If you feel a slight tremor in the ground today, that'll be the tectonic plates of Austin politics smashing together at the City Council meeting. This time, competing bond proposals that could determine the city's investment priorities for the remainder of the decade are the epicenter for a collision between Austin's anti-sprawl contingent and the mayor's managed-growth coalition. Depending how that clash shakes out, leaky swimming pools could get plugged, soccer fields could sprout up, and parks, roads, and sidewalks could appear where there were none before. Today, the council will be arguing whether to pitch all, or just some, of those public improvements to Austin voters on a November ballot. And there's definitely going to be a quake.
Last week, the air was thick with rumors that certain council members hoped to quash Council Member Beverly Griffith's ambitious proposal to commit $95 million in bonds for building out East Austin parks and acquiring green space over the aquifer. Mayor Kirk Watson had already planned to put $150 million in bonds for transportation improvements alongside Capital Metro's light rail proposal in November, and some said Griffith was asking too much of the city's bonding capacity.
Then on Monday, the inevitable counterproposal hit: Council Members Daryl Slusher and Will Wynn announced that the Austin Museum of Art had offered to relinquish $13.4 million in unclaimed bond proceeds set aside in 1995 for the construction of a new downtown museum. Slusher and Wynn, cheered on by the mayor, now argue that there's no need to dedicate future bonds to parkland. Instead, they say, the $13 million gift can be used as a matching fund to lure private donors to the cause for green space preservation.
Last week, the executive board of the Hill Country Conservancy, a coalition of real estate interests and environmentalists who have waged a yearlong fundraising campaign to buy conservation easements in the Barton Springs watershed, pledged to match city expenditures for watershed land with its own dollars. HCC board member Robin Rather says it's "not unreasonable" that her group could have $50 million to offer within the next two years. Slusher and Wynn say they're transferring the financial burden of open space acquisition from the city to private investors, sending a signal of fiscal responsibility to voters that will increase support for light rail.
But the proposal from Slusher and Wynn is merely a low-cal version of Griffith's park plan, not a direct substitute. Unlike Griffith's proposal, it wouldn't address one of Austin's biggest shortcomings: development and maintenance of existing parkland. By some estimates, the city is $66 million behind in these areas, where parks advocates say Austin lags far behind other Texas cities in per capita spending. Griffith wants to schedule about $45 million in bonds to fix old parks and build new recreation centers, soccer fields, and playground equipment on parkland the city acquired through a bond election in 1998. Another $10 million of her proposal would be used to buy new parkland, and the remaining $40 million would buy land over the aquifer. And of course, like the art museum money being offered by Slusher and Wynn, Griffith's $40 million could also be used to match private contributions.
That last fact has the environmental community scratching their heads: If a little sugar from the city is good, why wouldn't more be better? HCC director George Cofer says that while he's impressed with the art museum's generosity, $13 million isn't a big enough investment in open space. "I just don't think that gets us where the citizens want us to be," says Cofer. "Everywhere you look, people are saying they want us to fix the parks we've got, and we've got to have parks in East Austin as an equity issue."
There'll be plenty of talk of that today in council chambers, along with criticism of Wynn and Slusher for hurting the light rail cause by trying to wipe from the ballot an initiative that would balance the emphasis on transportation spending with traditionally popular green amenities. Yesterday, the SOS Alliance circulated a memo saying it intends to challenge Watson's transportation package, calling it a blank check for future sprawl-inducing road projects.
But Watson will be leading the counterattack, reminding everyone how much the city has already invested in parks and open space over the past two years. Watson warns that if the city commits too much of its bonding capacity to parks now, it may not be able to raise funds for infrastructure improvements called for in recently completed neighborhood plans. "Sure, it would be nice if we had no other necessities right now, but when you look at the context of where we've been, [Slusher and Wynn's] is a good proposal that shows good responsibility," says Watson.
Not so, says Griffith, who asserts that the city has enough bonding capacity through 2009 to fill the mayor's transportation pot and invest in parks, all without raising the tax rate. The city will have the option to raise even more capacity in 2005, when the 1998 bonds are retired, Griffith adds.
That may be so, says Wynn, but the time to commit bonds for the latter half of the decade is in 2005. "I want to focus on what money we can get now," Wynn says in defense of his proposal. Wynn says he and Council Member Raul Alvarez, who attached a $25 million bond proposal to spur the development of affordable housing to Griffith's parks initiative, are working on alternatives for housing that commit fewer public dollars and harness more energy from the private sector. Still no word from Alvarez on whether he still supports his proposal, but a memo from him is expected by today.