Point Austin: Kicking Around the Bonds

The Sisyphus bond committee just rolled the stone up the hill. Be ready to duck.

Point Austin
According to my young colleague, Wells Dunbar – hereafter to be known around the newsroom as "Scoop" – the City Council will seriously consider a move next week to delay the proposed bond election from May until November (see "Beside the Point"). Scoop got that tidbit, it should be noted, from Council Member Brewster "Let Me Take a Whack at That" McCracken, who thinks a delay is a good idea. The notion is not exactly a secret – it's been bruited as a possibility since at least mid-December, when Mayor Will Wynn informed the committee that he would really like the members to take a long hard look at potential projects associated with the ongoing construction of State Highway 130.

In theory, a delay would allow the council to review in greater detail the $614.8 million recommendation of the citizens bond committee, add SH 130-related projects if it wishes, and otherwise adjust the overall package according to its own priorities, which (again, in theory) should not vary wildly from the priorities painstakingly adjudicated, over several months, by the council-appointed bond committee.

However, the bond committee itself was not delighted with the prospect of any further perturbations on the road to the cash register, and indeed voted unanimously Jan. 9 to recommend a May election, a reiteration to be made formally next week. According to committee spokesman (and former Chronicle City Editor) Mike Clark-Madison, "Members cited the needs to avoid voter fatigue, to respond to the advocacy already motivated on behalf of the various projects, and most of all to start addressing the critical needs we confronted during our work as soon as possible."

Nor is it clear yet how many council members share McCracken's hesitation. Wynn has suggested he'd at least consider a delay, and the others yet to be heard from will no doubt want to weigh in on that and the whole package. It's hard to believe anyone would volunteer to Memphis-blues the committee's entire project in order to go through all these things twice. But then, council members appear to be genetically predisposed to endure endless hours of zoning minutiae, so maybe bondage will seem like a vacation. There's also predictable muttering about the total bottom line – at $614.8 million, still well under the city's own "needs assessment" that came in much closer to $800 mill (a number itself officially winnowed down to necessities), but still large enough for brow-wiping and hand-wringing, leavened with a predictable amount of grandstanding.


Vexed Questions

One school of thought (for convenience, let's call it Dunkerleyism) balks at the raw committee number – saying it strains municipal borrowing capacity – and adherents of that sect will be champing to be chopping as soon as the report hits the floor. But it wasn't as though the committee was stacked with tax-and-spend liberals. Watching the hearings (religiously, during Longhorn time-outs – why do you think I get the big bucks?), I was struck again and again at how the discussion became a melting pot of community priorities, and how the committee's responses to public input became a joint-stretching exercise in embracing all the real needs identified by dozens of people and interest groups all across the city.

So what can the council do that the committee couldn't? Well, it will begin by banging its collective head into the same vexed questions that bedeviled the citizens, especially during their final weeks. Here are just a few:

• How much to spend on a library? The original central library proposal visited $125 million, dropped to $106 million, and was finally whittled to a finger-crossing $90 million – adequate only if certain tangential expenses like parking are somehow rolled into related projects like the Seaholm redevelopment. If the council doesn't wish to make a mockery of its public relations "reading" programs, not to mention its de facto partnership with AISD, it had better not cut any more here.

• How much to spend on "affordable housing"? While it was inspiring to see the whole community engaged in an attempt to address the parlous circumstances of low- and moderate-income citizens, I've put that phrase in quotes because not even its strongest proponents are quite sure what it means, how it will work, or how best to spend the money. Sanctimonious blackmail like, "No one can sleep in a library!" are hardly helpful, and the most absurd committee moments concerned the attempt to raise this allocation from its current $67.5 million to an entirely symbolic $72- or $75-million. (One thought worth pondering: If all Austin workers had access to a real living wage, we'd have much less public need for "affordable" housing.)

• How much to spend on "open space"? The quotes here have more to do with definition-creep, under which a neighborhood park and a wilderness area became two ends of the same licorice stick. This category is absolutely necessary, an Austin liberal shibboleth, and infinitely expandable – so I don't relish the council's challenge to atone for its alleged Lantana sins by setting-aside-for-posterity the next however-many Lantanas. They will also thereupon be blamed for rising land prices, and simultaneously blasted for wasting money on southwest land that should be spent on East Austin sewers.


Restart Your Engines

Those were only the most high-profile debates, and I haven't even returned to 130. The committee objected, reasonably enough, that in the last weeks they were asked to toss 130-related projects into the mix when those did not figure into the city's own needs assessment, and indeed were not even specifically described in any of the late-breaking, blue-sky requests for same. It's on this rock that the council's dinghy will most likely founder, since there will be competing demands both to lower the overall cost of the bond package and to add certain yet-unspecified projects that will make Eastside life post-130 so much happier and zippier.

If that Janus-faced perspective prevails, look for a lot of bloodletting on the council floor and a strong motivation for the same citizen legions that initially engaged the bond committee to begin resharpening their pencils and reclearing their throats. And expect local bear markets for Chloraseptic and caffeine, all the way to November. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin City Council, Wells Dunbar, Brewster McCracken, Highway 130, Mike Clark-Madison, bond election, central library, affordable housing, open space

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