San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

February 13th, 2008
County compromises on bonds

Editor at Large

SAN MARCOS – An extraordinary Tuesday morning at the Hays County Commissioners Court bled into afternoon before reaching agreement on road funding that half-satisfied the commissioners and didn’t at all satisfy Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley).

In other words, a compromise.

Commissioners voted, 4-1, to issue $19.5 million in revenue bonds and keep state road projects on track while working for a countywide bond election in November. The dollar amount for revenue bonds resulted from negotiations on the fly between the court’s swing vote, Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos), and the legislation’s sponsor, Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle).

All four commissioners voted in favor, with only Sumter voting in opposition. On a day of court discussion winding through tension and resolution, even the vote contained a stunning anti-climax.

As the clerk called roll, Ingalsbe and Barton, in their turns, voted in favor, then Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos), cast his vote in favor, thereby clinching the measure. Next up was Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs), who mostly argued against the motion. Ford thought for a moment, realizing the game was up for now, then voted in favor. Sumter followed by voting against, but a crowd on the edge of its seat all day just hoping for a 3-2 vote burst into applause over 4-1.

If Barton didn’t get everything he wanted, the vote buttressed his confidence that the county will maintain its pass-through financing arrangement with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), which wants to award key contracts in May and prefers that money 60 days in advance.

Barton went to Tuesday’s meeting wanting to issue $47 million in revenue bonds, which don’t require voter approval, but offered a single motion asking for $31 million and a November bond election with hopes that the lower figure could deliver a court majority. Barton feared not only that a May election for general obligation bonds would create unacceptable delays for TxDOT, but that the county couldn’t possibly put together a solid May bond election in less than four weeks before the March 10 deadline for calling that vote.

The day’s proceedings drew nearly an overflow crowd to the courtroom, where citizens lined the walls surrounding the chamber’s pew seating. The court spent nearly four hours on the issue, with 21 citizens, consisting mostly of government officials from Buda, Kyle and San Marcos, offering comments for more than an hour. Of the speakers, 19 spoke in favor of going ahead with revenue bonds and two spoke against the proposal.

At times, the crowd turned raucous, as such proceedings go, and Sumter twice banged the gavel to restore order. Most of the citizens’ comments drew robust applause from an audience clearly favoring the revenue bond issue.

However, the day’s events turned on a groan.

Entering Tuesday’s meeting, road advocates supporting Barton’s position figured they could count on Barton and Conley, while those in opposition to revenue bonds figured they could count on Sumter and Ford.

The decision was going to be made by Ingalsbe, who has voted both ways on the pass-through agreement. Furthermore, Ingalsbe suddenly faces a tougher March 4 primary due to anticipated heavy turnout because the Democratic presidential nomination still is undecided as it heads to Texas.

Ingalsbe is opposed by an elderly Celestino Mendez, former president of the San Marcos school board. Kyle’s old-time Democratic operation supports Mendez, remembering that he held together a coalition to integrate local schools five decades ago. Mendez also has support from a muscular cell of Texas State Democrats that helped put Chris Jones on the San Marcos City Council two years ago and almost duplicated the feat with Jude Prather last November.

So, the spotlight, and the pressure, blared on Ingalsbe as the audience hung on her every word. At first, Ingalsbe described the need for road improvements in the county and suggested that the county put its $2 million of interest earnings from the 2001 road bond into keeping work alive on FM 1626.

Then came this from Ingalsbe: “If we move forward with 1626, then there’s no need to have revenue bonds before an election in May.”

The crowd exhaled its disappointment, groaning and murmuring in sufficient volume for Sumter to gavel for order. On those heels, Fords remarks in favor of a May bond election without revenue bonds did little to calm the audience or restore the color to Barton’s face.

Conley then spoke for several minutes, saying he didn’t buy the concept of a May election, especially not after the court’s conduct in a failed bond election for pass-through financing in May 2007. Though Ford and Sumter both protested that they would vigorously support a May election because the present road package is significantly different than the package considered a year ago, Conley was unconvinced.

“We’re putting all the cards on the table,” Conley said. “Do you think it’s wise to cram all (the road issues) in within a couple weeks … If this fails in May, it’s over. You will drive the highways you drive today for a very long time.”

When Barton took his turn, he mentioned that he’d hoped to apply the $2 million of interest earnings from the 2001 bond to SH 21, which was addressed as a side-agreement with TxDOT on the failed 2007 bond and remains an important road for Ingalsbe. Liking that idea, Ingalsbe soon brought revenue bonds back to life when she asked Barton for the absolute minimum figure in revenue bonds he would accept in a friendly amendment to his motion.

Barton had cooked up numerous scenarios, with the low point showing $14.5 million. Sumter tried calling for a vote during the ensuing exchange, but Barton, Ingalsbe and Conley prevailed on her for a short break so they could quickly discuss interim funding options with city officials.

As court returned to session, Ingalsbe proposed an amendment for $19.5 million in revenue bonds. The new arrangement called for $4 million on US 290 (down from $8 million in Barton’s original motion), $1 million for the FM 2001 overpass near Cabela’s (same as the original), $8.5 million for right-of-way acquisition and other preliminary work on Interstate-35 (same as the original), no money for I-35 construction (down from $10 million, though the difference could be covered by Kyle’s pledge to kick in $11 million), $4 million for FM 1626 (same as the original) and a $2 million cushion for contingencies.

Barton considered asking for the vote on $31 million, anyway, but never received a resounding assurance from Ingalsbe that she would follow a failed vote with a motion for $19.5 million, so he accepted the friendly amendment.

“My dear, departed grandmother told me that half a loaf is sometimes better than a full loaf,” Barton said.

Said Ingalsbe, “It’s actually more than half a loaf.”

Sumter said she disliked the provision for $4 million on US 290, saying it would result in half of a road if a bond election fails. Barton drew laughs with his response to Sumter: “If you’ll be my third vote, I’ll go back up to $31 million.”

However, Ford suddenly faced a vote in which she would either take or leave a minimal commitment to US 290 in her precinct and said, “I don’t think TxDOT will leave us with half a road and I will vote accordingly.”

Additionally, Sumter argued that a $19.5 million issue in revenue bonds would boost the property-tax rate by two-thirds of a cent, but Conley countered that the county could just as easily make budget cuts to cover the difference. Barton had argued that every month of delay on the road projects raises their costs 1.5 percent, or $85,000, which is enough to carry the note on a 30-year bond.

With all the haggling over the revenue bond amount, the motion’s provision for a November election sailed through almost as an afterthought. Sumter and Ford brought up the election date, but the other three feigned no interest in discussing it and the votes, by then, were lined up.

In the end, Barton wound up with a little less than half the revenue bonds he wanted and a little more than half of what he asked for. But the larger development, perhaps, was the establishment of a bond election in November instead of May. As the issue came to a close, Sumter appealed for the court to work for a bond victory in November.

“We need time to prepare for the largest bond election in this county’s history,” Conley said.

By the time commissioners account for the pass-through roads and other state roads in the county, it could come to $200 million or more. But now the court has breathing room for that decision.

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