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Split, reluctant Council approves bond package on first reading

Thursday, August 16, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

After two hours of debate, Austin City Council members on Wednesday reluctantly passed on first reading a bond package that will go before voters this November.

The nearly $385 million proposal – which would not require a tax increase – will most likely go through heavy revisions before a majority of Council approves it on second and third readings. The item passed 4-2, with Council Member Bill Spelman off the dais.

Despite passing on first reading, the proposed bond package found little enthusiasm among Council members, not even Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, who put it together.

“I don’t love this package; as a matter of fact, I don’t even like it,” Cole said. She said she had come up with the proposal by amending a plan put forward by the city manager’s office and adding recommendations from the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee – all while making what she called a “good-faith effort” to include items valued by her fellow Council members and stay below the $385 million threshold so as to not raise property taxes.

“I welcome your amendments and chosen cuts to balance it out,” Cole told her colleagues. Judging by their response, those colleagues will have many amendments to make before approving the proposal on second and third readings.

To change the city manager’s proposed package, Cole had to go through her amendments one by one and get Council approval for each. Those approved amendments included adding $2 million for the Austin Shelter for Women and Children, $2 million for the Barton Springs bathhouse (over the objections of Council Member Laura Morrison, who argued there are several higher priority items related to Zilker Park), $2 million for renovations to the Daugherty Arts Center (over the objections of Mayor Lee Leffingwell), and $5.4 million to improve Austin Studios.

The Cole plan would also reduce funding for the northwest Austin Police Department substation by $6.9 million, for the Emmet Shelton Bridge on Red Bud Trail by $2 million, for a park patrol facility by $2.7 million and for renovations to I-35 by $6 million. That last item was approved over the objections of Leffingwell, who said he found it  “disappointing we can’t make more progress than this on our number one transportation problem.”

Perhaps acknowledging the weight several Council members have placed on getting as much bond funding for affordable housing in the package as possible, Cole included the task force’s recommended funding level for that item ($76.8 million) rather than the city manager’s ($65 million).

Reaction to the proposed plan was muted at best, though a majority of the Council members took it as at least good place to start. Council Member Chris Riley perhaps summed up the feeling in the Boards and Commissions Room when he said, “I will vote for it, but in my mind this remains a work in progress. … It’s not fun having to cut anything. These are all good projects.” Two items in particular Riley and Council Member Mike Martinez said they would try to get back into the final version of the proposal were $5 million for the Mexic-Arte Museum and funding for the design and acquisition of a new fire station in northwest Austin.

Despite voting for the proposal, Leffingwell was more blunt than his colleagues in his assessment of the Cole proposal. “I don’t like this composite package all that much,” he said. “I wish it could be better.”

The two nay votes, Council members Morrison and Kathie Tovo, said that though they supported Cole adding the extra $11.8 million for affordable housing, they objected to any proposal that wasn’t based on the recommendations of the citizens’ task force.

“We have a lot of very talented folks in this city who spend a lot of time working on our volunteer boards and commissions,” Tovo said. “I urge my colleagues to think about what message we want to send to the community about the work that our community task force did.” She said that not starting with the task force recommendations would be disrespectful of the work they did.

That sentiment clearly rubbed Martinez the wrong way, particularly in light of the recent debate over district representation – a debate that ended with Council voting to put a hybrid 8-2-1 system on the ballot despite a citizens task force voting in favor of a 10-1 single-member system.

“I find that a bit hollow,” Martinez said. “We had a task force make a recommendation to this body to put single-member districts on the ballot and only single-member districts, and we had 30,000 signatures from citizens to tell us to do that, and (Morrison and Tovo) voted against that. So what message was sent then? You can’t on one item say we must honor the people we appointed when on a another item you absolutely did not do that.”

No doubt this issue, and the others, will come up again soon. Council still has to approve the measure twice more, and Monday is the deadline for putting items on the Nov. 6 ballot. Three special called meetings have been scheduled between now and then: Friday at 1:45pm, Saturday at 11am and Monday at 10am.

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