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Wednesday, March 6, 2019 by Jack Craver
City begins process of spending $925 million in bonds
Spending money is not always easy. Four months after voters approved $925 million in bonds to fund housing, parks, transportation, fire stations and a wide assortment of other municipal priorities, city staff and City Council are beginning the process of appropriating the money to various departments.
To kick off the process, staffers are asking Council to approve $151 million of appropriations:
- $41 million for affordable housing
- $3.7 million for library improvements
- $28.1 million for museum and parks improvements
- $61.7 million for flood mitigation and water quality protection
- $2.5 million for transportation improvements
- $600,000 for a new public health facility in Dove Springs
- $7.8 million for emergency medical services improvements
- $1.6 million for fire station improvements
- $500,000 for creative spaces
Council Member Ann Kitchen said that she would like to see the full $12 million allocated in the bond for creative spaces to be included in the first appropriation.
It’s important, she said, to send a message to the creative community that the city is ready to act to acquire space for artists and musicians to work. Kitchen suggested that not having the money on hand might inhibit the city’s ability to solicit requests for proposals on space.
Kitchen said she planned to support the rest of the $151 million appropriation, but would ask for the creative space measure to be delayed until the following Council meeting on March 28.
“Because of the urgency of what’s going on in the creative community … I want to reassure them that it’s the intention of Council to approve the $12 million,” she said.
Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza pushed back, saying that appeared to be “prioritizing” the creative space initiative over other projects and other departments.
Asked to explain the pros and cons of appropriating more money right away, Chief Financial Officer Elaine Hart said that the best practice is to appropriate in gradual chunks in order to “maintain systems controls” over department spending. The danger is that departments spend the money too quickly, forcing the city to issue too much debt at once and increasing the tax rate.
“If you appropriate all up front, I can’t meet the Council’s guidance on the tax impact,” Hart said. The bond approved by voters is intended to be spent over the next six years, she said.
Rebecca Giello, interim director of the Economic Development Department, which is overseeing the creative space initiative, said that she did not plan to put out a solicitation for creative space until the summer, after receiving recommendations from the arts and music commissions.
It is true, Giello said, that having more money on hand would provide “more flexibility” as the city seeks proposals to buy or build arts spaces.
Garza reiterated that she would support the staff recommendation of $500,000 for creative spaces.
“What we can spend every year is limited,” she said. “And when we appropriate something we put something in line to be spent.”
Council Member Greg Casar reminded his colleagues that there are worse problems for Council to have than deciding how to spend $925 million.
“It’s really a privileged place that we’re at,” he said.
Hart agreed, saying that city departments are “very excited to have the money.”
Mayor Steve Adler concluded: “We’re excited to spend the money as well.”
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.