Austin City Council focuses on November bond package of $385 million to $400 million

Austin American-Statesman – August 7, 2012

Austin City Council members said Tuesday that they would prefer a November bond package in the range of $385 million to $400 million, which would require little or no property tax increase.

It was the first time council members discussed a dollar amount for the Nov. 6 bond election, which will probably include money for park upgrades, transportation projects and library renovations, among other projects.

The council must decide on a final bond package by Aug. 20 to get it on the fall ballot. It will be the city’s first wide-ranging bond election since 2006.

Residents pay off bonds through property taxes. City officials have said the city could issue $385 million in bonds over the next few years without having to raise the part of the city’s property tax rate that is used to pay off debt.

However, the city might raise the tax rate anyway to pay for increased costs for day-to-day operations. Budget officials recently proposed doing just that: raising the city’s tax rate in 2013, resulting in a city tax bill of $897 for a typical Austin household, about $20 more than this year.

City budget staffers didn’t have an estimate Tuesday of how much a $400 million bond package would increase taxes.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Members Chris Riley and Sheryl Cole said at a Tuesday work session that they’d prefer a $385 million bond package. Council Members Laura Morrison, Kathie Tovo and Mike Martinez were leaning toward supporting a $400 million package, if the city could find other ways to lessen the tax increase.

Council Member Bill Spelman was absent.

Also Tuesday, council members revealed some of their preferences for projects to include in the package, suggesting cuts or additions they would make to a staff-recommended list that totals $385 million.

Leffingwell said he’d like to see more money to expand an Austin Studios film production facility; create the Violet Crown Trail, a 30-mile planned path from Zilker Park to Hays County; improve East 51st Street; and renovate the bathhouse at Barton Springs Pool, if a private group can also raise some money toward the renovation.

Leffingwell said that film production is an economic generator for Austin; that the trail is backed by a nonprofit group, the Hill Country Conservancy, which has a solid record of completing projects; and that a private group is raising money to match bond money for East 51st.

Leffingwell said that to add $12.5 million needed for those projects, he would cut $8.5 million from the bond package to build and renovate affordable housing and cut $4 million to buy land for future city parks. The city has already secured extra money for affordable housing through recent deals with companies to develop city-owned land, he said.

Cole said she’d also like to see more bond money for Austin Studios and the Violet Crown Trail and possibly reduce the money to buy and protect open space and to build and expand driveways at city facilities.

She said she’d also like to add an extra $2 million to the $2 million that city staffers suggested to renovate or buy a new building to replace the Dougherty Arts Center, a South Austin facility that offers art classes, an art gallery and performance space but is badly deteriorated.

Tovo said she would not support reducing bond money for affordable housing, and she is interested in adding extra money to the package to renovate and expand a shelter for women and children.

Martinez questioned whether it would make sense to include one item on the staff’s list — a new $15.7 million Northwest Austin police substation — when the city still hasn’t completed a Northeast Austin substation that was part of the 2006 bond package.