Point Austin: Getting Bonded

Making the wish list was the easy part ...

Point Austin
Now's the time to get your two cents in about the city's pending bond proposals, before you're asked to put your three cents in – one penny per $100 property valuation each year, over the next three years. That's the rate the accountants say will get us to $600 million, or three-fourths of the $800 million that city departments compiled in their "needs assessment" issued earlier this year. The next available public opportunity is Saturday morning, Oct. 1, at the Asian-American Cultural Center, 11713 Jollyville Road, from 10am to noon. I know, the UT-Missouri game kicks off at 11 – that's ABC's fault, not the city's – but additional hearings are scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 13 (Dove Springs Rec Center, 7pm), and Monday, Oct. 17 (Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 7pm). You or your neighborhood group or your activist organization can bundle your three-minute salvos to deliver your particular priorities to the citizens bond election advisory committee, which is gamely trying to decide how to juggle all those needs for roads, sewers, police stations, parks and rec centers, open space, etc., etc., etc.

To judge from the first hearing, held at St. James Episcopal last week, the committee will understandably hear from folks with a regional axe to grind – that session, it was the Rosewood neighborhood on woebegone Boggy Creek, which is indeed slotted for long-needed improvements to both creekbed and related storm sewers. According to committee outreach coordinator (and former Chronicle city editor) Mike Clark-Madison, some 90 proposed projects fall under the "drainage" heading currently under consideration for $198.6 million of the $600-million proposed target. Which and how many of those projects are actually allotted funding depends a great deal on which neighborhood wheels squeak the most. So if every time it rains your neighbors bring out the rowboats, it behooves you to hie down to the public hearing and start running your mouth.

The Breakdown

If, like most of us, you can't make it personally to one of the public hearings, the committee asks that you fill out one of the survey cards on the Web site (www.ci.austin.tx.us/budget/beac.htm), not yet quite interactive, but providing several ways to submit responses. You may find that $600-million figure intimidating (although word is that at least some committee members are suggesting it's too low). What's helpful about the survey form is that it breaks down the city's seven-category needs assessment by percentages and asks simply, "If you had $100 to spend, how would you allocate it among the following categories of projects being considered for the 2006 bond program?" That makes it a good deal easier to consider the city's priorities, as well as your own. Listed below is the city's assessment breakdown, per $100.

Under that microscope, the numbers have a scale a taxpayer can get her arms around. Transportation and drainage, for example – basic necessities under any analysis – eat up about half of your hundred bucks, and you may find yourself scrutinizing the needs assessment (available on the Web site) a little more closely to see if we really need every single one of the road upgrades city staff proposes. (For the record, because of recent cuts we're way behind on maintenance.) On another front, I've heard people grousing that a new central library – something the city has desperately needed for about a decade – is just too expensive at $106.7 million. But at 14 bucks out of our $100, it hardly seems too much to ask. (And we can note as well that public safety facilities get two proposed bites of the $100 apple – renovations and new – suggesting that the split proportions are just a trifle misleading.)

A million here, a million there

Looking at the $100 breakdown, a citizen can also see that two categories to which Austinites give a great deal of lip service – open space and affordable housing – come in right now at less than 10 bucks combined. One would think, from the editorial and commercial-developer howling that ensues every time these subjects are raised at council, we must be spending 90 out of every 100 public dollars on saving the aquifer and providing public housing. It just ain't so.

What these numbers suggest, altogether, is that when the bond dust clears (final committee recommendations, for a proposed May election, go to council in January) our minimum utilitarian public needs will be fulfilled once again. Meanwhile, the sort of amenities that make a great community as well as a great city – a solid and substantial library system, an open-space program that plans for growth instead of just submitting to it, and a housing safety net that leaves no family scrambling for food after the rent is paid every month – will be fighting for the crumbs from the public table.

I don't suggest the choices are easy, and I don't envy the citizens on the committee who are already trying very hard to stretch your $100 in seven different ways. They need your help. An excellent exercise is to ask yourself, "All right, if you want $75 million instead of $25 million for affordable housing [as is being proposed by the new coalition, Housing Works, kicking off its campaign Tuesday at City Hall], where's the $50 million gonna come from?"

Helpful hint: It says here it ain't the new library or park land ...

So, if you find yourself sympathizing with those committee members beginning to grumble, "$600 million just ain't gonna cut it," welcome to the wonderful world of paying for home improvements. Just make sure you bring your whole toolbox. end story

The next BEAC public hearing is Saturday, Oct. 1, 10am-noon at the Asian-American Cultural Center, 11713 Jollyville Rd., served by Capital Metro bus lines #383 and 392. The whole committee next meets on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 9am at City Hall. Full information, including the citizen survey, is available at www.ci.austin.tx.us/budget/beac.htm.

Preliminary Bond Assessment breakdown

Transportation (Streets, Sidewalks, Bikeways, Traffic Signals, Traffic Calming) $24.05

Drainage (Creek Flooding, Creek Erosion, Storm Drains, Water Quality) 25.83

Facility Renovations (Recreation Centers, Pools, Fire and EMS Stations) 13.57

Replacement Public Health & Safety Facilities (Police, Health, Fire, EMS) 12.93

New Central Library 13.86

Open Space (Park Land, Environmental Protection, Water Quality Protection) 6.50

Affordable Housing 3.25

TOTAL $100.00

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City government, city council, bond election, Mike Clark-Madison, Housing Works

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