Out of Bondage 

The Feds aren't the only lawmakers who use giant budgets to hide big giveaways

We’re going to get to vote on $550 million in new City of San Antonio debt next May. We don’t yet know what the projects are. We don’t know what part of town will get what. And we don’t know who will benefit — beyond the standard set of engineers, architects, and contractors.

We’ve been promised that $550 million in new bonds, to be paid off over some 20 years, won’t raise the tax rate. And we don’t really know how much more funding we need to fix up our streets, parks, libraries, drainage, and public facilities.

But we do know that there are things we won’t have a chance to vote on: The projects financed with “certificates of obligation,” the debt that doesn’t require voter approval, which gives the politicos and City Hallers something to play with without asking the public.

Certificates of obligation in past years and administrations have gotten us things like the Majestic and Empire theaters, Alamodome concession stands, the Natatorium at Palo Alto College, the Municipal Court building on South Frio, and the transformation of the old Main Library into the “International Center” to accommodate the NAD Bank. And don’t forget Nelson Wolff Stadium — certificates of obligation and no public vote on building that, either.

So, let’s take a quick look at the Fiscal 2007 city budget, to see what new things we won’t get a chance to vote on next May. I’ll share some of my personal favorites.

Listed in the budget under “Public Health and Safety: Drainage” is an item for San Antonio River Improvements, covering the north and south reaches of the river from Brackenridge Park to Mission Espada. The $25 million city contribution budgeted for these improvements over the next five years includes almost $15 million in as-yet un-issued certificates of obligation, along with $6 million from the voter-approved Proposition 2, and $2.5 million in CPS “lease back proceeds.” But this $25 million won’t come close to paying the bill for the planned river improvements, a partner project with Bexar County, private sources, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The budget estimates total 10-year costs for river improvements at $140 million.

(A brief aside — some of you may remember that in 2000, then-Mayor Howard Peak proposed a dedicated sales tax to fund these same river improvements, at an estimated $30 million, along with three other sales-tax-spending proposals, dubbed “Better Future San Antonio.” Fifty-six percent of voters said “no” to the sales-tax plan for the river spending. The City is funding those same improvements anyway.)

Back to the budget. The development of Main Plaza downtown (see related story, page 8) is budgeted for a total of $5 million for next year, including $2 million in certificates of obligation and $3 million in CPS proceeds. That’s just the first installment, paying for a “master plan” and “landscape design and construction plans.” Continuing work on the Alameda Theater on Houston Street will cost another $2.2 million next year, all from vote-free certificates.

But not all “c of o”s are earmarked for downtown. The Medical Center area will gain $1.1 million for street and infrastructure improvements next year, with a total of $7 million through FY 2012. South New Braunfels gets monies to better serve Brooks City-Base and “economic development” with a $2.8 million pricetag. And there will be more street money for the Wurzbach Parkway project: a total of $4.7 million from certificates of obligation dating back to 2002, including $2 million in new money. That’s the same Wurzbach Parkway proposed by then-Mayor Henry Cisneros in January 1988, embraced by his successor Nelson Wolff in April 1992 as “an important project,” vital to relieving traffic congestion on Loop 410, and is today still years from being finished. We will soon celebrate its 20th anniversary.

Then there are the big-ticket items: Land acquisition at Voelker Ranch for a planned major new park is budgeted at $16.5 million in certificates, with more spending promised from the proposed $550-million bond package. Another item, the initial cost of buying land for the proposed Southside campus for Texas A&M, comes in at $15 million.

Just these few projects funded with certificates of obligation total $68 million. The future San Antonio River improvements could easily add another $40 million or more to the tab. And the fiscal 2007 capital budget shows a total of $127 million in “c of o” dollars. That funds plenty of projects downtown (like Main Plaza and the Alameda). It takes care of street and highway projects that were supposed to be paid for by the state or completed years ago. And with projects like the proposed A&M campus, the funding provides public goodies for favored developers in the name of “progress” and “growth.”

But we won’t be able to vote on spending these dollars or decide if they really are worth our tax dollars. The City Hall-folk know that we might just say “no.”

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