that’s upsetting the people and it devalues our process” He made a motion to put a moratorium on all park funds until a scoring criteria for recreational use could be developed.

 

Executive session was to specifically discuss potential properties that lay available to the court. Presumably among these would be the Blanco Bluff project that has been the subject of rumors over the last few months. Pct. 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton also referred to a “landmark project” in court. “It seems to me we’ve all already agreed that we’re waiting for that treasure project…” he said, seeming to oppose any hasty spending of funds. The judge clarified to everyone, “We have a moratorium on the $1.8 million [for recreation] we don’t have a moratorium on the $6.5 million for open space.”

 

The commissioners seemed confused as to what, exactly, they had previously decided. Barton said, “when we divvied up that money back in July… my preference was to set that aside in one pocket.” He further commented, “It seems to me that we have made an implicit commitment to people that we will be looking at recreation projects with that money and we at least owe people a chance to present their projects to court…” Barton reiterated that he’s not ready to say he supports Swimberley but noted, “They deserve their chance to make their case.”

 

Conley said the court had a “difference of opinion” on what constituted endangered species habitat, conservation and recreation.  “I think this agenda item is premature,” he said, adding that the best thing to do is sort those definitions out as a court and resolve their differences. Ford said she was not confident to take action yet, though she agreed, “we do need to set money aside for habitat.”  Although she feels comfortable about the recreation set aside, Ford told the court, “I feel like we came about that a backwards way.”

 

The judge said the Citizens Advisory Committeeappointed by the Hays County Commissioners’ Court to facilitate landowner and stakeholder participation in the development of the Hays County Conservation Plan – had not yet made any recommendations for the expenditure of further funds.

 

Ford wanted to extend the moratorium on recreation until the Trust for Public Land could be brought in to advise the Citizens’ Parks Advisory Team on how to best spend the remaining combined balance. Swimberley representative Carl Owens told In Fact Daily this worries him, as he doesn’t think that “it’s in their emotional makeup” for TPL to fund recreation and claims the court has “hired someone to do their bidding.” Swimberley is looking for $2.5 – $3 million from the county to augment what should be an $8 or $9 million project.

 

Conley, pointing out that there are recreational uses at Dahlstrom, said that he wanted to “clarify what we are to do with our remaining balance,” even further before spending it. Barton was under the impression that “it’s implicit we’re looking for large landmark projects” but still wants to leave recreation money and the development fee money alone for the moment. “I’m not ready to set aside all remaining park funds for the habitat conservation fund today,” he said.

 

He pointed out that others aside from Wimberley deserve “a fair chance to present their ideas, I think we owe people that.” Judge Sumter disagreed on that postponement, “I’m not sure I’m ready to moratorium $6.5 million… I’d hate to yet again go against the moratorium because of a special circumstance.” Ford said that the revised scoring should be finished between January and March of 2009.

 

In the end, the court did not take any action in court or after Executive Session, leaving the representatives of Swimberley frustrated yet again. “We deserve the right to be given the opportunity to present as do others,” said Owens “There’s no reason in the world that there’s no new scoring process in place. It shouldn’t take nine months and it certainly shouldn’t take another five months like they just alluded to.”

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