Bond Booty: Fantasy and Reality

Striking a balance among the various interests wanting a slice of the city bonds pie

Carl the Pepper Tepper
Carl "the Pepper" Tepper (Photo By John Anderson)

The truth is out. Carl Tepper – one-time council candidate and confirmed fiscal conservative – is willing to make the ever-so-bold statement that he is opposed to most, but not all, of the city's seven bond propositions on the ballot next month.

Tepper knows what that makes him: the ultimate party pooper, the Grinch who stole the city's Christmas, the last guy to be invited to the Save Barton Creek Association's election night party. Still, Tepper has been the good sport, playing along when the South Austin Democrats needed someone to say "no" to most of the best booty in the city's $567 million bond package.

The combination of proposed "booty" – and a lot of it – is the biggest problem for a fiscal conservative like Tepper. He'd like to see a more conservative course on spending, especially with the looming promise of a Capital Metro bond issue ahead. After four years of economic famine, the city is about to have a feast, and Tepper is a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. And he's not completely alone. He says a couple of prominent people – he won't name them – have talked to him about mounting opposition to this proposition or that proposition, but the idea ended up going nowhere, he admits.

"A lot of the feedback has been, 'Oh, I don't want those bonds, either, but … we wish you weren't against the library,'" Tepper said. "Or, 'We don't believe in those bonds, but … we can't possibly vote down the cultural bonds because this is an artsy town.'"

In other words, all bonds are good bonds because most of those bonds are someone else's sacred cow. That's the cynical view. To bond supporters, however, it's called a democratic compromise, striking the right balance among the various interests at the table. Tom Terkel, who chaired the citizen committee, admits that he, too, might have prioritized the bonds differently if it had been his decision alone. Instead, what the committee chose was a package that reflected differing values and perspectives. "Is it a perfect balance? No, but it's a good balance," Terkel said. "It's like former Mayor Kirk Watson is fond of saying, 'The enemy of good is perfect.' This may not be perfect, but it's really good."

Terkel's feedback on the bonds has been good, but some groups – such as the Building Owners and Managers Association of Austin and the Small Business Group – have failed to land on endorsements. Developer Mary Guerrero-McDonald, who accompanied Tepper to the South Austin Democrats in "bond opposition" unity, says the real problem has been a lack of information for the voter. "Who wouldn't love a library? I love the idea. It would be great, but is that $90 million going to cover the whole cost, or will we be looking at even more money to provide the materials and finish the project?" she said, with a touch of apology in her voice. "I'm not sure that $90 million is going to be sufficient to meet our needs. I want a new library, but I don't quite understand how the city is going to get there."

A perusal of the Web sites of bond supporters would underline Guerrero-McDonald's points about a basic lack of information on the proposals. The Libraries for Austin Web site outlines the need for a well-equipped central branch and recent spending on neighborhood branches but is silent on the total required fiscal needs. The I'm for 4 Web site outlines the city's "creative economy" but says nothing about how the Zachary Scott Theatre Complex, and the other nonprofits in line to win city bond money in the November election, will meet its end of the obligation to "earn" its city funding.

Sure, affordable-housing bonds are good, but no one is talking about what parameters will be used to hand those bonds out, Tepper said. A new central library is great, but the cost is – believe it or not – roughly equivalent to the Frost Bank Tower. Is it really necessary, and will those bonds cover the full cost? And what about open space? Tepper says it's a great idea as long the city can afford to maintain what it has now. Will the city, stretched even further by new facilities, be forced to cut services and hours during the next crunch, just as it did to city libraries during the last economic downturn? Those are the questions Tepper poses when he talks about the bonds.

Unlike most voters, a reporter with such questions need only pick up the phone and call Council Member Betty Dunkerley, the former finance director for the city. Dunkerley offers soothing words about bond covenants, written promises, extensive implementation procedures, and a citizen oversight committee for bonds, with a subcommittee focused on housing bonds that will give serious scrutiny to finances.

Among Dunkerley's points: Yes, a good portion of the facility bonds will go to maintain existing facilities, but it will be capitalized maintenance – such as swimming pool shell repairs and replacement of roofs – that makes sense and extends the life of a city asset, rather than ongoing maintenance that would be best pulled from the day-to-day budget. New projects were chosen to meet needs, such as putting a new recreation center in North Central Austin, an area with 65,000 people and no resources. The trail projects, for instance, complete the system rather than launching a new trail system project. "It's certainly not fluff," Dunkerley said.

On the affordable-housing bonds, the city will not be reinventing the wheel. Much of the spending, minus the new land trust, will be spent on existing programs with a proven track record, such as gap financing for nonprofits that struggle to complete a project. A citizen subcommittee will monitor those bonds with proper financial oversight. "We're not going to have another Vision Village," Dunkerley said.

Under cultural bonds, Dunkerley says each nonprofit organization will enter into a contract with the city that includes performance standards. For instance, Zach Scott will be required to match city funds to complete its project. Mexic-Arte's bonds are intended to build a new museum, but only if Mexic-Arte agrees to go to the site of the Mexican American Cultural Center. The groups will be accountable, Dunkerley said.

As for the library, those bonds will be issued at the end of the seven-year program, when it is known how much Friends of the Library has raised toward the construction and operation of the new central library. When the time comes to issue the bonds, the library will be built under those parameters, based on the cash on hand, whether that's $95 million or $125 million.

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city bonds, Carl Tepper, South Austin Democrats, Tom Terkel, Building Owners and Managers Association of Austin, Small Business Group, Mary Guerrero-McDonald, Betty Dunkerley, Friends of the Library

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