Hope on the Open Space Horizon
"It would be presented to voters with the understanding that if they vote for this, it will raise their taxes," said Perry Lorenz, who served on the open space subcommittee. "What they'll get is $60 million for preserving natural areas."
The idea for a stand-alone measure emerged from the harsh budget realities facing the bond committee. County commissioners made it clear early on that they wouldn't support a bond proposal that raised taxes; to meet the no-new-taxes goal, the committee had to pare more than $400 million of needs down to about $100 million. They voted Tuesday to recommend about $114 million in projects: $62 million going to roads and drainage, $30 million for parks and open space, and about $20 million for prisons. Cuts were made in all three areas: parks, for example, went from about $45 million to about $30 million, but the real loser was the jail system. Speaking for the criminal justice subcommittee, Steve Martin said members were not convinced that Travis Co. truly needed the 228 new beds they were asked to consider. Instead, the subcommittee recommended that county planners reconsider ways to better use existing capacity.
All that nipping and tucking may have gotten the bond recommendations into the commissioners' target range, but it didn't leave much money to buy natural areas that protect water quality and give people room to play. Outdoor enthusiasts say that if county voters ever want to preserve open spaces, rising real estate prices and rapid population growth suggest sooner is better than later. That's why the Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, and the Hill Country Conservancy commissioned a poll to see if voters most of whom enjoy a romp in the park from time to time enjoy their romps so much they'd be willing to pay more taxes to get more of them.
The answer appears to be yes. About 55% of polled voters approved the idea of a bond proposal to buy open space, with 27% opposing. When voters were told that a $60 million open space fund would cost the average homeowner $16 a year, the rate of support actually increased slightly, perhaps because respondents were previously unaware that all that thorny, scrubby, rocky, buggy, oak-shaded, mesquite-studded acreage can be had for roughly the price of one large pepperoni pizza per household per year.
The county commissioners will have final say over what appears on the ballot, and will decide only after another round of public input. But Glen Coleman of the transportation subcommittee predicted that the idea would enjoy broad support. "I think the business community would support it because Austin's parks and open spaces have such an enormous impact on our quality of life, and are a key factor in our ability to recruit an active and creative employee base," he said.