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City eyes bonds on steroids

San Antonio City Council may implement a plan this spring to raise more than $1 billion in property-tax-based bond issues over the next 12 years in an effort to repair the city’s battered streets and build sorely needed drainage projects.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Acting Finance Director Ben Gorzell outlined a bond-issue scenario last week during a City Council B Session, and surmised the City could issue $1 billion in bonds in four-year increments of about $400 million each - without an increase in the property-tax rate because of projected population and housing growth.

Bond issues are a common tool used by government entities to pay for infrastructure such as streets and drainage. The bonds are paid for with revenue from property taxes. San Antonio’s property-tax rate is nearly 58 cents per $100 valuation assessed on homes and other properties that lie within the city limits.

“What we’re proposing is four times the amount the city has done in the past,” Sculley informed the council. “We kept the bond program to four years. You could go to five, but I strongly urge you not to go beyond five years.”

She pointed out that the last three bond issues, in 1994, 1999, and 2003, averaged in the $100-million range and amounted to a total of $369.4 million in revenue. “This is much larger than what we’ve done in the past,” Gorzell explained. “We think this is a good, sound approach.”

Most council members agreed, but the discussion was led by second-term councilman Chip Haass, who said he would rather see a $600-million bond issue, possibly in May 2007.

“We’re seeing unsurpassed growth,” Haass said.

Not only that, but a drive in just about any sector of the city reveals streets that resemble wilderness trails, with craters, bumps, cracks, and buckles that turn daily trips into obstacle courses.

“The community is up in arms about the infrastructure,” Haass added. “There are lots of challenges today. Let’s have a fireside chat about the needs of the community. The needs are there, and it’s demanding that we act. We have to target May 2007. It would be a travesty to wait one more year; it’s only going to get worse.”

One potential problem is timing. If the city sets a $400-million bond-issue vote for May 2007 - when council elections will also be held - if any school districts also put large bond issues on the ballot the taxpaying voter could go into sticker shock.

Northside Independent School District passed a 2004 bond election of $439 million to build 11 new schools, including the Louis D. Brandeis High School, to relieve overcrowding at the Clark and O’Connor secondaries, but it warns taxpayers to brace for a 100,000 student load by 2012. According to the NISD website, a new bond election to build eight new elementary schools, one middle, and one high school is likely in May 2007. And the proposed amount could be larger than $439 million.

Laura Calderon, spokeswoman for Northeast ISD, says that district has “tentative plans for a bond issue” in May 2007. “We’re getting super crowded again. We need to get ready for after 2008.” Calderon says NEISD will appoint a planning committee this summer to work out the details.

Mayor Phil Hardberger said he would follow up with the other entities to see if they would ask for tax-rate increases, “to give us a little more data in making our own decisions. We need to be cognizant of the political implications.”

District 9 Councilman Kevin Wolff says he would support a bond issue in a higher amount, but “no tax increase, period, and only for streets and drainage.” He also suggested that future bond funds be distributed based on need rather than split equally between the 10 districts, “but that probably wouldn’t fly.”

Councilman Roger Flores disagreed. “Every district is different. If we were the Good Government League we could see the money `divided` citywide.”

Sculley said her office would bring the bond issue back to council in mid-April.

Haass, who urged the council to consider as high a bond issue as possible to complete more projects, is eager to set the program in motion. “I want everyone to be on the alert that we’re moving full speed ahead.”

By Michael Cary

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