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Council sends $385 million bond package to the voters

Monday, August 20, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

After a long week of debate and negotiation, the Austin City Council on Friday passed a $385 million bond package that would provide funding for more than 60 projects throughout the city, from library renovations and museum restorations to open-space acquisition and construction of affordable housing. Austinites will vote of the proposal this November. 

The package, which Council passed on its third and final reading, includes $143.3 million for transportation and mobility projects, $30 million for open space and watershed protection, $77.7 million for parks and recreation, $78.3 million for housing, $31 million for public safety, $11 million for health and human services, and $13.5 million for library and museum and cultural arts facilities.

Over the course of three meetings last week, Council faced deadlocked vote after deadlocked vote on numerous amendments to the bond proposal brought forward by Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole last Tuesday, in part because Council Member Bill Spelman was out all week and therefore unable to break any 3-3 ties. Council members disagreed on funding for projects as varied as the Mexic-Arte Museum, the Barton Springs bathhouse and a proposed new fire station in northwest Austin on 360.

 

At Thursday’s Council meeting, Council Member Mike Martinez, a former Austin firefighter, tried to convince his colleagues to move $4.7 million for open-space acquisition to begin the process of building that fire station, pointing to concerns from the Austin Fire Department that the city is not prepared enough to handle wildfires.

 

“We all agree we need to do something about protecting our citizens in the western part of the city and the dangers that we face,” Martinez said. “But we also have $30 million in open space, much of it in the western part of the city. My rationale is we need to protect that as well. We’re going to need a station and firefighters out there. Why do we keep spending tens and hundreds of millions on open space but not investing in the people and equipment we need to maintain and protect it?”

Martinez’s argument fell on deaf ears, however, as did every argument made to amendment and revise Cole’s original package proposal. Council Member Chris Riley said establishing a wildfire division within the fire department would be a more effective way to protect the city against wildfires.

“So I think that’s where our first priority ought to be – dealing with the wildfire threat rather than establishing one fire station on 360,” Riley said. That amendment failed 5-1.

Friday’s vote was the first time Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo voted in favor of the bond proposal. Council’s votes on first and second reading each passed 4-2, with Morrison and Tovo voting against on the grounds that the proposal took as its basis a recommendation from the city manager rather than the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee. Morrison and Tovo stated repeatedly throughout the week that starting with that committee’s proposal would be the best way for Council to ensure the opinions of the community were being heard. Their colleagues, however, repeatedly disagreed.

On Friday, Morrison and Tovo voted in favor of the bond package despite their misgivings. Morrison said it was important that Council speak with a single voice before sending the package to the voters.

“There are some very positive elements in this package and it’s time to put personal disappointments aside and move forward,” Morrison said. “There are some things, of course, that I disagree with, but on the whole I think this a solid package to take to the voters. For the good of the city, I want to be part of the statement that this Council is going to make in putting these propositions on the ballot, that this is a solid package and is deserving of their serious consideration.”

Tovo, meanwhile, accentuated the positive aspects of the proposal, particularly its $76.8 million in funds for affordable housing.

“As a whole I think this is a very strong bond proposal,” Tovo said. “And I’m thrilled to see a bond proposal going before the voters that has such a strong commitment to affordable housing. … It’s a significant commitment and it says a lot about the vision of Austin that we want to see in the future.”

Martinez then assured everyone at Friday’s meeting that his and his colleagues’ passionate debate over the week wasn’t evidence of any permanent rift but rather proof of how seriously they take their jobs.

“The reason we struggled with this is not because we can’t get along and can’t agree,” Martinez said. “It’s because we can’t stop caring about our citizens and trying more, trying to do as much as we possibly can.”

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