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Commissioners Court refines PID procedures

Friday, August 5, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court has made some notable procedural adjustments in the face of controversy over the public improvement district (aka PID) policy it passed earlier this year.

On Tuesday, the court took several votes to tweak the procedures by which it will approach future PIDs.

The actions came two weeks after City Council Member Ora Houston showed up in person at a court voting session to complain that she had been left in the dark on a PID the county has been working on in her district.

Before Tuesday’s changes, county staff would be required to notify the city manager’s office only if the county received a petition for a PID within Austin’s city limits. The court changed that stipulation to include notification of the mayor and the Council member in whose district the PID would be.

More significantly, the court also decided to place the issuance of PID bonds under the charge of the Travis County Development Authority, one of several nonprofit corporations whose boards are composed of the members of the court.

According to its website, the TCDA is capable of issuing revenue bonds in order to fund any project “that promotes the common good provided it fosters economic development and/or creates jobs.”

Diana Ramirez, the county director of economic development and strategic investments, explained, “If the Commissioners Court agrees to having the Travis County Development Authority issue the PID bonds, it does create another layer of separation between the Commissioners Court and Travis County’s triple-A credit rating” and the risk incurred by the bond debt.

Commissioner Brigid Shea questioned whether taking on the additional workload would overwhelm staff members who support the TCDA along with four other distinct corporations. Assistant Corporations Manager Karen Thigpen confidently assured Shea that her office could handle it.

“We are accustomed to having these large projects and having a good team around us to defray the workload and to take responsibility for the items that are in their area of expertise,” Thigpen said.

The court also wrestled with complicated questions related to the process of creating a PID. Ramirez brought forth two separate scenarios, each with its own advantages.

She said the court could hold the obligatory public hearing for each PID petition it receives. Then, using its discretion, the court could simply vote to create the PID without any exhaustive details of the PID agreement with the developer worked out. The other option would be to wait for the agreement to be in place before the PID was created.

Ramirez explained that the arduous process of creating the agreement is a costly endeavor for developers, and one they might be more inclined to make if the county shows its sincere interest by first creating the PID. She also noted that the creation of the PID in no way obligates the county or its surrogates to issue PID bonds.

Ramirez recommended that option, though County Judge Sarah Eckhardt ultimately decided to put off a vote on it until next Tuesday’s meeting.

As for the vote granting to the TCDA the authority to issue PID bonds, the tally was 3-0-2, with Shea and Commissioner Margaret Gómez abstaining. The TCDA will convene next Tuesday to rubber-stamp that decision.

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