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Council gears up for bond debate

Thursday, June 28, 2018 by Jack Craver

On Thursday, City Council members will try to put together a bond package that a majority on the dais agree to and that they believe a majority of Austin voters will support at the polls in November.

Whatever package Council approves on Thursday will lay out the biggest features of the bond, notably the dollar figure for the overall package and the amount in each of the large buckets that will be approved or rejected separately on the ballot: parks and open space, affordable housing, transportation, stormwater and drainage infrastructure, and municipal facilities.

Not all of the details about individual projects will necessarily be nailed down though; city staff will develop a more specific proposal to put on the ballot that Council will have to approve in August.

At a Council work session on Tuesday, city staff informed Council members that it now was projecting that the city could approve up to a $925 million bond and still keep the tax rate increase below 2 cents per $100 of property valuation if the city issued debt to finance the projects over a six-year period instead of a five-year period.

The current bond proposal from city staff, which largely mirrors the recommendation made this spring by the Bond Election Advisory Task Force, totals $816 million and includes $161 million for affordable housing, $176 million for transportation, $167 million for parks, $184 million for stormwater and water quality improvements, and $128 million for renovations of city facilities ($74 million for cultural centers and libraries, $38 million for EMS and fire stations, and $16 million for a new Dove Springs Health Center).

Mayor Steve Adler said he’d be “comfortable” supporting a $925 million bond, saying that he believes there is a recognition in the community that the city needs to make big investments, particularly in terms of transportation and housing.

Council Member Greg Casar also welcomed the news from staff, reiterating his support for allocating as much as $250 million to $300 million for affordable housing and emphasizing the opportunity to invest in other major city priorities, including parks and transportation.

Others, however, signaled hesitance at supporting such a big bond.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said he only wants to support a bond that would lead to no tax increase, while Council Member Ora Houston suggested she would like to see a bond that leads to an increase of less than 1 cent.

Houston said she had a very different impression of the community’s feelings about the issue than the mayor.

“I don’t mean to be Debbie Downer,” she said. “I know that you’re all over the city and have gone into the different districts, but I’m not hearing what you’re hearing from the people in District 1. That’s all I can speak to. What I’m getting is tax fatigue, and every year there’s yet another bond that is going to cause property taxes to go up.”

Council Member Alison Alter cautioned her colleagues that the larger the bond package, the higher the risk of it failing.

“We need to make investments that the voters will approve,” she said.

Council Member Delia Garza, another outspoken supporter of boosting housing funds, specified that she would like to see more money – she suggested $15 million to $20 million – earmarked for the Mexican American Cultural Center. The current proposal includes $42.5 million for renovations and improvements to a number of cultural centers, including the MACC, the Asian American Resource Center, the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center and the Mexic-Arte Museum.

“I think that it’s a prime location and a great opportunity to fulfill a promise to the growing Hispanic community here in Austin,” said Garza of the MACC.

Photo by John Flynn.

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