On Nov. 7, as Austin school district voters consider a tough choice to approve a $1.05 billion bond package — which this editorial board has endorsed — voters throughout Travis County will also be considering a $184.9 million bond package for roads, drainage and parks that would increase the property tax burden.
Unlike the Austin school bonds, which will pass or fail on one ballot issue, the Travis County bonds are broken into two propositions: Proposition A for road and infrastructure improvements with a price tag of $93.4 million, and Proposition B for parks improvements, slated for $91.5 million.
Though we have reservations about transparency and timing, we urge voters to support Proposition A, which would finance projects to mitigate flooding, improve and upgrade roads — including some that have been deemed hazardous — and build bicycle lanes and sidewalks largely in neglected portions of the county. Those projects are needed.
Though worthy, Proposition B’s park and conservation improvements are not critical. It makes sense to delay those projects for a future ballot — if for no other reason than to hold the line on taxes for many Central Texans who are struggling to pay current tax bills.
Both propositions would add $24 a year to the average home value of $305,173. But that is not the only tax hike facing taxpayers for roads and infrastructure if the bonds are approved.
Earlier this summer, county commissioners made the unwise decision of using another form of debt — certificates of obligation — to finance $95 million for road projects. In doing so, commissioners bypassed voters for debt they would have to repay. Certificates of obligation don’t require voter approval.
That brings the true total for new road and infrastructure debt to almost $280 million.
Those non-voter-approved bonds will add another $12 a year to tax bills, county officials told us. Under that scenario, tax bills for the average-valued home will rise to $1,162 in 2019 if voters approve both propositions. That’s up $36 over the 2018 tax bill of $1,126.
That sounds like a small amount — and would be — if that were the only increase in tax bills for next year. But when taken with increases from other taxing jurisdictions, such as Austin ISD, the city of Austin (or other cities in Travis County), along with Austin Community College and Central Health, a little bit can — and does — add up to big tax bills.
We are well past the time in which policymakers and elected officials can make the excuse that a small increase is of no consequence. It is. Consider the average bill in 2018 for taxpayers in the five taxing jurisdictions mentioned above was a whopping $7,643.
This year, the owner of an average value Austin home will pay a tax bill of $7,607, up $517 over the previous year, and an increase of 21 percent during the past five years.
CONTINUING COVERAGE: Average Austin property tax bill hits $7,600, up $517 from last year.
In terms of equity, most of the bond funds for road, drainage and pedestrian safety projects rightly would go to underserved and long-neglected eastern Travis County in Precinct 1, represented by Commissioner Jeff Travillion and Precinct 4, headed by Commissioner Margaret Gomez. City of Austin growth has pushed more traffic and development to those areas, which need attention sooner rather than later.
Collectively, the bonds steer $41.6 million to Precincts 1 and 4 for such purposes. Together, those precincts would get $6.7 million for bike infrastructure.
While Precinct 3, represented by Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, would get the largest single amount — $35 million — most would go for bicycle infrastructure ($20 million) and flood mitigation ($13.9 million). Just $1.2 million would be designated for road projects.
Brigid Shea’s Precinct 2 would get $6.8 million of the bond funds for sidewalks and road improvements.
The largest single item in Proposition B, for parks and conservation, is the Bee Creek Sports Complex, at $23.5 million in Daugherty’s Precinct 3 in southwestern Travis County. Again, we believe Proposition B should be put on hold, perhaps until the county retires some debt, which would help stabilize tax bills.
What officials should not do is continuing issuing certificates of obligation for projects that rightly should go before voters, as they did in approving $95 million this past summer.
Why officials didn’t trust voters to decide on those road projects might have something to do with the costliest project financed with certificates of obligation: the $29 million that would go to Precinct 4 to widen Elroy Road, raise it out of the floodplain and extend it to Kellam Road. Turns out, Kellam and Elroy is the north entrance to the Circuit of the Americas.
The COTA track and venue, while popular with some, has been controversial with others since its opening in 2012. Though the need for road improvements for Elroy are documented, the project might have been viewed as a poison pill for other noncontroversial propositions on the ballot.
It would have been better if the Travis County Commissioners Court had waited to put both propositions on the ballot — at least until May to give taxpayers some breathing room. But they didn’t. Nonetheless, Proposition A projects are critical.
With the county’s propositions and Austin ISD’s billion-dollar bond package on the Nov. 7 ballot, voters are presented with tough choices that pit their wallets against roads and anti-flooding projects and schools that prepare students for the 21st-century workforce. It means digging deeper in our pocketbooks — but it’s an investment that is worth the sacrifice.