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Bond session puts focus on neglect of East Austin infrastructure

Monday, January 22, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Affordable housing, upkeep of parks and cultural centers, and assorted infrastructure projects were some of the more popular civic needs advocated for by residents Wednesday night in the third of a series of town hall forums on the bond package Austin voters will vote on in November.

The session, held at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex in East Austin, drew about 40 residents from across the city with 90 minutes of discussion and public comments about what the city should prioritize when determining the dollar amount and projects involved in the package. The Bond Election Advisory Task Force, with members appointed by each City Council member to spread representation across the city, is due to give a recommendation to Council in February, with Council making the final decision on what package to put before voters.

A series of working groups and staff recommendations have put together needs grouped in five areas – affordable housing, stormwater, parklands and open space, transportation infrastructure, and reinvestments in facilities and assets – with the price tag of various packages coming in between $640 million and $825 million. The November proposal will be the first from the city since a 2012 package and would be paid for through a property tax increase of up to 2 cents per $100 in taxable value.

Task force Chair Tom Nuckols said the willingness of residents to accept various levels of a tax increase is an important consideration for his group as its members try to prioritize needs and the total dollar amount of the package they recommend to Council.

“What I’m interested in hearing is what is your tolerance for a tax increase,” he said. “How many of you want a zero-cent tax increase, a 1-cent increase or a 2-cent tax increase? That’s something we’ve asked at every town hall, so I’d like to hear from you all about that here.”

Discussion during the meeting included endorsements for the city establishing a land bank or land trust system to purchase property that can be used to preserve housing at current or below-market values or be used for development of affordable housing. Other priorities included attention for cultural centers and parklands, though a schism developed early between residents from the East Austin area – which has been historically underinvested in – and speakers advocating for projects in Travis Heights, Mueller and other high-income areas.

“Spending $2 million on another project in Travis Heights compared to places that have been regularly disinvested over time, those are the hard choices we have to make,” resident Robin Schneider said. “The architecturally oriented residents who like Craftsman houses have a lot more access to get matching funds because our society values homes for white people rather than cultural centers and museums for people of color. We need to focus our people and dollars on institutions and infrastructure that is going to make a real difference where we have disinvested in the past.”

Council Member Ora Houston, whose district covers much of East Austin, said any tax increase will have a negative impact on residents of the lower-income area that is facing heavy growth pressure and requires infrastructure improvements included in the proposed bond packages.

“I can’t raise my hand and say its OK to go up so many cents on property taxes,” she said. “Whether you’re a property owner or a commercial owner of a business, their taxes are going to go up. … I can’t blithely say I’m willing to go up because I know how some of my seniors are struggling.”

Houston also supported the calls from many in attendance to make her district a priority as a means to make up for generations of neglect, with stormwater and flood prevention becoming a growing area of need.

“Sometimes you have to put first the people who have been disenfranchised and address the infrastructure that the city has failed to put in some parts of the city first before you work on making something else better than it already is,” she said. “Life is a balancing act. Austin has never talked about the inequities in the system and the systemic institutional racism that still inhabits our community, our education system, our land planning. And it looks like it’s going to continue with CodeNEXT.”

Photo by Everdayzac made available through a Creative Commons license.

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