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Travis County bush

PID passions fly at Travis County

Wednesday, July 13, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

A public hearing over a public improvement district sparked heated words between members of the Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday morning.

After wrangling the lengthy discussion to its conclusion, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt admitted that she had opened a Pandora’s box by allowing Commissioner Brigid Shea and Commissioner Ron Davis to weigh in during what would otherwise be a forum for residents to express their concerns about Wildhorse Ranch.

The proposed development would add hundreds of new homes near the intersection of State Highway 130 and the Manor Expressway. Even though it is technically in the city of Austin’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ), the developer has petitioned Travis County to create a public improvement district (PID) for the project.

The PID would allow the county to issue revenue bonds to finance projects within the district, such as roads, sidewalks or parks. The debt would then be repaid through an assessment on individual property owners in the PID.

Davis has been a champion of the idea since Wildhorse Ranch developers formally raised the idea last year.

“This PID is located in Precinct 1,” the Precinct 1 commissioner declared shortly after Eckhardt opened the public hearing. “And I think it’s been long overdue for us to try to look for alternative ways to fund ways that we would like to make improvements (to) the area.”

He concluded by urging the court to “move forward with this as quickly as possible.”

After Davis spoke, Shea told the court that she would enter into the record an email sent by former County Judge Bill Aleshire. Aleshire, Shea explained, is opposed to the creation of the Whitehorse Ranch PID.

As Shea laid out Aleshire’s concerns — which centered on the development’s location within the city limits as well as its potential costs — a visibly frustrated Davis attempted to interrupt her.

Eckhardt asserted several times over his vocal protests that she would not recognize Davis until Shea had finished speaking. Finally briefly calmed, Davis barked, “Let’s get on with it, Commissioner.”

When she had finished, Davis accused her of rehashing issues that had already been addressed in previous discussions. He also expressed exasperation at Shea’s interference in a project within his precinct.

“And that’s what really is holding Precinct 1 back, and that’s why Precinct 1 isn’t where it should be now,” Davis said. “It’s because we got other people trying to dictate what’s best for Precinct 1 and don’t even reside in Precinct 1. So that’s very bothersome to me, and I think the residents over there have had enough of being dictated to by persons that have no interest except to try to stop progress for Precinct 1.”

Despite Eckhardt’s efforts to move along, Shea insisted on responding to Davis’ remarks.

“It is not seemly to allow him to personally attack me and accuse me of not caring about East Austin,” Shea sternly said. “He and I have a 25-year history of working together to improve the quality of life in that part of the city and the county, and I will not be silent in the face of a personal attack like that.”

Shea pressed on with more questions of her own about the PID, which were fielded by county staff. When she appeared to be satisfied, Eckhardt again allowed Davis to speak.

A more contrite Davis explained, “This PID is to accommodate some way-long-overdue issues in Precinct 1. … And I don’t know anyone who has scrutinized as much as I have on this PID.”

Before wrapping up the discussion on the item, Eckhardt aired her concerns about the tone of the morning’s interactions.

“Any comments that become too verbally aggressive to a fellow member of the Commissioners Court, I do have the power as a judge to hold you in contempt,” Eckhardt said before adding, “I don’t believe it reached that level. I don’t believe it even approached that level.”

The public hearing on the Wildhorse Ranch PID will technically stay open for another month. The court is expected to hold a final vote — and another potentially heated discussion — on the proposal on Aug. 9.

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