The Battle of the Bonds – Take Your Turn

With two public input meetings left, it's a good time to review the ups and downs, the winners and losers in the city's bond package so far

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Bonding ain't easy. Just ask anyone on the city's Bond Election Advisory Committee, the group assembled to sort and separate city staff's and citizens' "needs" from "wants." With the committee's initial round of work almost done, last week members released their draft recommendation, which, if they have their way, will hover just above the $600 million mark. With two public input meetings left – one tonight – it's a good time to review the ups and downs, the winners and losers in the package thus far. The inside jockeying continues, the public now weighs in again, and the various competing interests will persist in advocating for their favored expenses as the package moves toward City Council review. For your consideration:

• Transportation and facilities funds have seen the most reduction from their original needs assessment. Since the initial assessment served only as a starting point, the dramatic cuts to both (with transportation nearly halved) haven't necessarily been unexpected. The biggest cut in transportation was funds for street construction, which opened at $150 million and have limped in at $65.7. As Austin (and especially Downtown) strives to become more pedestrian friendly, we'll see more emphasis on bikeways and sidewalks – those funds were mostly untouched. It's likely, however, that the folks at Public Works – who told council that the needs list still contemplated a good deal of deferred maintenance – will squawk at such a radical reduction.

Setting facilities funding was even more frustrating, as that subcommittee had to tinker with several items that normally don't belong in the lofty realms of a bond election – sexy stuff like roof and pool repairs, heating, venting and air conditioning maintenance, which presumably should be paid out of ongoing tax receipts. Look for these approximately 90 items to get financed by more traditional measures. Of the bigger items still fighting for survival – namely new EMS, police, fire, and animal shelter facilities – the axe may yet fall on one or more.

• Drainage money also twirled down the pipe, with financing cut for an ambitious program that never got off the ground – $42 million was initially suggested for the long-debated tunnel and related improvements on Waller Creek, but it has been scrubbed from the draft recommendation. Downtown stakeholders, who have been looking for sustenance for this project for some time, may try to resuscitate it when (or if) the plans come to council for approval, but with popular support waxing for many other creek and anti-flooding programs, they'll have a fight. Despite cuts, the bulk of the money – $74.2 million – still goes to multiobjective projects which, as the city puts it, "combine flood control, erosion control and water quality protection."

Which brings us to open space and affordable housing – both highly popular with activist constituencies and both coming into the gate markedly low (the word "placeholder" was repeatedly used to describe the initial allotments). Due to a concerted effort from advocates like the new coalition Housing Works, initially meager money for housing is now at $67.5 million, with a push to round it up to $75 million likely at council. Open space opened at $50 million (twice housing's designated funds), reflecting a current push by environmental groups to get the city to combine with Travis Co. to acquire as much water protection and other open land as possible. The $25 million seemed slated for a boost, but some members grumbled that $50 million is more than enough. Consider that argument still very much in progress.

Further confounding the open-space debate is Mayor Will Wynn's late-innings call for a possible delay in the bond election altogether, as the current draft proposal doesn't contain, he says, enough funds to deal with surrounding development along SH 130, which is currently being built. $47 million for open space around the highway was in fact added initially by the subcommittee. That number has fallen to $21.5 million, however, because it butted against rock solid Parks and Recreation funding and aquifer protection – still expected to rise from its current $45.3 million. One speculation is that the number of Envision Central Texas members on the BEAC gave Wynn a false sense of security that SH 130 funds would magically appear – failing an explicit directive from him or the council, its unlikely they will. Nobody yet knows if that will delay the whole bond project until at least November. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Which leaves the central library. According to supporters (and library staff), it can't be built for a cent less than its currently proposed $90 million. The original allotment ($106 million) would permit a partial build-out, the top two floors unfinished, while the rejected subcommittee recommendation ($124 million) proposed covering the entire construction. Defenders say it's still doable at $90 million, but will require a little help from friends – like those redeveloping the Green Water Treatment site on Town Lake, a potential site. Bundling in items like parking would stretch the dollars, as will contributions and fundraising by groups like the Library Foundation.

Public hearings are tonight (Thursday), 7pm, Town Lake Center, and Jan. 5. The final full committee votes on the package are scheduled for Jan. 9 and 10, before submitting to council.

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