Expanded thoroughfares, more hiking trails and an exposition center could all come to Williamson County if voters are willing to foot the $315 million bill.
About 60 proposed projects hinge on the Nov. 5 election, when voters will decide whether the county can sell bonds to pay for roads and parks upgrades.
The county can repay the borrowed money without raising the tax rate — currently 17 cents per $100 in assessed property value — that goes toward bond debt, county auditor David Flores said. That’s because officials expect newcomers to continue pouring into the county, adding to the tax base and pushing up the value of existing homes and businesses.
Under that scenario, applying the same tax rate to a growing tax base would bring in more money. It also means individual tax bills could keep creeping up. Rising property values means the average homeowner is paying $7.70 more in taxes toward bond debt this year, and that number is likely to continue ticking up.
County officials justified the proposed parks and roads bonds with the word that’s inescapable around here: growth.
“It’s fiscally conservative to take care of things now rather than taking care of them later,” Flores said, noting that, by 2035, Williamson County is projected to have a population of more than 1 million, about the size Travis County is now.
But residents at scantily attended open houses questioned whether taxpayers and the county could afford a slew of new construction, especially after the $625 million in bonds that voters approved in two elections since 2000.
“A lot of people just don’t have the money to spend,” said Bea Kinney, who lives outside Georgetown and is leaning toward a no vote.
Of the $275 million in road projects that bond money would fund, several would construct alternate routes allowing residents to bypass busy highways.
For instance, North Mays Street would be extended north to hit University Boulevard, providing an alternative to Interstate 35 for students at Southwestern University and Austin Community College’s Round Rock campus. Bond money would also pay for a road from I-35 to RM 2243, which will eventually be part of a continuous path allowing drivers to avoid going through downtown Georgetown on Texas 29.
The $40 million in parks projects would include adding 23 miles to the Brushy Creek Regional Trail so that it runs from the Round Rock area to Hutto, and carving out two new trails. River Ranch County Park, which only opens for special events, and Blackland Heritage Creek Park, which is a bare 348 acres, could both be overhauled with new trails and opened regularly to the public.
Renovating the Taylor rodeo arena and turning it into an exposition center, at a price tag of about $10 million, has been a point of contention among commissioners.
“I wanted the expo center to be a separate proposition,” said Commissioner Valerie Covey. “I felt like voters could vote on roads, parks and the expo center, and that would be the right thing to do.”
The time is ripe for another bond election, said Bob Daigh, the county’s senior director of infrastructure. Many of the 100-plus projects paid for by bonds that voters approved in 2000 and 2006 are completed, though 27 are still underway.
And, a 2008 survey showed that residents wanted more trails and more nature-based parks, said Randy Bell, the county’s director of parks and recreation.
In the 2000 and 2006 bond elections, voters approved every initiative by a margin of more than 20 percent.
Williamson County ranks third of all Texas counties in total debt and would maintain that standing if voters approve the bond initiatives.
In that event, the county’s total debt, most of which is from bonds, would increase to about $1.1 billion, not including interest. Bexar County, which ranks just ahead of Williamson County, has about $1.5 billion in total debt.
In an email, Lonnie Hunt, county relations officer for the Texas Association of Counties, cautioned against reading doom into Williamson County’s high amount of debt.
“Each county has special issues and circumstances,” she said.
Williamson County’s per-capita debt would jump to about $8,663 if the bond propositions pass, which is comparable to the numbers for Collin, Denton and Fort Bend counties, suburban areas that have also seen high growth, Flores said. He added that the county’s triple-A credit rating — the highest there is — indicates that its money is being managed prudently.
If the county issues bonds after the November election, they will be repaid by 2042, Flores said. Bonds from the 2000 and 2006 elections will be repaid by 2036.
Mark Your Calendar
October 7: Last day to register to vote
October 21: Early voting begins
October 25: Deadline to apply for ballot by mail
November 1: Early voting ends
November 5: Election day
For vote center locations, visit wilco.org/elections.
The last of four open houses on the bond election is from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Cedar Park Recreation Center, 1435 Main St.