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Task force: Bond decisions up to Council

Wednesday, April 11, 2018 by Jo Clifton

The city’s 2018 Bond Election Advisory Task Force sent a recommendation to City Council for a November bond ballot of $851 million – more than $200 million above the amount recommended by city staff, and one that is estimated to require a 2-cent property tax increase.

Tom Nuckols, chair of the task force, told Council at its work session on Tuesday that when the task force voted to send the $851 million recommendation to Council, several of the task force members did so with the expectation that Council would reduce the package before presenting it to voters.

He explained that 11 members of the task force voted in favor of the recommendation and two voted against it. The two who voted against the recommendation did so because they did not want to support a package that would raise taxes, he said.

However, those even who voted in favor of the package did not necessarily support the whole package either, Nuckols said. “I don’t think you should assume that all 11 of those people wanted $851 million to go on the ballot. … Based upon the discussions I heard among the task force members, there were some of those 11 who fully expected Council would pare back the package in the interest of affordability.”

Council members Delia Garza, Greg Casar and Pio Renteria have advocated a $250 million to $300 million bond package for affordable housing. While staff recommended $85 million for that item, the task force recommended $161 million.

Garza said, “Going forward, I know we have some really tough decisions to make.” She noted that historically the majority of the bonds the city has presented to voters have been for transportation infrastructure, and the second-largest amount has been for open space and parks. Affordable housing has received the least funding, she said.

“I think this is a watershed moment for the city,” Garza said. “Pun intended on watershed moment.”

She said she was looking at the bond package as “an opportunity to invest in our infrastructure.” Doing that would “change that dynamic by addressing infrastructure needs in areas where families are experiencing flooding, not just in flood plains.”

So, by supporting increased funding for drainage improvements and flood mitigation projects, the city can protect people’s property. “This is another opportunity to support affordable housing,” through watershed protection, “that changes the way we invest in affordable housing and instead of making it the area that we least invest in, making it the area that we most invest in,” Garza said.

The bond task force raised city staff’s recommendation for the stormwater category from $75 million to $112 million, a $37 million increase.

Several Council members have told the Austin Monitor that they are concerned about raising the amount for affordable housing bonds and increasing the total bond package to an amount that raises property taxes.

As Council Member Alison Alter told her colleagues Tuesday, “It doesn’t do any good for us to go out to the public with a bond … and have it fail.”

Carla Steffen, deputy director of the Austin Convention Center, is on loan to the city’s Finance Department to help steer development of the bond election. In her presentation to Council on Tuesday, Steffen emphasized that the current estimate indicates that the city could pay for $325 million in new bonds without a tax increase. With a 1-cent increase, the city could fund $575 million in new bonds, and a 2-cent increase would pay for $825 million in new bonds.

However, those figures are based on information that was available last fall. An update is in progress, and Steffen said the department would be presenting new numbers next month.

The task force recommended $117 million for parkland and open space bonds, $67 million more than the staff had recommended, and $281 million to reinvest in city facilities and assets, $41 million more than the staff recommendation. It also recommended $180 million for transportation infrastructure needs, such as repairing bridges and upgrading traffic signals – which is $10 million less than staff had recommended.

Staff and the task force have worked hard to get community input on the bonds and each member of Council commended them for their hard work.

Staff also wrote an online survey, which drew responses from 889 people in December. Of those, 58 percent said they would support a potential tax rate increase through a bond package and 42 percent would not.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan wanted to know how many participated from each district and what they said about increasing taxes.

According to the survey results sorted by district that were posted online, only 29 people from Flannigan’s District 6 responded to the survey, but of those only six of them (21 percent) said they would support a potential tax rate increase through a bond package. In Council Member Ellen Troxclair’s District 8, with 66 participants, 58 percent said they would not support a tax increase and 42 percent said they would.

Naysayers and supporters were equally divided in the district that had the highest number of respondents, Alter’s District 10. According to the survey, 91 of them said they would support the tax increase and 91 said they would not.

In the “eastern crescent,” there were 63 participants in Council Member Ora Houston’s District 1, with 48 of them, or 76 percent, saying they would support a tax increase. Only 32 respondents participated from Garza’s District 2, but 59 percent of them said that they would support a tax increase. Likewise, there were only 33 participants from Renteria’s District 3. Of those, 82 percent, 27 individuals, said that they would support a tax increase, while six individuals, or 18 percent, said they would not. In Casar’s District 4, 54 percent, or 22 individuals, said they would support a tax increase, while 19 individuals, 46 percent, said they were opposed.

Out of the 99 participants from Council Member Ann Kitchen’s District 5, 56 percent said they would support the bonds with the tax increase, and 44 percent said they would not. In District 7, Council Member Leslie Pool’s district, 83 people participated. Of those, 66 percent said they would support the bonds with the tax increase and 34 percent said they would not.

In District 9, represented by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, 112 people participated. Seventy-seven individuals, 69 percent, said they would support the tax increase, while 35 individuals, or 31 percent, rejected the idea.

There was a final group of 149 individuals who did not specify their district. Of those, 60 percent said they would be in favor of the bonds with the tax increase and 40 percent said they would not. It should be noted that this is not a scientific survey, and the city does not contend that the survey represents an accurate reading of how the public would respond when faced with the bond ballot in November.

Photo by Garreth Wilcock made available through a Creative Commons license.

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