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Commissioners rekindle Homestead Preservation District debate

Tuesday, March 8, 2011 by Michael Kanin

The Travis County Commissioners Court has rejoined a long and bitter debate over the creation of a Homestead Preservation District in the eastern portion of its jurisdiction. If enacted, the zone would use the tax increment financing mechanism and a land bank, among other tools, to effect what some see as a preservation of affordable housing in a region subject to wide gentrification.


However, members of the community remain opposed to the district. Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis, Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez, and County Judge Sam Biscoe join them in their concerns. Those misgivings could be a fatal stumbling block for the district that was officially created in 2005.


The matter will be back before the court again today.


Gomez worries about a lack of education. “Last time, we went out to have a meeting with folks who lived in that area, and we came to the consensus that people in Texas are very unfamiliar with land banks, (and) they were very unfamiliar with some of these other things that were involved” she said. “I thought an agreement was made that before you approached this legislation again that an education process would take place.”


Travis County Intergovernmental Relations Coordinator Deece Eckstein told Gomez he didn’t think such an effort had occurred. “My sense is that the city of Austin has not tried to move forward with this because of the budget challenges it was facing over the last couple of years,” he noted.


The county’s issues go beyond what may or may not be right for the community. The bill that created the district in 2005 was brought forward by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin). In it, Rodriguez set up a tax-increment financing program that demands an equal-amount contribution from Travis County and the city of Austin. Travis officials have long maintained that this setup leaves them paying for a greater portion of the project because of the homestead tax exemptions that county residents are already eligible for.


The city of Austin does not offer a homestead exemption.


The county has also argued that the board that would govern tax-increment financing in the district is tilted toward city control. “(One of the concerns is) that the statute as it was created sort of put the city of Austin in the driver’s seat and essentially made (the county) a junior partner or a silent partner,” Eckstein told In Fact Daily.


The Austin City Council approved the district in 2007. The court has yet to follow suit.

Rodriguez offered a bill during the 2009 legislative session that aimed to correct those issues. Governor Rick Perry eventually vetoed it.


Rodriguez has now re-filed that same bill for the 2011 session.


Eckhardt and Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber abstained when it came time to vote. That tally became problematic after Eckstein pointed out that the court had previously adopted a policy that the court wouldn’t specifically endorse or oppose an issue without a supermajority vote.


“That doesn’t preclude an independent elected official from doing what they want to do,” said Davis.

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