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Council remains split on bond proposals

Wednesday, August 15, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Austin City Council hit a roadblock Tuesday in its quest to put together a bond package to present to voters this November. With less than a week before the ballot has to be finalized, and with Council Member Bill Spelman off the dais indefinitely, Council members split their first-reading votes down the middle, 3-3, on two competing bond proposals, meaning they’ll most likely have to hold more than one special-called meeting this weekend in an attempt to find a compromise.

At the start of yesterday’s work session Council Member Mike Martinez presented a $385 million bon proposal, based on the city manager’s plan (see In Fact Daily, Aug. 14, 2012) that would require no increase in tax liability. Several Council members, most emphatically Mayor Lee Leffingwell, have said they would not vote for a bond package that requires a tax increase, partly because Austin taxpayers are already facing possible tax increases from Travis County and the county’s health care district.

“At a time when many Austinites are struggling – facing increased utility rates and possible tax increases from other jurisdictions – I believe that it is essential to cap the aggregate of bond proposals at an amount that will not cause an additional increase in property taxes,” Leffingwell said in an email to In Fact Daily. “This requires that the Council make difficult choices and prioritize many diverse needs in order to remain within the no-tax cap.”

 

The Martinez proposal calls for reducing funding of several projects, including cutting about $10 million from an Austin Police Department substation in northwest Austin, trimming $5 million from the Public Works Department’s Harold Court facility and decreasing general I-35 improvements by $3.7 million. It also calls for several additions, including $5 million for Austin Studios’ expansion, $2 million for the Barton Springs bathhouse and about $3.5 million for the Austin Shelter for Women and Children.

Martinez also added a significant revision to his own proposal at Tuesday’s meeting, based on two recommendations made by City Manager Marc Ott: first, calling for $2 million instead of $1 million for the Violet Crown trail and, secondly, calling for $3.5 million for the East 51st Street Vision Plan, where Martinez had recommended no funds. Martinez had recommended putting that $4.5 million toward the acquisition and design of a fire station in northwest Austin, a station that the Austin Fire Fighters Association has requested to help fight wildfires.

But Council Members Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison couldn’t support the Martinez proposal because it’s based on staff recommendations and not on recommendations made by the Bond Election Advisory Task Force. They brought their own competing proposal to yesterday’s meeting based on those recommendations. The task force proposal comes in at $400 million, meaning a third-of-a-penny tax increase would be required. The Morrison/Tovo plan included some reductions to get down to $385 million.

“I would like to propose that we begin with the work of our task force because they have spent months upon months meeting with stakeholders, talking with staff, reviewing the information,” Tovo said. “And I really believe we should prioritize the work and recommendations they’ve done because they’ve put a tremendous amount of thought into it and a tremendous amount of time balancing the pressing concerns of our city with feedback they heard from the community.

“There aren’t going to be a huge number of discrepancies but there are some.”

The biggest discrepancy between the two plans is the Morrison/Tovo plan’s reduction of $10 million in funds for the Street Reconstruction Program and the reduction of $2 million for the Emmet Shelton Bridge on Red Bud Trail. All told, their plan includes $27.6 million in reductions.

It also includes $12.35 in additions, a few of which the Martinez proposal doesn’t include, such as $2 million for the Daugherty Arts Center and an additional $3.2 million for affordable housing. The Martinez plans makes no changes to the city manager’s call for $65 million for affordable housing.

All told, the Morrison/Tovo plan comes in at $384.7 million, just under the tax-liability threshold. With added amendments from Mayor Pro-Tem Sheryl Cole, staff put that number at just over $386 million.

But neither plan mustered enough support to pass on first reading, with both plans getting just three of six votes. Martinez, Leffingwell and Council Member Chris Riley voted for the Martinez plan, while Cole, Morrison and Tovo voted for the second plan.

That outcome puts Council “into special-called meeting territory this weekend,” Leffingwell said. Though they didn’t make a decision about when those meetings might be, Monday is the last day for the city to formalize the ballot for November, and Council has to vote on three readings before any bond package can go to voters.

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