Williamson County moving slow on bond issue

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

GEORGETOWN — County Commissioners agreed unanimously Tuesday to move forward with calling a November bond election for road and park projects, but were not ready to nail down a dollar amount for that bond or specify which projects around the county should be selected.

The committee selected by Commissioners to study the issue presented its proposal to Commissioners in June, suggesting a $640 million package, paring down $2.7 billion in initial requests made by county and area city officials.
At least three members of the Court indicated Tuesday they preferred a much lower dollar amount.

“The right answer is to let the voters decide on whether we have more debt for road projects and parks projects,” said County Judge Bill Gravell. “I did look at the work of our committee and I looked at where we started and I appreciate the committee’s work at the $641 million, but that’s just not a place I’m comfortable with financially.”

A total bond package of about $450 million was the amount suggested by Gravell, which would break down as $410 million for roads and $40 million for parks. Both Pct. 3 Commissioner Valerie Covey and Pct. 2 Commissioner Cynthia Long said they preferred an even smaller dollar amount.

“I think we move forward and the numbers you threw out, in my mind I’m a little bit lower than that, but that’s certainly a not-to-exceed (amount) from my perspective,” Long said.

Commissioners agreed on a pair of key issues in relation to calling a bond election and those were to maintain the current tax rate even with a new bond issue, and to dedicate funds to also retire some of the county’s old debt.

According to Dan Wegmiller with Specialized Public Finance, voters could pass a new bond and still accomplish those two goals as well.

The dollar figure mentioned by Gravell for paying off old county debt was $25 million, but Covey suggested the county look at increasing that amount if possible. Covey also asked to look at scenarios where new bond debt be financed at 15 years rather than 30 years to see how much could be saved.

“If we are going to continue our long range transportation plan this isn’t the last time we are going to be having this conversation,” Covey said. “Future courts will also, but I think it’s prudent that we pay off the debt as much as we can early and look at shortening the time of our debt because that would save us tremendously on interest costs.”

In the coming weeks, Commissioners will be paring down the list of proposed projects in their precinct, and it is unclear how much the final list will look like the committee’s proposal.

A number of projects that made the committee’s cut will impact Liberty Hill, but none of the four road projects proposed by Mayor Rick Hall in May were suggested for funding.

Widening Bagdad Road made the list for both Liberty Hill and Leander, but when the committee’s list was presented, it proposed the Leander portion, from San Gabriel Parkway north to the Leander City Limits, but not the portion north of that to Loop 332 requested by Liberty Hill.

Other Liberty Hill requests left off the list included the extension of Long Run Road, that would extend from US 183 to CR 214 just north of the Stonewall Subdivision, the widening of CR 200 north from the intersection of SH 29 to CR 201 and the Richard Wear Bypass, planned to connect SH 29 east of the railroad tracks to CR 200 north of the tracks.

Liberty Hill also proposed a shared use path along SH 29 to US 183 to connect with proposed trails from the county and Leander and that plan was included in the parks portion of the final proposal at $1.3 million.

There was $3.3 million allocated for further improvements at River Ranch Park, currently under phase one construction, that would add shelters and cabins, a covered arena and restrooms with a pavilion.

While none of the road projects were supported, some money was allocated for right of way (ROW) acquisition for the Bagdad Road expansion. The committee proposed $35 million be included in the bond proposal for ROW acquisition across the county for future projects.

The SH 29 Bypass, planned to run south around Liberty Hill from just west of Liberty Hill High School to SH 29 east of downtown, was partially supported by the committee. The project, proposed in three phases, would first construct the middle portion that would connect RR 1869 west of downtown to CR 279 south of town. The projected cost is $11 million. The plan also included $2.2 million for ROW acquisition for phases one and three.

The county also plans to extend CR 214 to US 183 – estimated at $2.3 million – should the bond proposal be approved. The northwest portion of Kauffman Loop, at the intersection of SH 29 and Ronald Reagan, is also on the list, as well as widening Ronald Reagan north from SH 29 to FM 3405. Those two projects are estimated at a combined $26.7 million.

While voicing her support for calling a bond election, Long emphasized giving preference to projects where cities are pledging to partner on costs.

“One of the things that has allowed us, especially in the 2013 bond election, to get more done was partnering with our cities,” Long said.

Among the cities proposing projects, Round Rock offered $35 million in partnering funds, Cedar Park proposed $15.5 million and Leander $14 million.

“You’ve got the City of Liberty Hill, population 2,500, saying they want to bring almost $7 million to the table,” Long said. “You’ve got Jarrell, population 2,500, at $60,000. Here’s what is disappointing, you’ve got Austin with a population of almost a million people and a number of projects listed in Austin with a big goose egg. In my mind, the projects that make it to the top of the list are the ones where those cities are partnering with us.”

Covey wants to see the dollar amount for parks on the ballot scaled back considerably from the $60 million suggested by the committee.

“I’m looking more at ($25 million) for parks,” Covey said. “I really think we need to be careful with where we go with parks because of the M&O that is required, the additional people and expenses that are ongoing whenever we do that.”

She said she’d like to mainly focus those funds on trails and the existing parks.

Gravell insisted a number of times throughout the discussion that Commissioners should not get into detailed discussions on particular projects Tuesday, urging them to have those discussions with county and city officials as they prioritized projects to bring forward.

Gravell’s original intent was to bring the issue back Aug. 6 for a final decision, but Commissioners agreed instead to place it on the agenda in each of the next two weeks as well to make sure there was opportunity for discussion of details and issues of concern.

If called, this would be the third bond election for road and park projects called by the county since 2000. The first was for $375 million, the second in 2006 was for $250 million and the 2013 bond was for $315 million. Each has passed with a slightly slimmer majority than the previous bond, but all prevailed with 55 percent of the vote or more.

The Commissioners Court has until Aug. 19 to call the bond election.

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