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Council approves most flood buyouts

Friday, June 5, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though some members of City Council remain concerned about the implications, yesterday they approved the bulk of the Williamson Creek flood buyouts.

Although the previous Council had authorized the funds from the Capital Improvement Projects budget, this Council was asked to appropriate $17,986,000 to purchase 63 properties in the Williamson Creek watershed. The properties are within the 25-year floodplain.

In the end, Council members unanimously decided to move forward with the majority of the buyouts. They limited the buyouts, however, to houses that were purchased before the October 2013 floods. An additional restriction limited the buyouts to homes that were flooded in 2013. Council postponed consideration of homes that were excluded by the amendments to gather more information about those cases.

Though they voted in favor of the buyouts, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council members Leslie Pool and Greg Casar voted against the limitations. Council Member Delia Garza was absent.

Tovo said she was concerned about limiting the buyouts.

“If our intent is to get people out of harm’s way, we aren’t going to achieve that if we have some people who don’t have an option of having their property purchased,” said Tovo. “And I’m not sure what the option is for them. There aren’t many people in this city who can afford to walk away from their home.”

Council Member Sheri Gallo, on the other hand, said she wanted to make sure that there was a policy to “equitably and evenly” handle flood buyouts across the city. She noted that buying out all 1,550 structures currently in the city’s 25-year floodplain could be “a substantial amount of money” considering that the 63 proposed buyouts would already cost about $18 million.

A city staffer estimated that the cost of buying out all of the properties in the 25-year floodplain would be $1.38 billion, though that does not include relocation costs or commercial buildings.

“I’m very hesitant to vote on anything until we have a policy that can be implemented fairly,” said Gallo. “I want to make sure that all of the residents are safe from flooding.

“Whatever we do here, we have to be willing to do somewhere else,” Gallo continued. “And I think that this precedent of going in and buying properties and paying relocation costs for properties that were purchased after a major flood – I’m very uncomfortable with spending money on doing that.”

Gallo said that, of the 63 properties proposed for the buyout, eight were purchased after the October 2013 flood. She calculated that the value of those homes plus relocation costs would be in excess of $2 million and supported their exclusion from the buyout.

Mayor Steve Adler pointed out that one reason for the buyouts is that people living in flood-prone areas endanger others – public safety workers, for example – in addition to themselves.

Casar noted that many of the homes purchased after the flood are rentals, meaning those tenants were living in “one of the most dangerous areas of town.” Consequently, he said he could not vote for the amendments that would limit the buyouts.

Though Council Member Ann Kitchen concurred with Gallo’s concerns, she said the broader policy issues should be addressed by the Flood Mitigation Task Force, which was created hours later by Council. As for the buyouts before them, Kitchen urged action.

“It would be perfectly acceptable to me not to continue with any other buyouts until we get to a place where we’ve got a policy,” said Kitchen. “But these folks in Williamson County … they’ve been waiting for quite some time. I wouldn’t want them to have to wait any longer while we try to work out a response.”

Watershed Protection Department Deputy Director Joe Pantalion assured Council that the cases before it have been well-considered.

“Our staff has exhausted all of the options – the engineering solutions, the structural solutions that we have – (they) have proven not feasible to implement when compared to the strategy of a buyout,” said Pantalion. “So the properties that you see before you are the most at-flood-risk. We are confident that we are bringing forward the most at-risk properties.

“We have a strategy to implement structural solutions where we can, but over time, structural solutions cost just as much. … The avoidant strategy, the structural solution strategy, the resistant strategy are equally costly,” Pantalion said.

In addition to the changes that reduced the number of homes being purchased, Casar added a stipulation that recipients of compensation would not have their immigration status checked to the extent permitted by law. Council members Don Zimmerman, Ellen Troxclair and Gallo voted in opposition to that.

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