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Travis County appears set to ask for $500 million bond initiative

Wednesday, January 5, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Travis County will ask for as much as $500 million when it goes to voters for a November 2011 bond election. Early breakdowns of those numbers indicate that county officials will look for roughly $200 million in parks and roads funds and $300 million for facilities improvements.


The Travis County Commissioners Court dug into the bonding process yesterday when it held a hearing that offered some clues about how the county will proceed toward election day. The conversation touched on the citizens’ advisory group that the court hopes to impanel by February and changes that incoming Travis Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Manager Steve Manilla sees in the way that the county will approach public-private partnerships that will be used to conduct a handful of the bond projects.


Though no figures have been set, County Judge Sam Biscoe told In Fact Daily that it would be fair for Travis County residents to expect an increase in their property tax bills should the bond package pass. Biscoe said that numbers he’d seen put that hike to be, for the average household, $100 to $120. The county uses $265,000 as its average home value.


The executive manager of the county’s Planning and Budget Office, Rodney Rhoades, told In Fact Daily that the total amount of the bond is likely to stay in the $500 million range. “I wouldn’t anticipate that it will fluctuate too much more than that,” he said. “We’re in the process now of refining the numbers, and as soon as we have that done, we’ll be able to get back to the Commissioners Court.”


Rhoades said that should happen “within the next week or two.”


The facilities request will likely include funds that would go toward the construction of the county’s new central campus. That project, which could cost as much as $1 billion over its lengthy lifespan, features work on 13 downtown Austin buildings. Efforts will range in scope from renovations to the construction of a completely new courthouse facility.


An initial staff list of potential 2011 road and parks projects totals roughly $570 million. Biscoe told Manilla and Joe Gieselman, who Manilla is replacing, that they should try to reduce that list “to about half that number, if we can.”


According to information provided to the court, staff anticipate asking for $120 million in road improvements and $80 million for parks for the 2011 initiative. Projects that don’t fit into that amount appear headed for future bond elections.


The current staff project list is topped by just over $28 million for a new four-lane, 4.75-mile run of Wells Branch Parkway that would stretch from SH130 to FM973, and includes $20 million for the acquisition of green-space within the county. Also making the list is roughly $3 million for various sidewalk improvements. All of those figures are estimated.


Gieselman had hinted at a $500 million bond initiative as far back as August (see In Fact Daily, Aug. 2, 2010). In remarks to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Central Texas Infrastructure, Growth and Development seminar, he suggested that $200 million wouldn’t be enough to cover the transportation needs that regional growth has brought to the county. “What I hope to do, and I still have hopes that we’ll be able to pull this off, is … more in the order of $500 million just for transportation,” he said at the time. “I think that’s the order of magnitude that you’ll really need to have to support the amount of roads … that we need to prepare for the future.”


County staff believe that a 2011 vote is imperative, according to backup material given to commissioners. “The City of Austin had a successful $90M bond referendum in November 2010. Indications are that they will be offering to the voters another much larger bond referendum in 2012,” it reads. To reduce the risk of voter rejection in 2012 because of too many referendums at one time the County should aggressively pursue a 2011 referendum.”


The county will be advised by a citizens’ group on which projects to include. The criteria for membership in that body will likely be set next week.


As part of its 2005 bond election, Travis officials elected to pursue public-private partnerships for the completion of a handful of projects. Of the seven initially authorized, only one such effort has been completed. As a result, Manilla and his team will look to revamp the way the county goes after those arrangements.


County staff believe that public-private efforts “are still a viable means of leveraging public funds,” according to a staff document given to commissioners. It goes on to suggest that “(t)o help reduce the risk of finance-driven delays on future partnerships … (staff) are proposing to use revised guidelines … (that) will be more flexible to allow the private sector more options for securing their funding.”


As for how the voters might react to a $500 million initiative, Biscoe said there was still a lot of work to be done. “Obviously, whatever we end up with I think will be reasonable, and voters will believe necessary,” he told In Fact Daily. “But one reason we go to voters is to get their input, and so, if they believe otherwise, they should vote accordingly.”


“However,” he added, “the primary purpose of the citizens’ advisory committee is to give us citizen input, and so that will be a good filter, a good opportunity to read potential voters.”

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