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How big of a bond will Austin voters support?

Thursday, January 11, 2018 by Jack Craver

This November, Austin voters going to the polls to vote for mayor, governor and a variety of other city, state and federal positions will likely be asked to approve a bond package worth hundreds of millions of dollars that will go toward infrastructure, drainage improvements, facilities maintenance, new parks and low-income housing.

It remains far from clear how large the package will be and how the money will be distributed among the handful of priorities identified in the 2016 resolution passed by City Council that set up the Bond Election Advisory Task Force, the citizen board tasked with crafting a bond proposal.

The task force has been meeting once a month for over a year now, hearing from city staff and members of the public about the city’s many needs, from crumbling sidewalks and leaking pools to a dire shortage of affordable housing.

Last June, city staff presented a $640 million package to serve as a baseline for the task force. It proposed $240 million for construction and improvements to city facilities, $190 million for transportation, $85 million for affordable housing, $75 million for stormwater infrastructure and $50 million for parkland and open spaces.

The task force then broke up into working groups focused on the five different areas being addressed by the bond. Each came up with its own list of necessary projects and the level of spending needed to complete them. Their combined recommendations add up to a smaller bond than proposed by staff: $605.5 million.

Three of the five groups recommended significantly more money than staff for their designated area.

The Affordable Housing group has recommended an increase of more than 70 percent, to $146 million, by increasing the amount for rental assistance from $39 million to $60 million. It also recommended $50 million for the city to buy land to turn into affordable housing, up from $10 million in the staff recommendation.

The Stormwater working group recommended 50 percent more than staff, or $100 million.

The Parkland and Open Space working group recommended spending $50 million to acquire lands to protect the Edwards Aquifer and $35 million on new parkland. The $85 million total was $35 million greater than staff recommended.

However, the two other working groups actually recommended far less spending in their area than staff.

The Transportation Infrastructure working group recommended $50 million less than staff, for a total of $142.5 million. Although it endorsed staff’s suggested spending for sidewalk rehabilitation and new bridges, culverts and structures, it only recommended half as much spending on street reconstruction ($38 million) and $5 million less than staff for both traffic signal improvements ($15 million) and “Vision Zero” safety improvements ($15 million).

The Reinvestments in Facilities and Assets group recommended only $132 million in spending down from staff’s recommended $240 million. It recommended only $79 million for adding or renovating parks and recreation facilities, such as trails, sports courts, playscapes, cemeteries and parking lots, down from the $120 million recommended by staff. It only recommended $38 million for new fire and emergency medical service facilities, compared to $82 million suggested by staff. It also cut in half the amounts recommended for the library system and Austin Public Health, to $10 million and $5 million, respectively.

As the task force deliberates, its members have to consider not only what the city needs but what is most likely to win support from Council and the public. Central to that calculation is the amount of tax increase Austinites are willing to accept.

A bond of up to $325 million would not require a tax hike. A $575 million bond would prompt a 1-cent increase and an $825 million bond would lead to a 2-cent increase.

Of the roughly 900 people who participated in an online survey on the city’s public engagement platform, SpeakUp Austin, 58 percent said they would be willing to accept a tax hike. It’s far from clear how to interpret that result, however, since the sample was not random; it consisted only of those who were politically engaged enough to visit the website to voice their opinions.

Plus, added Sumit DasGupta, a member of the task force, the survey did not shed light on how great of a tax increase people would accept.

“As the number goes up, the level of support goes down,” he said.

While bonds are currently on a winning streak, with voters in the last two elections approving a major city transportation bond as well as two big bonds proposed by Travis County and the Austin Independent School District, there are plenty of instances of spending measures going down in flames due to voter concerns about increased taxes. Three years ago Austinites defeated an urban rail bond and five years ago they voted down a $78 million measure on affordable housing.

Task force member Tom Nuckols reminded his colleagues that a big bond won’t do any good if it can’t pass.

Another task force member, Rachel Stone, said that she was aware of an organization conducting public polling to gauge the public’s appetite for spending on affordable housing.

“We need to keep our ears open over the next month,” she said.

The task force is scheduled to meet again on Feb. 8 and will likely meet at least one more time before it sends a final recommendation to Council, which will then make its own changes before approving a ballot initiative.

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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