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Proposed bond includes big money for parks

Tuesday, August 1, 2017 by Jack Craver

The Austin parks system is looking to win big from a major bond that voters will likely be asked to approve in 2018.

A citizen task force is currently in the process of drafting a general obligation bond to fund affordable housing projects, stormwater infrastructure, libraries and a variety of other upgrades to municipal facilities.

The current draft of the bond, which totals $640 million but could be substantially revised in the coming months, includes $120 million for the Parks and Recreation Department.

The department has been a major beneficiary of past bond measures. Since 1998 it has received $238 million of the $2.25 billion voter-approved bonds, trailing only the Transportation Department, which received the majority of the bond funds.

In fact, the Parks and Recreation Department still has plenty of money on hand, having only spent about a third of the $77 million that it got from the $306 million bond approved by voters in 2012.

Nevertheless, the department and advocates for open spaces and recreation argue that the city’s spending on parks has not kept up with the growth of the city. Although some studies have shown that Austin has far more acres of parkland per resident than many other large cities, including those renowned for high quality of life such as Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis, Austin spends far less than many other large cities and has relatively few playgrounds.

“We like to tout that we have 300 parks,” said Richard DePalma, vice chair of the Parks and Recreation Board, during a meeting of the board on July 25. “We do not have 300 usable parks in the city of Austin. We have 300 parks where we plant a flag.”

Many parks, added DePalma, are “undeveloped,” meaning they lack playscapes, trails, courts, benches and the other amenities that people expect to use.

For DePalma and other parks advocates, a bond is therefore a chance to take a big step toward giving Austin the parks system it deserves.

Of the money slated for the department in the proposed bond, $15 million is earmarked for pool repairs, $40 million for improvements to department buildings and $65 million for improvements or renovations of existing parks or the development of new parks.

DePalma wished the city didn’t need to resort to a bond. He implored city staff and others to communicate to the public why such a measure was now necessary.

“When we defer maintenance and operations cost, these become much larger capital costs,” he said. “And then all of a sudden we find ourselves needing to create these big bonds.”

Indeed, said Board Member Randy Mann, many voters wonder why the spending measures they’re being asked to approve aren’t simply dealt with by City Council.

“There are a lot of people who hang their hats on the fact that these bond issue items look like budget issue items that were just switched over,” he said.

Acting Parks and Recreation Director Kimberly McNeeley conceded that the bond will only go so far in creating the improvements the department seeks. She said $15 million for pools “will not put a significant dent in the needs” of Austin’s crumbling aquatics system.

However, she added, the bond proposal is far from finalized. The Bond Election Advisory Task Force, along with its parks-specific working group, is still reviewing the draft and the task force is not expected to make a final recommendation to Council until December. Council might also make changes before it votes in the spring to finalize the ballot measure, which voters will decide on in November 2018.

“As there is community feedback and Council consideration, the numbers can move up or down,” said McNeeley.

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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