The Austin Chronicle

No More Than a Foursome

By Michael King, March 25, 2014, 5:27pm, Newsdesk

At last week’s meeting (March 20), City Council managed to spend plenty of money – either (depending on your point of view) in long-pondered and well-considered transactions, or rushed and spendthrift squandering of public resources.

The big one was a 25-year deal on solar power, up to 150 megawatts at $21 million a year (i.e., $525 million) – reportedly the best deal yet proposed on solar nationwide, and competitive with cheaper energy like natural gas. The deal isn’t closed yet – Thursday’s vote was to authorize the negotiation – but barring surprises, the deal will return to Council this week for final approval.

Next to that kind of change, the $3.2 million in projected lost revenue (for 2015) due to the increase in the property tax exemption for elderly and disabled homeowners, also approved last week, doesn’t look like much. (Of course, Austin Energy expects to recoup its energy costs via ratepayers; an exemption is either lost or shifted onto other taxpayers.) Council voted 5-2 to raise the exemption from $51,000 to $70,000; it hadn’t been bumped since 1986, and is estimated to mean an additional $95 a year for the 34,000 or so homeowners who will qualify. In the preceding work session and to a degree Thursday, Council considered whether the property tax exemption is too blunt a tool and badly targeted. Mayor Lee Leffingwell said he opposed it because it would inevitably mean shifting that much tax burden to all other taxpayers, including non-homeowners; CM Bill Spelman said he would vote against it because he thought the money would be better spent on identified needs, rather than a broad brush rebate to many people in town who are already well off. But the prevailing sentiment belonged to CM Laura Morrison, who had made the motion (seconded by Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole), that an exemption increase was both overdue and less likely to be rescinded by a future Council.

A slightly more contentious expenditure was the $9.6 million appropriated to purchase the Grey Rock golf course and tennis courts (near Circle C). The Parks and Recreation Department proposed the purchase not only to add to its recreational base in an area of need, but to ensure better protection of the Edwards aquifer recharge zone and to prevent more intensive residential development. The golf course will also generate revenue for PARD, although director Sara Hensley emphasized that park property, in general, is not expected to “pay for itself.” CM Morrison objected that there might be more urgent park needs in central city areas – e.g., Crestview, St. Johns – and that even with the potential revenue, she couldn’t support making this purchase a priority over other park needs. (And by the way, advocates for Lions Municipal made it clear that this purchase should in no way be seen as a potential substitute for saving MUNY, potentially targeted for development by UT.) Hensley responded that this was a purchase of opportunity, and in light of that and the other arguments, the proposal passed 6-1.

Another disputatious item last week included the second and third readings of the residential occupancy limit (reduced from six to four unrelated adults in certain neighborhoods, for new construction, with a two-year sunset provision), the so-called “stealth dorm” ordinance. The public hearing had been closed at an earlier meeting, and most of the arguments on either side had been made. This time around, CM Spelman objected that the designated boundaries (those of the earlier McMansion ordinance) would be too broad for a fairly neighborhood-specific issue, but other members were reluctant to simply relocate the problem. After Leffingwell noted his conditional support of a "virtually unenforceable" but term-limited measure, the ordinance passed 6-1.

For this Thursday’s meeting, March 27, the solar energy contract returns for potential final approval; there’s a proposal to direct staff to do a “post-event evaluation” of the SXSW Festival; and Project Connect returns for a morning update briefing (and no doubt Twitter barrage).

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