By CASSIE MCKEE, Four Points News
In a split vote, the Austin City Council voted to place a $720 million mobility bond package – the largest in the city’s history – on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Three council members abstained from the final vote, including Place 6 council member Don Zimmerman. Zimmerman said he abstained for two reasons. The first being that he thought the bond package should’ve been broken up into three different pieces that could be voted on individually.
“The number one comment I’ve received from constituents is, ‘Why are you making us vote on this huge amount of money? Why isn’t there some way you could break it into smaller pieces to give us choices,’” Zimmerman said at the Aug. 18 city council meeting.
Additionally, Zimmerman was upset by the removal of ballot language that would specify the amount of tax increase voters would see. While that language was initially approved by the council at a prior meeting, it was taken out at the recommendation of city legal staff.
“The second (reason) is the refusal of our city legal department to give us a way to limit the taxation and the potential cost to our taxpayers,” Zimmerman said. “They have done a horrific job of representing the law and our options on this ballot language. I will never vote for unlimited taxation and that’s exactly what this bond proposal does.”
Mayor Steve Adler said he supported the recommendation by city staff to strike the language because while the owner of a home with a median value with no exemptions would see a tax increase of just under $5 per month, that amount would be different depending on different factors such as the value of the home, whether or not there are exemptions in place and when the bonds are sold.
“This language that you urge to put in here is misleading because it’s not true in all cases,” Adler said in response to Zimmerman.
Adler said the council will be putting other measures in place to inform voters of the tax impact such as an online tax calculator. The council also passed a separate resolution that establishes a contract with voters.
According to information on the city’s website, if approved, the initial tax increase could affect 2018 tax bills. The amount of increase each year would depend on when the bond debt is incurred. The $720 million debt may result in a tax increase of an estimated 2 ¼-cents per $100 valuation. For the owner of home with a taxable value of $250,000, the impact is estimated to be approximately $56 per year or $4.67 per month, based on the city tax rate for this year.
In the next few weeks, city staff will produce a 2016 Mobility Bond Voter Information Brochure that will serve as an educational resource to the community. The brochure will outline the projects that would be funded if voters approve the proposition and provide the ballot language that voters will see at the polls. The city resources will also include more information regarding the estimated tax impact of the bonds.
The brochure will be available at AustinTexas.gov/2016Bond and at City of Austin facilities such as City Hall, recreation centers, and public libraries.
If approved, the bond package includes $30 million dedicated for District 6 projects including the RM 620/ RM 2222 bypass project, as well as safety and mobility improvements along Anderson Mill Road and cooperative funding with Williamson County and the Texas Department of Transportation for improvements to Parmer Lane.
Brian Thompto, chairman of the Steiner Ranch Neighborhood Association, said he is very supportive of the bond package.
“We are very supportive of the Austin transportation bond which will be on the November ballot,” Thompto said. “Austin is in desperate need of a significant roadway and mobility overhaul and motorists in Four Points know this very well.”
In addition to the $30 million in District 6 projects, the bond also includes more than $100 million for regional mobility projects.
“The improvements for RM620/FM2222 are of critical importance,” Thompto said. “With the passing of the transportation bond, we would like to see Austin fund the majority of the estimated $25 million cost of the improvement from the bond, with additional funds from TXDOT and Travis County to help ensure this project can be funded completely and quickly for construction by 2019.”
Thompto said Four Points residents will also benefit from improvements to Loop 360 as well as other corridor improvements in the city which are planned as part of the bond package.
The bond package was given final approval by a 7-1-3 vote, with District 1 Councilmember Ora Houston voting no, and Zimmerman, District 8 council member Ellen Troxclair, and District 2 council member Delia Garza abstaining.
Houston, whose district includes east Austin, said she felt like she had been bullied into voting for the bond package.
“Because of the process, because of the lack of transparency of the cohorts that put together this plan, I will be voting against this bond,” she said. “We don’t have any idea what the tax increase will be on elderly and low income.”
Adler said he hopes voters will approve the bond package.
“We have two big problems in this city: mobility and affordability,” Adler said. “They’re tied to each other. The people in our community want us to do something and to go big.”