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Council OKs two measures to speed buyouts in flood-prone areas

Friday, May 16, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

More than six months have passed since Austin’s Halloween flood. At nearly 1 a.m. Friday, Onion Creek residents gathered at City Hall learned that relief may be in sight in the form of an expanded city buyout program.


Two propositions were on the table. Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Bill Spelman were advocating a far more conservative approach. They asked the City Manager to study the issue, and report back on federal options in June, and study citywide flood “prevention, protection and preparedness” by July of this year. That measure passed on consent.


Council Members Mike Martinez, Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo offered a proposal to buy out homes in the Onion Creek and Williamson Creek floodplains using what could be more than $100 million in funds from the drainage utility fee and certificates of obligation.


The City Council voted 6-1 to approve the item, which allows that process to get started. Leffingwell cast the lone vote in opposition.


Martinez drew a distinction between passing the resolution and actually going through with the buyout, noting that it would only give the go-ahead to have the budget talks that could enable the buyout.


“We don’t just have folks living in harm’s way. We have folks living in deplorable conditions. They are living in tents. They are living in trailers,” said Martinez, who made it clear that he would support the buyout when the time came.


Cole said that her resolution was not “dueling” with Martinez’s and it was a separate issue. However, she was reticent to approve an increase to the Drainage Fee without voter approval, saying she wasn’t sure if that had ever been done in the past.


Leffingwell said the commitment was “too broad,” and worried that the possibility of buying out every home in the 100 year flood plain was simply too large. He explained that he wouldn’t be comfortable doing that for one area of the city without doing that for every area of the city. And that wasn’t something that he was willing to do without the information that will come from Cole’s resolution.


Leffingwell worried that if the city went ahead and bought out the homes before finishing talks with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the city would be on the hook for the total cost of the buyout instead of getting federal help.


“I’m not going to put my toe in that hundred-year floodplain water right now,” said Leffingwell.


Morrison said she was confused at the idea that going forward with this plan was a solid commitment, and pointed out that the city had raised fees in the past before. “It’s about priorities,” said Morrison, who pointed out that the city’s reaction to the 1981 Shoal Creek Flood was much faster.


The Martinez plan zeros in on homes in the Onion Creek region that are not currently covered by the city’s buyout program. That buyout program would be financed by taxpayers, who would pay up to 75 cents a month more in Drainage Utility Fees or a yearly tax increase of $13.08 annually for a median value home.


Ultimately, the city would issue Certificates of Obligation that would allow the purchase of up to $108 million of homes.


Of that amount, $35 million would come from debt issuance that could be issued as soon as August. That $35 million would go toward purchasing 142 homes in the area that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designated eligible for a federal buyout program. Those homes are in the 25-year floodplain.


The remainder of the money would come from the drainage fees, and would purchase all 229 homes in the 100-year Onion Creek floodplain, at a cost of $60 million. The plan could also include a buyout of 72 homes in the 25-year Williamson Creek floodplain, at a cost of $20 million.


Despite the late hour, many Onion Creek residents stayed to speak in favor of the plan. They explained that the Halloween floods were not an isolated incident, and worried about worse floods that are likely to come in the future. Many of the residents expressed fear about remaining in the area, and frustration about being forced into transience while they wait for an answer from the city.


Local Activist Paul Saldaña was one of those who spoke in favor of the Martinez proposition, saying that it wasn’t about politics, but about human loss, dignity, and ensuring Austinites had a safe place to live.


Susan Willard, who is the chair of the Onion Creek Park Neighborhood Alliance, explained that while she wasn’t one who wanted a buyout, there were many of her neighbors who did. Those people, she said, were stuck in limbo while the city made up its mind about what they should do, and whether they could rebuild.


“There are people whose lives are on hold” said Willard, who called the Martinez proposition a “step in the right direction.”


Environmentalist Roy Waley spoke to City Council about the shame of not having yet dealt with an issue that, if were in another part of the city would have been addressed by now. Waley asked Council to act quickly, saying it was their moral obligation to act quickly.


Spelman pointed out that Council, including Leffingwell, had repeatedly argued for federal buyout. He pushed for discussions with the Army Corps of Engineers, and clarified that those talks would be complete before the city had to finish its budget next year. He said that, because the resolution was not a firm commitment, he was happy to vote for it.

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