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Exclusive: Martinez to propose bond package with no tax increase

Tuesday, August 14, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

With a disagreement lingering among Council members about whether to ask voters to approve a bond package on the Nov. 6 ballot that would require a tax increase, Council Member Mike Martinez plans to unveil this morning a bond proposal that he believes satisfies many of the city’s most important funding needs without increasing Austinites’ tax liability.

As the deadline fast approaches for Council to approve the items that will be on the November ballot, Council members debated at their Aug. 7 work session putting a $400 million bond package proposal up for voter approval, but it was clear that several members would not support such a plan because it would require a third-of-a-penny tax increase. There seemed much more support for a $385 million package proposal, which would require no increase. Martinez, who said he would be willing to have a conversation about raising the tax liability to fund the city’s most-needed projects, decided to come up with his current proposal once he realized the $400 million package was a non-starter.

“Several of my colleagues on the Council verbally stated they wouldn’t support going over $385 (million), so my $400 million conversation was immediately rejected,” Martinez told In Fact Daily. “So I went to work on the existing recommendations and the multiple competing requests we’re getting. I think this proposal encompasses many of those requests. It doesn’t meet all of them. No proposal meets all of them.”

Martinez’s $385 million bond package plan shifts approximately $21 million to create funding for other projects that are not addressed in City Manager Marc Ott’s plan. It reduces funding for the Public Works Department Harold Court facility by more than $5 million, several Parks and Recreation Department facilities by $2 million and improvements to I-35 by $3.7 million.

The most significant reduction, though, is funding for a new Austin Police Department substation in northwest Austin. Martinez has questioned the value and fairness of funding all phases of the $15.7 million project when a proposed substation in northeast Austin that had its funding approved in the 2006 bond election is still in its planning phase. He is calling for a $9.9 million reduction in funding for the latest project, enough to fund just the acquisition and design phases, according to a memo sent Monday by the City Manager.

“That’s what I called into question last week. Why we were funding a northwest substation at $15 million when in 2006 we sought and received support for a northeast substation that we have yet to break ground on?” Martinez asked. “I thought that was a bad message; that was not fulfilling a promise we made to northeast Austin. Not that we don’t need the northwest substation, but we clearly felt like we needed the facility in the northeast but still haven’t built it.

“The City Manager’s original recommendation was the full build-out cost of $15.73 million. Now he says we can save $9.9 million by just focusing on the first step of the project and then come back in six years and ask the voters to approve the project in the next bond package. That sounds reasonable; that sounds like a balance and moving forward with our priorities to create funding for other projects.”

Those projects that Martinez is recommending receive funding out of that $21 million pot include $5 million for the expansion of Austin Studios, $5 million for the Mexic-Arte Museum building, $2 million for the Violet Crown Trail, and about $3.5 million for the Austin Shelter for Women and Children. In addition, the proposal eliminates any reductions to affordable housing that were being discussed by Council last week.

“We’re getting down to the last minute,” Martinez said. ”I at least wanted us to have a conversation about the $400 million because there were so many competing requests for additional funding. It didn’t seem like that was going to happen, so I went to work with the envelope that was created and came up with this proposal.”

One thing that’s not in the package is money for a new fire station in West Austin, which the Austin Fire Department and the Austin Firefighters Association is lobbying for to improve the city’s response to wildfires. Martinez said he would support making a motion to put that project as a $10 million stand-alone ballot item in November, even though if it passes, it will trigger a tax increase.

“It’s certainly necessary,” Martinez said. “It’s so important that we should at least put it on the ballot.”

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