Point Austin: Beside the Point

Gables Up, Bonds Down

Point Austin
Will Wynn ended the speculation Thursday, when he decided to delay the city's bond package … until after the Regional Water Quality Protection Plan. An embarrassment of riches characterized last week's 2pm briefings, with the Bond Election Advisory Committee's polyform presentation scheduled in between the mayor's Mental Health Task Force report and the aforementioned water talk. Due to the latter's brevity and the bonds' anticipated length, Wynn pushed the bond presentation to the back.

Get used to it, guys.

For those paying bonds scanty attention, there were no surprises buried in the BEAC's report: The price tag stood at $614 million, divvied into affordable housing, open space, infrastructure, transportation, and a new central library. BEAC outreach Chair (and former Chronicle City Editor) Mike Clark-Madison admitted that the BEAC "picked extra-large" in the municipal drive-through. But this was no superfluous supersizing: Noting, "Money saved now is likely money to be spent later and then some," Madison reiterated, "$600 million, more or less, is only a fraction of what the citizens told us the city needs to do to make investments." And less than what the city said: The $614 million is pared down from a $769 million city needs assessment (and a ballooned $850 million committee wish list).

Still, council's purse-string cinchers – read Wynn and numbers maven Betty Dunkerley – are wary of the price, arguing that issuing more than $500 million in debt would plummet Austin's bond credit rating to MC Hammer-like levels. It was Dunkerley – following a ceremony honoring the BEAC's members with certificates resembling Austin bonds ("I don't know if I'd bank on this yet," joked Wynn) – who first called for pushing the election from May to November. Citing the time required to "gear up," Dunkerley also alluded to the possibility of other ballot items "that may or may not distract" (e.g., mayoral and council races, and likely a charter amendment vote on domestic-partner benefits for city employees – possibly the chum in the water attracting conservo bottom-dwellers who would be unreceptive to bonding debt).

Dunkerley was joined by Danny Thomas, a fevered Brewster McCracken (whose repeated predictions of ceaseless citizen input required for the bond election were gently rebuffed by the mayor, reminding him that that vetting process was, uh, kinda the BEAC's job), and Jennifer Kim, who leaned gently toward November. Raul Alvarez and Lee Leffingwell staunchly supported a May vote, while Wynn twisted slowly in the middle. In the end, council agreed to work toward the original May deadline, with November as a fallback. But just how many sleepless, Diet Coke-fueled nights they'll be willing to sacrifice toward an early election remains suspect. Aside from Dunkerley's professed goal of whittling the package down, the BEAC recommendations will likely be reconfigured to include more funding for State Highway 130 infrastructure. And City Manager Toby Futrell may have nailed the coffin for a May election with her reminder of when the bonds will be sold. "Whether you do the election in May or November," she said, "these bonds are scheduled to be sold in the beginning of 2007." If May is moot and November numinous, why did the Citizens' Committee sacrifice so much of its members' Christmas holidays? Bet they're asking themselves that right now.

All the transitional bond talk, however, turned out to be just a warm-up for the Gables Park Plaza debate later that evening, which stretched to an epic five hours. The Gables' developers ultimately won their requested zoning change and boosted height allotment, over the protestations of speakers from the Austin Neighborhoods Council, Save Our Springs, and other activists. In an attempt to address community gripes over downtown infrastructure being repurposed for the Gables' ends, it should be noted that the developers contributed $250,000 to Austin's community housing fund – that should buy one lucky transient an efficiency there, right?

Today (Thursday), council considers two items related to the bond package: Item 4 on the agenda, approving a 2006 calendar and a public hearing for citizen input, will surely be pulled for discussion after a 1pm bond briefing. With a March 9 deadline to put bonds on the May ballot, council doesn't necessarily have to make anything official today, but expect bloviating, pro and con, after the briefing.

Hopefully they'll finish in time for 2pm briefings, a twofer from Austin Energy: their 2005 year-end report, followed by a presentation of tree-trimming policy and procedure. Then, Item 19 delves into changes to city tree-trimming policy, and begins their "City-Wide Tree Inventory." Nice to see them branching out. Also noteworthy: a resolution potentially cementing the Green Water Treatment Plant as the future home of Austin's central library, and a 6pm McMansion public hearing and first-reading vote, originally scheduled for last week, but scuttled due to a public notice snafu.

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