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Friday, June 27, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano
Council approves funds for buyout of 140 more homes in Onion Creek
Though some relief is on the way for Halloween Flood survivors, the fact that nearly 15 percent of the funds could be spent on consultants raised some eyebrows at City Council Thursday.
Council members approved all four items related to the Onion Creek buyouts but they faced some pushback from citizens concerned about the $12 million price tag connected to hiring outside help to manage those buyouts.
With those votes, Council approved $31 million for the buyout of140 homes that are outside of the area that will be bought out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Members also voted to approve spending $33.5 million for the purchase and demolition of homes in the Onion Creek floodplain at the intersection of South Pleasant Valley Road and East William Cannon Drive.
Maria Isabel Reyes spoke in favor of the buyouts, but against the $12 million allocation to consultants. She pointed out that if the city was claiming that they didn’t have the money to conduct the buyouts, they shouldn’t be spending that much for outside services. Reyes said that money should go directly to residents.
“I know there is a pile of money sitting somewhere in the city,” said Reyes.“I would request that the city find money – even under the stones – to conduct these buyouts.”
Even before Reyes spoke, Council Member Mike Martinez addressed the issue of hiring a contractor, noting that conducting the buyouts with current city staff would take 5-7 years. He also noted that the allocation would allow the city to spend up to $12 million, but would most likely be “substantially less.”
That number, according to Mapi Vigil of the Watershed Protection Department, would be more like $4 or $5 million. The extra money, she said, could be put towards buyouts in the 100-year floodplain down the road, or in other flood zones if it became necessary.
Martinez said that he didn’t see how they could proceed with the other items without hiring the consultants, saying, “I understand the concern that the community has. I don’t know how else to explain it to y’all. I have to trust staff when they tell us that this is extremely technical work. This is legal work. We have to comply with FEMA and Corps of Engineer rules, and even if we hired folks internally in the city, it would take time to train these folks.”
But many members of the community questioned whether it was that simple.
Delia Garza spoke in support of the buyouts, but urged Council to use the funds wisely.
“I’ll be frank. I don’t even think we would be discussing this issue if it was in a higher voter turnout area. This area has been neglected for far too long,” said Garza. “Please be diligent with the funds that you use. When families see a $12 million dollar price tag on something and they are living in horrible conditions… that’s really hard for them to swallow.” Garza is a Council candidate in District 2.
Even with buyouts on the horizon, many Onion Creek residents remained distressed at how long the process had taken this far, and compared it to the response when the Memorial Day Flood hit a more affluent area of the city in 1981.
“I saw how fast things were done for them,” said Angelica Noyola. “Had this been on the other side of town, the wheels would have been moving a little faster, and things would have been done.”
City Council is expected to consider an additional $58 million in Onion Creek buyouts this fall.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.
Delia Garza: Mayor Pro Tem and Austin City Council member for District 2
Halloween Flood: A devastating flash flood that struck the Onion Creek area on October 31, 2013. At least five residents were killed.
Onion Creek floodplain: The Onion Creek floodplain includes portions of southeast Austin and Travis County. Homeowners in the area suffered a major catastrophe in late October, 2013 when the region suffered massive flooding. Both the City of Austin and Travis County are engaged in efforts to buyout homeowners.