The Austin City Council on Tuesday got its first look at a proposed $851 million bond that could be brought before voters in November.
With a proposed price tag that is about the same as the Tampa Bay Rays’ current value, the 2018 bond aims to focus on affordable housing, parks, building maintenance, stormwater and transportation infrastructure.
On Election Day, the bond could take shape in as many as five voter referendums on the ballot. Figuring out whether $851 million is the right figure to sell to voters appeared to be Tuesday’s focus as council members took their first public look under the hood of a bond recommendation made by a panel of 13 Austin residents.
“It doesn’t do us any good to go out with a bond package and have it fail,” Council Member Alison Alter said.
A task force of council appointees and two land-use commissioners have been examining the bond for more than a year. On Tuesday, they presented a $851 million bond that goes beyond the $640 million that staffers gave as an initial recommendation.
If voters approve the package, the average Austin homeowner would see about $60 added to his annual property tax bill.
Transportation bonds approved in 2016 totaled $720 million.
Last week, three council members signaled that they wanted to go big on a proposed affordable housing bond by nearly doubling the task force’s recommended $161 million package to $300 million. The bond, which would be part of the package discussed Tuesday, would be by far the largest housing bond ever presented to Austin voters.
In 2012, residents voted down a $78 million affordable housing bond. A year later, they approved a $65 million housing bond.
Both the bond committee and council members have said they believe Austin residents this year have a greater appetite for financing affordable housing projects through issuing debt. In past bond elections, voters have prioritized spending on transportation and parks more than any other area, Council Member Delia Garza said.
“This is an opportunity to change how we invest in affordable housing,” Garza said. “Instead of making it the least, we can make it the most.”
No earnest discussion has begun on how to cut back on other slices of the bond to increase the affordable housing bond from the suggested $161 million. Council Member Kathie Tovo said that she could be persuaded to increase the housing portion if it makes sense to voters.
“I’m interested in talking more about increasing this amount,” she said. “The last time we had affordable housing bonds, I was a part of a couple of council members that advocated for a larger amount.”
Tom Nuckols, a member of the bond election advisory task force, told the council Tuesday that the task force voted 11-2 to approve the recommendation. The two members who voted against it would agree only to a bond that would not increase taxes.
Some of those who voted in favor, Nuckols said, approved the $851 million figure believing that the council should scale back the total size of the package.
“There was a sentiment that it ought to be pared down in the interest of affordability,” Nuckols said. “The thinking was that the council needed to be the ones to make that decision.”
Tuesday’s discussion remained broad, but the council did address a few individual projects. One was $25 million for the Dougherty Arts Center.
Staffers and the bond task force suggested moving the facility because the center — built in 1947 just east of West Bouldin Creek on Barton Springs Road — is subject to repeated flooding.
The only area floated as a possible new location is Butler Shores Metropolitan Park. That suggestion irked Council Member Ann Kitchen, who alluded to the recent outcry that arose after the owner of the Crew SC Major League Soccer team — who is looking to move the club from Columbus, Ohio, to Austin — chose the park as the No. 1 choice to build a soccer stadium. The proposal was scratched, and other locations are currently being studied for the project.
“We’ve already talked about that,” Kitchen said. “I would not be in favor in using parkland that we want to preserve.”
Looking ahead, task force members and staffers will go before various city commissions over the next few months to talk about the bond. City staff members are due to present updated tax estimates on the bond next month.
The council then will have a little more than two months to come up with what propositions to place on the ballot.
The council must make that final decision by Aug. 9.
The 2018 bond task force recommendation calls for the following amounts in these areas:
• Affordable housing: $161 million
• Parkland and open space: $117 million
• New facilities and maintenance: $281 million
• Stormwater: $112 million
• Transportation: $180 million