By CASSIE MCKEE, Four Points News
While there seems to be a lot of support among River Place residents to stop annexation by the city of Austin, determining the best way to do so is proving to be a bit more challenging.
Pat Reilly, president of the River Place Municipal Utility District, said most people in River Place do not want to be annexed by the city of Austin, they would rather be disannexed. “It’s just how we get there that is the issue,” he said.
Four candidates are running in the upcoming election to fill two seats on the River Place MUD board. Longtime incumbent board members Art Jistel and Ken Bartlett are running along with River Place Homeowners Association President Scott Crosby and newcomer Scott Agthe, an attorney who says his sole reason for running is disannexation.
Agthe hosted a legal forum on April 6 at River Place Country Club to discuss disannexation that drew a roomful of people. Agthe said the overall message he wanted to communicate to those in attendance is that annexation can be stopped.
“Before, all we heard was fighting the city is impossible,” Agthe said. “We learned that is not true. The legal experts at the forum all agreed city annexation can be defeated. While not easy, neighborhoods have prevailed where residents commit to a three-pronged strategy that combines litigation, legislative and political efforts with strong grassroots support from homeowners.”
There is concern among some though that the MUD board cannot fight the annexation due to a provision in the Strategic Partnership Agreement that the board signed with city in 2009.
“As a MUD director, I cannot challenge the city of Austin to be disannexed by the terms of the Strategic Partnership Agreement which specifically states: The district accepts the service plan and agrees not to seek arbitration, other legal actions, or legislative remedies to challenge the service plan,’” said Jistel, who is secretary of the MUD board. “It further states: If the district is dissolved for any reason prior to the full-purpose annexation date, this SPA shall automatically terminate and the city shall have the right to accelerate the full-purpose annexation date without restriction.’”
Jistels said he does not believe anyone that lives in River Place is pro annexation, but as a River Place MUD board member he must honor the Strategic Partnership Agreement that was negotiated between the MUD board and the city of Austin.
“I cannot support the disannexation process,” Jistels said. “Residents of River Place need to be aware that there are a lot of questions that need to be answered before they agree to proceed with the disannexation process.
“I ask for your vote in the upcoming election, as I will strive to continue to maintain the appearance of the parks, trails, wildflower areas and the low rates of solid waste services,” he added.
While Crosby has said he also supports disannexation, he also acknowledged the provisions in the SPA that could result in the city voiding the agreement.
“The fact is the HOA, any homeowner or group of homeowners may pursue disannexation or efforts to delay or avoid annexation,” Crosby said. “The obvious question is money.”
Bartlett, vice president of the MUD board, said he supports the SPA and will always be in favor of supplying the River Place residents with the best services, whether supplied by the MUD or the city of Austin.
“I know that a great deal of time and effort by the Board of Directors went into negotiating with the city of Austin’s annexation of our community, and I am confident that the agreement will serve the community well,” Bartlett said. “I have served the community as a MUD Board member for over 15 years and would like to continue to serve. Experience counts.”
Under the terms of the SPA, once River Place is annexed in December 2017, the MUD will convert to a Limited District. The final approval of the Limited District will be subject to a vote by the residents, which will be held during the general election in May 2018. A simple majority of the votes cast by the district residents is all that is needed to approve the Limited District.
If the Limited District is approved, it would maintain control over the maintenance and operation of the district’s parks and nature trail, rather than the city.
“If the city takes over this responsibility, city staff has informed the district that it would probably shut down the nature trail system because it could not afford to maintain them,” according to a recent River Place MUD newsletter.
If approved, the Limited District would also continue to provide contracted solid waste services (trash hauling and recycling services) at a lower cost than what the city could provide.
In order to provide the services, the Limited District would be authorized to levy an ad valorem tax to all residents, which is anticipated to be similar to the current M&O tax that each resident pays to the district, according to the MUD newsletter.
“Our concern is if we get involved with this disannexation, the city will deem that as challenging the annexation, which would allow them to annex the MUD immediately, dissolve the limited district, and take over the MUD’s bank account,” Reilly said. “We feel very strongly that we don’t want to jeopardize the district based on something that’s probably not going to go anywhere.”
On his Facebook page, Agthe maintained that the MUD board has an important role to play in disannexation.
“The agreement that the MUD board signed to extend the annexation process and to have the opportunity to convert to a Limited District has many ‘poison pills’ in it to hamstring the MUD from taking action after the agreement was signed,” Agthe said. “However, the MUD has standing to take certain actions that individuals and other organizations do not. It is also the only elected governmental entity directly devoted to River Place. It is therefore the closest form of governmental leadership for our community, which is why this election is so important.”