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Williamson County bond plans could be under scrutiny at CAMPO

Monday, March 8, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

A letter sent last week by Travis County Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt to Williamson County Commissioner and CAMPO Vice-Chair Cynthia Long seeks to provide an impetus to discuss how local project funding projections will fit into the eventual CAMPO 2035 plan. The subtext to the letter calls into question the intentions behind Williamson County’s projected bonding capacity for transportation projects, which far exceeds that of Travis County or the City of Austin.


Travis County, with roughly three times the population of Williamson County, has projected $1.107 billion in forthcoming transportation bonds for local projects by 2035. Williamson has projected $4.254 billion. Austin has projected $1.02 billion. The ultimate concern with the discrepancy has to do with the way in which federal and state funds are ultimately allocated.


Eckhardt’s letter asks for a formal conversation among the members of the CAMPO Finance Subcommittee on how municipalities account for their future funding and whether or not CAMPO should come up with a process for standardizing that procedure. Travis County devised its numbers through the auditor’s office, which used 25 years of bond history data weighted with the Consumer Price Index in order to adjust for inflation, and projected this number out to 2035. Eckhardt’s office says they do not know the methodology behind Williamson County’s projections. Long’s office did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment.


Eckhardt told In Fact Daily, “There are some issues with regard to financing the 2035 plan that really bear some examination, and chief among those is the inclusion of locally funded and prioritized projects.”  The CAMPO 2035 plan must be approved by June 6 of this year, adding some pressure to the proceedings.


Eckhardt also said member entities are not using the same formula for calculating their bonding capacity. “It would be a service to CAMPO transparency and the goal of regional good will and planning,” she said, “for the CAMPO partners to get, if not on the same page … at least to have a full understanding of what each CAMPO partner is using for their formula and criteria for inclusion in funding for these projects.”


Eckhardt added that doing a calculation based on the past is not particularly helpful for smaller entities. Speaking specifically about Williamson County, she said, “Their history of bonding over the last three bonding cycles has been an outlier and significantly larger than anything they’ve done in the past. It leaves one to wonder whether they can maintain that level for the next 25 years.”


She said, “One solution I floated at the last meeting was, ‘Why don’t we say the ramifications of having projects in there that are supposedly locally funded and prioritized is that they aren’t eligible for federal funding?’ And I asked Commissioner Long if she was amenable to that … and she said absolutely not.” Long did not respond to inquiries about this interaction.


Eckhardt suggests one can infer that Williamson County believes that the local projects should be available for federal funding, yet, she said, “We don’t know at what category of prioritization in comparison to other projects … do they have the same status or do they have some kind of different, lesser status? I don’t know.”


Joe Cantalupo, CAMPO’s executive director, told In Fact Daily that his job makes him unable to make any inferences from Eckhardt’s letter. “When I read the letter, because of my job, I have to take it at face value,” he said. He did acknowledge that “at the last board meeting there was some concern raised and some discussion over how involved the transportation policy board and/or CAMPO staff should be in standardizing estimates of local funding including bonding capacity,” and said currently there is no standard.


“The question was, if you allow local governments to put local projects in the plan, are you creating an advantage or disadvantage for any one community based on what their projected bonding capacity could be?” Cantalupo said. “The next question is, if you are creating an advantage or disadvantage, should CAMPO staff be involved in standardizing the calculations for bonding capacity? That’s sort of the question that’s looming.” He said he wanted to be clear that he wasn’t making any connections between this discussion and the letter from Eckhardt’s office.


Because of the way in which transportation funds are funneled from the federal government through the state and then to metropolitan planning organizations, there is some concern that a municipality projecting large bonding capacities, and thus more local projects in the CAMPO plan, may be positioning itself to gather more federal funds. Cantalupo said, “One could argue that a local government that’s able to put more projects in the plan has an advantage when it comes time for funding,” though he cautioned that “there are a couple of hurdles that must be overcome before that, so I tend to not think of it as a huge advantage.”


The next CAMPO board meeting is tonight at 6pm at the Thompson Conference Center. Commissioner Eckhardt will not be in attendance due to a family emergency in Dallas.

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