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TravCo bond talk takes explosive turn

Wednesday, May 17, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County is quietly but quickly approaching a major deadline in its runup to a potential 2017 bond referendum and if Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting was any indication, members of both the court and a citizens advisory council are deeply divided on the list of potential projects.

Staff members along with three members of the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee and former County Auditor Susan Spataro testified before the court during a lengthy, often heated discussion during which County Judge Sarah Eckhardt questioned Spataro’s financial links to a potential beneficiary of projects she’s pushing for in Southeast Travis County.

Spataro, who was ejected from the Auditor’s Office in 2012 by the district judges who supervised her, told the court that she has spent the last four years helping Commissioner Margaret Gómez steer economic development projects into Precinct 4, specifically near Del Valle.

“The truth of the matter is, as a county, we’re a very wealthy county,” Spataro said. “This pocket is not. And they do not have the same access to infrastructure.”

She insisted that expanding and upgrading roads in the area – including Elroy Road, Ross Road and Pearce Lane – would not only encourage economic development but also provide better evacuation routes for residents in the flood-prone neighborhood.

A clearly skeptical Eckhardt noted that the projects in question could make it easier for drivers to reach the nearby Circuit of the Americas racetrack. Spataro tacitly conceded that point but noted the Del Valle Independent School District would also benefit.

Nonetheless, Eckhardt proceeded with her inquiry. She asked, bluntly, “Ms. Spataro, do you receive any compensation from Circuit of the Americas, (Circuit of the Americas Chair) Bobby Epstein, (Circuit of the Americas investor) Red McCombs, or anybody associated with them?”

The question drew a vigorous protest from Gómez, who denied its relevance and insisted that Spataro is a “volunteer” in her office. Nonetheless, Eckhardt persisted and repeated the question.

Spataro accused the judge of “wanting the punish the citizens of Precinct 4 because the Circuit of the Americas is located in Precinct 4.”

“But,” she added, “I am not embarrassed to say that I have done some property tax work for Circuit of the Americas. It has nothing to do with roads.” Spataro did not return a call Tuesday afternoon seeking more information about that comment.

During her testimony, however, she went on to defend the track as a jobs provider for Del Valle residents, as well as a large contributor to the county’s annual tax revenues.

Ron Wattinger, the chair of the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee and a Del Valle resident, also decried Eckhardt’s line of questioning. He boomed, “For y’all to bring out, ‘Is this related to Circuit of the Americas,’ I’m telling you point-blank, no. Absolutely not.”

The tense discussion highlighted the perils the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee faces as it races towards a June 20 deadline to present to the court a preliminary list of projects to put before voters in November. The committee held the first of its weekly meetings in March and began with a list of potential projects worth more than $1 billion.

In light of heightened anxieties over affordability and recent high-profile rejections of local bond referendums, the county is hoping to chart a new strategy beginning this year. Instead of bringing a large slate of proposals with a hefty price tag every four years or so, the new plan envisions more frequent, smaller packages. Meanwhile, projects deemed to be of higher priority – for example, investments in public safety such as flood mitigation – would be financed through certificates of obligations which do not need voter approval.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty on Tuesday suggested that the court could make the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee’s job easier by clearly stating how much money the county should ask voters to spend on the next referendum. Committee member John Langmore agreed that the idea might be helpful, but he requested more time to let the committee and staff hash things out.

“I think together with the staff and committee as a whole we can still work towards getting you a proposal you can act upon in a meaningful way at the end of the process, which I know is the objective of everyone involved,” Langmore said.

The Citizens Bond Advisory Committee’s next meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday at 700 Lavaca St.

“It’s posted on the Travis County website with a jump site to the YouTube page,” Eckhardt said at the end of Tuesday’s discussion. “And also folks can attend and provide public comment. So please be involved.”

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