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Council moves forward one of the largest bonds in Austin history

Monday, July 2, 2018 by Jack Craver

City Council took a crucial first step late Thursday toward presenting voters with one of the largest bond package in the city’s history.

Just before 11 p.m., Council endorsed a $925 million general obligation bond that will include major pots of money for housing, transportation, parks, stormwater infrastructure and cultural facilities.

The vote only instructed city staff to put together the bond. Council will have another chance to either change the amount of money in the bond or reject it entirely when staff presents the final package in August.

A majority of Council members, however, appear committed to the large measure and are already making the case to the public to support it at the ballot box despite the tax increase of roughly 2 cents per $100 of property valuation that it will lead to.

“This is a bond I will be proud to support and promote because I think it reflects where our city is right now,” said Mayor Steve Adler shortly before the vote.

“We need to ask the community to vote on this,” said Council Member Ann Kitchen. “This is such a critical need in our community.”

The biggest piece of the bond is the $250 million for affordable housing, a major change from the initial bond proposal submitted by city staff more than a year ago, which for housing included only $85 million. The proposal released this spring by the Bond Election Advisory Task Force included $161 million.

An intense advocacy effort by a coalition of progressive groups to allocate $300 million for housing, including a rally in front of City Hall attended by five Council members, appeared to have an effect. On Thursday, Kitchen (who had not attended the rally) offered an amendment to increase the funding for housing to $250 million.

Scores of activists, including a large contingent of members of the Democratic Socialists of America, showed up to voice their support for the housing measure.

Council Member Greg Casar, an outspoken supporter of increased subsidized housing, celebrated the news on Twitter: “Together, we can truly confront our housing crisis, our gentrification and segregation. We’ll need your support for this bond come November!”

The housing funding includes $100 million for the city to buy land to provide affordable housing, either directly or more likely through a partnership with for-profit or nonprofit developers.

The rest of the housing funds are directed toward rental assistance ($94 million), home repair for low-income homeowners ($28 million) and a program that provides financial assistance to developers to create homes that will be owned by low- or moderate-income people ($28 million).

In addition, the proposed bond package includes the following categories, all of which voters can vote to approve or reject separately:

  • Parks and Recreation, $149 million: $40 million to build a new pool at Colony Park and renovate existing pools; $45 million to acquire more parkland; $17.5 million to build new trails, playscapes and other park infrastructure; $25 million for general park improvements; and $21.5 million for building improvements.
  • Transportation, $160 million: $50 million to replace the Redbud Trail Bridge over Lady Bird Lake, $66.5 million for street reconstruction, $20 million for sidewalk repairs, $4.5 million for new traffic signals and other technology, $15 million for safety projects associated with Vision Zero, $3 million for urban trails and $1 million for the Neighborhood Partnering Program.
  • Flood Mitigation, $184 million: $112 million for drainage improvement projects and to continue buyouts of properties in flood-prone areas; $72 million to acquire land for water quality protection.
  • Libraries and Cultural Centers, $128 million: $34.5 million for renovations of branch libraries and converting the old Faulk Central Library into an archive for the Austin History Center; $56.5 million for improvements and expansions to the Mexican American Cultural Center, the Asian American Resource Center, George Washington Carver Museum and Mexic-Arte Museum; $25 million to replace the Dougherty Arts Center; and $12 million to acquire property to turn into public creative spaces for local artists.
  • Health and Human Services, $16 million: for a new Dove Springs Health Center.
  • Public Safety, $38 million: $13 million to renovate fire stations and $25 million to renovate EMS stations.

Transportation was the category that ended up with less funding than recommended by staff and the Bond Election Advisory Task Force.

Assistant City Manager Robert Goode warned Council that Austin roads are in desperate need of repairs and that even the amount of spending recommended by staff would not be enough to keep the current percentage of streets rated at least at a “satisfactory” level: 74 percent.

Council Member Ora Houston acknowledged the passion of the scores of people who showed up in support of various bond priorities, notably housing, but said that she needed to keep in mind the many people who didn’t show up at City Hall but were “hurting” due to rising property taxes. She therefore offered an alternative bond package worth $647.5 million. It included $200 million for housing as well as far less funding for transportation (including no funds for street reconstruction) and no funding for the renovations of police and fire stations.

Houston’s proposal failed, with only Council members Ellen Troxclair, Alison Alter and Leslie Pool joining her in support.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who had abstained from all of the votes regarding amendments to the bond package, said that he supported the big investment in housing but that he wasn’t convinced that the bond reflected a willingness to make tough choices about where to spend.

Flannigan also said that the impact of the housing bond would not be as great unless the city was willing to embrace meaningful reforms through CodeNEXT that will allow more housing to be built.

Troxclair predicted that the measure would have a hard time gaining support in her district due to the prospect of the tax increase and what Troxclair viewed as too much money for housing and too little for street repairs.

The bond was approved 8-3, with Troxclair, Flannigan and Houston in opposition.

This story has been corrected. We originally reported that the bond package was the largest in the city’s history when, in fact, the collection of bonds on the 1984 ballot was larger.

Photo by Jericho [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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