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Divided Austin City Council puts $720 million bond on November ballot


Austin voters, who already had some weighty decisions to make Nov. 8, will now have a $720 million question to answer as well.

An unexpectedly divided Austin City Council gave final approval Thursday to Mayor Steve Adler’s “go big” transportation bond proposition, a mixture of improvements to major city corridor streets; bikeway, sidewalk, trail and transit expansions citywide; and suburban highway projects. What had been an 11-0 preliminary vote a week ago fell to 7-1 Thursday, with three abstentions, as some council members raised concerns about the ballot language, tax impact and even the rushed process that led to the huge bond proposition.

“I am dismayed that a $720 million bond that is on the November ballot is a product of the way things have always been done,” said Council Member Ora Houston, who represents District 1 in East Austin, explaining her “no” vote. Houston said the studies that led to the “smart corridor” projects arose from the old citywide-elected council and were heavily influenced by a core of central city activists rather than a more representative sampling of Austinites.

“I feel like I’ve been bullied,” Houston said.

Council Members Delia Garza, Ellen Troxclair and Don Zimmerman abstained for various reasons.

Adler said the plan is a fine balance of competing interests — business and progressive, inner city and suburbs, roads and alternative transportation, east and west — with a large percentage of its spending in the historically unserved areas east of Interstate 35.

If Austin voters OK the all-or-nothing package, which is five times larger than any transportation bond ever approved in the city, the city property tax by about 2020 would increase by around $56 a year on a $250,000 home.

The council, in giving final approval to an ordinance calling the bond election, also agreed on the specific and lengthy ballot language. Voters will see a single sentence, about 150 words long, that names nine major roads that would be reworked to include alternative transportation modes. The ballot will also name highways that would be expanded and city streets designated for repairs.

That language, however, won’t include a specific estimate of what the property tax effect will be for an average home owner. The council last week, on a preliminary 6-5 vote, had said it wanted such wording.

But after an executive session Thursday morning, the council emerged and voted 7-4 against including that provision on the ballot, doing so on the advice of the city attorney. Zimmerman, Troxclair, Garza and Houston were in the minority on that vote.

Assistant City Attorney Leela Fireside in last week’s open session had told the council that, if the tax impact of the bond borrowing over time approached what appears on the ballot, that could limit spending under the bond to some amount lower than $720 million. She recommended against including such language.

That advice continued in Thursday’s closed session, an incensed Zimmerman said. He left the backstage meeting early.

“It’s not legal advice; it’s lobbying,” Zimmerman said. “There’s a difference. I’m sick of it. They want to give the city the unlimited power to tax.”

Adler said the ballot language approved last week, because it focused on an average home price, would thus be untrue for anyone whose property carries a different value.

City finance officials have said that, as the borrowing is phased in over the next few years, when the bond projects sequentially are ready for construction, the portion of the city’s property tax levy used to pay back $480 million of general obligation bonds would increase by 2.25 cents per $100 of assessed property value. The remaining $250 million of the bonds wouldn’t carry a tax increase because the city expects to have retired enough existing debt to pay back that portion of the bonds with the existing tax rate.

But that estimate of 2.25 cents is based on a number of assumptions, including interest rates and property values, so the actual figure could be higher or lower eventually. The ballot language favored by Zimmerman and Troxclair would have in effect put a ceiling on the tax rate.

Council Member Sheri Gallo, who voted for the bond, said that, given Austin’s crushing traffic congestion, the huge spending plan is desperately needed. She added that “all you have to do is look at a map” of the projects to see that spending and construction will be equitable.



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