By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
BUDA – Facing a $500,000 budget shortfall for Fiscal Year 2008-09, Buda City Councilmembers declined to apply for the Texas Main Street program Tuesday night, disappointing a chamber full of downtown business owners and their supporters.
Downtown business interests began pushing this spring for Buda to join the Main Street program, which helped San Marcos generate $47.5 million of downtown reinvestment in 20 years after joining in 1986. Tuesday night, program supporters jammed the council meeting as about a dozen of them implored the council to submit an application.
But councilmembers were in no mood to consider a $62,500 annual expenditure for the Main Street program after learning in a budget workshop earlier Tuesday that declining sales taxes will force the city to tighten its belt.
The proceedings added up to a bleak picture for Buda’s economy. Not only is downtown Buda crying for help, but the recent sales tax juggernaut along Interstate-35 no longer can pay the city’s expanding bills.
The opening of Cabela’s in the summer of 2004 shot Buda’s sales tax haul from $774,000 to $1.4 million in Fiscal Year 2006. Wal-Mart opened in the summer of 2006, enabling Buda to nearly double its FY 2007 budget on projections of $2.3 million in sales taxes. The city budgeted the same $2.3 million for FY 2008.
But Buda hasn’t added significant new retail since Wal-Mart, and the world on Buda’s periphery has changed. To the north, the enormous Southpark Meadows strip mall development at Interstate-35 and Slaughter Lane has ramped up to full speed, while, to the south, Kyle opened an H-E-B Plus! with a dozen satellite retailers barely more than a year ago.
Now, Kyle is seeing a 23 percent increase in its sales tax revenues on a monthly basis, while Buda entered the final quarter of FY 2008 figuring it would only take in $1.8 million, $500,000 less than projected.
Once Main Street supporters spoke to the council, it quickly became clear the council wouldn’t agree to an application. Mayor Bobby Lane and Councilmembers Sandra Tenorio and Ron Fletcher all noted that the budgetary problem would make an application untenable. With Councilmember Tom Crouse absent, three votes in opposition would be enough to kill it. Thus, no motion came forward either way,
“Given the reality of the budget workshop we had tonight, I don’t know where it fits in,” Fletcher said.
Tenorio said she’s not convinced of the program’s effectiveness, but her concerns didn’t end there. Tenorio said she didn’t like the idea of an expenditure that hasn’t even been included in the FY 2009 budget process. Additionally, she said, the city has spent nearly $1 million for downtown recently between the truck by-pass ($200,000) and the Main Street beautification ($700,000).
Tenorio and Lane both said the city should consider applying for the Main Street program as part of its 2009-2010 budget, so it could be included in the process from the start.
However, Councilmember Cathy Chilcote pushed for the council to at least keep the question alive for an application this fall, going so far as to suggest that Buda’s Economic Development Corporation might fund the Main Street program.
“The downtown area is not thriving,” Chilcote said. “If we wait, we’re going to lose that foundation we have in the downtown area. I would like to give the downtown community some form of hope. I think they’re here because they’re afraid that downtown is slipping away.”
Many downtown business owners spoke exactly that concern, and no one on the council disagreed. While key downtown properties have rapidly deteriorated due to absentee ownership, the city’s increasing population is less and less aware of downtown Buda.
“It’s sad to see what’s happening,” Lane said. “But there comes a point where you have to ask, “How far does government go?’”
The Texas Main Street program numbers 88 cities, including the Central Texas cities of Bastrop, Elgin, Georgetown, Gonzales, Llano, Luling, New Braunfels, San Marcos, Seguin and Taylor. A successful applicant makes a three-year commitment to the program, including the hiring of a full-time Main Street manager.
The program offers a central point of administration for downtown redevelopment, including expertise in raising capital and improving properties.
“(The Main Street program) tries to tie the disparate forces and talents of a downtown together,” said Kevin Walker, who served on he board that reviews Main Street applications in the 1990s. “You wouldn’t open a mall or strip center and say, ‘We don’t need management.’ The effort needs coordination.”
Buda Interim City Manager Sarah Mangham, who also is the city finance director, said the program would cost $62,500 per year, including about $40,000 in salary and benefits for the Main Street director. Mangham said about $5,000 could be funded from the city’s hotel tax, which can only be applied to tourism promotion.
But on a night when councilmembers learned the city will be short $500,000 next year to maintain the same level of service, to say nothing of an unfunded wish list for $300,000, additional appeals for money were doomed.
“It’s the right program,” Walker said, “and, maybe, in this case, it’s the wrong time.”
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