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Council members set to tackle bond package

Tuesday, June 26, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Members of the Austin City Council will begin formal discussions this morning about a potential November 2012 bond election that is planned to finance a variety of transportation, parks and other improvements ranging from $200 million to $575 million. 


Council members would also have the option of skipping a 2012 bond election entirely, though that idea hasn’t gained much traction at City Hall. Mayor Lee Leffingwell has begun pushing his preference to keep any bond package under about $400 million, an amount that would allow the city to not raise property taxes.


Leffingwell, who won his second three-year term as Mayor last month, reinforced that idea in remarks on Monday after he was inaugurated for the second time. “We need to make those investments in our future … but we also need to stay focused on affordability,” he said. “I want to once again call on my Council colleagues here today to approve a package of bond investments for the November ballot that does not require a tax increase.”


Two of the packages that Council members will consider were proposed by the Bond Election Advisory Task Force, a group appointed to vet the city’s needs and measure them against its financial capacity. The first of these is nearly $600 million and would, among other things, include $208 million for transportation and mobility projects, $150 million for parks and open spaces, and $100 million for affordable housing.


The second of the task force’s proposals, which carries a $400 million price tag, seems in line with what Leffingwell wants. That version includes $139 million for transportation, $110 million for parks and open spaces, and $76.8 million for affordable housing.


Though early indications were that 2012 voters would get another crack at the long-delayed promise of an urban rail system, it became clear that the project would not be ready for this round of bonds. Instead, the bond election could include $15 million for a comprehensive study of urban rail.


Before revenue estimates were updated to include the Travis County Appraisal District‘s most current property tax estimates, the city had roughly $385 million in bonding capacity before it would have to raise taxes. That figure could climb if regional home values continue to escalate.


A one-penny increase in the city’s property tax – which would raise the average Austin homeowner’s property tax bill by $22 a year – would allow the city to fund about $500 million in bonds.


On May 30, Council Member Bill Spelman asked city staff to detail the status of funds raised during the last four city bond elections as part of the city’s budget routine. Staff responded that, as of June 5, the city had yet to spend roughly $365 million in bond funds approved as part of the 1998, 2000, 2006, and 2010 elections. About $90 million worth of those funds was technically unspent, but attached to contracts that had been signed.


As of Monday afternoon, the majority of Council members seemed ready to move forward with some sort of 2012 bond package. In addition to the $400 and $600 million task force suggestions, city staff was also preparing slimmer $200 and $300 million possibilities.

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