Beside the Point

Say a Prayer for Mrs. Murphy, Alas!

In the late hours of City Council's Thursday evening two weeks ago, Mayor Will Wynn spelled out four certainties for preparing November's bond election. "Broadly, there are four things we have to come to consensus on. … One is just the size of the overall bond package"; the second was the "technical packaging" – what projects would go where and with what. Third was ballot order, and fourth was the literal ballot language.

Well, the first may be a (temporary) mystery, but the rest ain't. Arriving over the weekend with the agenda for Thursday's council meeting (that is, today) was ballot language for the bond proposals, currently breaking $536.4 million – which yet may grow a bit – in city staff's final proposals, into seven propositions. According to spokeswoman Rebecca Giello, the proposed package and language is a "solid working draft" for council's consideration. Of course, all final decisions, especially funding, rest on the dais. Today, we'll find out if the loose talk last week (primarily from Brewster McCracken and Raul Alvarez), about adding another $55 million – via a half-cent of taxing wiggle room – to the package was just that – loose talk, or a willingness to bite the political bullet. But the literal "technical packaging" of the props – the choices that will set the ballot for this November – looks pretty firm, and as published they no longer precisely coincide with the funding categories under public discussion for nearly a year.

Our little proposals are all grown up now, and due to a delicate legal and political algebra, several are being split. Take, for instance, the $50 million allotted in total by staff for parkland and open space – as in cellular mitosis, the package has self-divided and recombined. The "open space" funds – $30 million at last tally, and the literal "open space" allotment advocated at length for environmental protection, but at considerably higher levels – have been bundled with $95 million in drainage funds, for the $125 million total of Prop. 2. The remaining $20 million in land-acquisition funds for designated parkland are now lumped together with pool and play-scape renovations – plus the proposed North Austin Recreation Center, and a new skate park and BMX center – and rolled into Prop. 3, a $85.2 million park package. Similarly, Prop. 6 collects proposed "cultural facilities" funds (council-added funds for the Asian American Cultural Center, Austin Film Studios, the Mexican American Cultural Center, and Zachary Scott Theater) at $25 million. The creative redistribution didn't happen to all the props – the remaining four are singular in mission (transportation, affordable housing, the central library, and the public safety infrastructure).

Certainly, there's a political calculus in pairing open-space funds (which explicitly target Edwards Aquifer-protection lands for acquisition) with drainage (the most expensive, least sexy need after transportation). But the council was also mindful of legal considerations, namely that all of the items in a particular proposition, under state law, must relate to each other. For instance, citing guidance from the Attorney General's office, city attorneys said the kinds of land acquisition were separated because the uses weren't sufficiently related ("parkland" is public, while "open space" is to be preserved and mostly people-free).

The more directly political consideration is the actual ballot language – specifically, how specific council wants to get in describing the items for voters. Nowhere does the proposed ballot language name any of the individual projects listed above, or cited at length in staff "needs assessments"; instead, we hear of "improving drainage facilities" and "equipping cultural facilities." At the meeting, Toby Futrell said listing the cultural facilities is a "policy choice" – considering the grumbling the late revisions created, council's opted not to do so. The lessened specificity also creates greater flexibility in dispensing the funds for specific projects.

Futrell and staff cited the cautionary tale of the Austin Museum of Art; in earlier bond elections it was named explicitly as a new building that never quite got built, because the recession and other problems killed its private fundraising – those city bond funds couldn't be used elsewhere since they had been so specifically designated. The bond balancing act, said Futrell, means "enough specificity that people know what they are voting on, but keeping the flexibility that you can move things around and stay within the intent of the bond package without locking yourself in." We'll see how taut the tightrope is pulled today.

If that isn't stressful enough, today's the day of McReckoning. After a lengthy stint, the McMansion Task Force is ready to present its final recommendations for council approval. With typically timely decorum, the Home Builders Association bought shock ads this week in the Statesman, proclaiming that should the proposed regs pass, Archetypical Everygranny "Mrs. Murphy," living on her pension and rising land values, and therefore expecting a real estate windfall, will suddenly be a whisker away from cat food by candlelight. "Her home was her nest egg," reads the HBA's site (www.austinhomebuilders.com) – not anymore, due to those "proposed, severe restrictions." We're pulling for you, "Mrs. Murphy." And you "Mr. Smith," and you, "Mr. and Mrs. Jones," your impecunious plights – Real Names Withheld to Protect the Landlords – vague enough to be my very own!

Lastly, today marks the final official meeting of Council Members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas, about to step outward into the Great Undeclared. "BTP" assures them they will be missed – who else to Fight the Good Fight in Defense of the Grail of Anti-Gentrification? – joins in the thanks of a grateful public to Faithful Servants, and wishes them long, leisurely Thursday evenings around the hearth, and in front of any channel but 6.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin City Council, bond election, city council, open space, land acquisition, Will WYnn, Toby Futrell, McMansion, Home Builders Association, Danny Thomas, Raul Alvarez

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