Local officials move to increase debt despite voters opposing ballot measures

Despite voters rejecting local ballot measures in northern and southern parts of the state that would have increased debt to fund spending projects, local officials are bypassing voters to push through the measures anyway.

In the southeast coastal wetlands of Aransas, voters rejected Proposition A by a vote of 53 to 46 percent. If approved, the measure would have put taxpayers in $27 million worth of debt to build a new county courthouse.

Controversy over the project began this summer when Aransas County commissioners said they would increase the local taxpayer portion of the project’s total cost from $6 million to $17.2 million without a public vote. They planned to do so by issuing nonvoter-approved certificate of obligation bonds. Local citizen Andrew Kane started a petition to compel the county to add the project to the November election ballot. After gaining the necessary number of signatures, the matter was added to the ballot, and voters rejected it.

After the vote, County Commissioner Wendy Kilpatrick Laubach posted a notice on Facebook stating that she had met with the county judge, Burt Mills, and the county’s financial advisor, Bob Henderson, and they decided they were going ahead with the bond measure despite taxpayer opposition to it.

She said the judge and financial advisor “have concluded that state law permits them to issue tax notes (requiring no election) in the amount of about $13 million to fund the construction of a smaller, two-story, 46,000 square-foot courthouse.”

“Judge Mills intends to bring the matter before the Commissioners Court for a vote at the first regular meeting in December, which is December 14,” she added.

Roughly 200 citizens commented on the post, expressing concerns about the cost and apparent disregard of voters’ rejection of the plan before a new commissioner comes on the board.

One post reads, “Another point – a $13 million tax note has a much bigger impact on the tax rate than the $17.6 million bond would have had given the duration of repayment. No way would taxpayers support the $13 million if it went to a vote and the County showed the real math behind it.”

“Will the vote be respected? Or will we be dismissed?” Kane, who led the petition, asked. “This is a bigger moment of truth to show if we have a representative government where our elected leaders follow our wishes.”

In the northern panhandle region of the state, the Amarillo City Council voted Wednesday to spend roughly $5.5 million on buildings and land in the downtown warehouse district despite voters having soundly rejected the proposal.

Amarillo voters previously rejected a $275 million bond proposed to fund the majority of a $319 million downtown renovation plan. The $5.5 million was part of this proposal.

In an Amarillo City Council meeting, members said they would vote on a resolution that “declares the expectation to reimburse expenditures for purchasing property at 500 South Grant Street, 621 South Johnson Street, and 707 South Johnson Street … demolition of buildings, and site preparation with proceeds of future debt.”

The debt total from certificates of obligation expected to be issued are over $5.5 million, with a total cost of $6,965,336, once paid in full.

A memo attached to a city of Amarillo agenda says the $5,570,000 in debt would be paid off by taxpayers through ad valorem taxes and a “limited pledge” from Amarillo’s waterworks and sewer system.

The city council’s plan is to turn an abandoned warehouse at 621 South Johnson into a new city hall. The existing city hall would be demolished and plans for renovating the downtown area and expanding the convention center would be implemented. A majority of voters, 62 percent, rejected these plans in a ballot proposition on Nov. 3.

Despite voter opposition, the city council approved the purchase of three properties on Grant and Johnson streets. The old Amarillo hardware building has been considered as a possible option to be converted into a new city hall.

The issuance of certificates of obligation of more than $1 million is still on the table according to a memo to city staff from City Manager Jared Miller.

The certificates would be issued in order to reimburse a developer’s request for improvements already made in the Greenways Public Improvement District.

Miller sent a memo to city staff saying the decision to propose the debt issuance came after a unanimous vote by the Greenways PID Advisory Board to approve the reimbursement request.

“To fund this reimbursement, City GO bond proceeds are being proposed as the funding mechanism with debt service payments for this issuance being paid by property owner PID assessments,” Miller wrote.

Taxpayers would again be on the hook for increased ad valorem taxes and a “limited pledge” from Amarillo’s waterworks and sewer system.



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