Critics of billion-dollar bond issues tell voters to just say no

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by Doug Miller / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on October 15, 2012 at 9:38 PM

Updated Monday, Oct 15 at 9:40 PM

HOUSTON --  Only a week before early voting polls open, Houston’s multi-billion dollar bond issues have attracted their first organized opposition. 

A small group of activists led by Dave Wilson, a gleeful conservative troublemaker, called a news conference to criticize the bond plans put before voters by the Houston Independent School District, the Houston Community College System and the City of Houston.

“Nobody in this group is opposed to higher education,” Wilson said.  “Everybody in this group knows the value of education.  That’s not what we’re talking about here today.  We’re talking about whether we’re getting our dollar’s worth and whether there’s accountability.”

Opponents of the bond issues questioned whether governments and school districts should borrow more money when they’re already deeply in debt.  They also questioned priorities.

“If the city doesn’t have the money to test untested rape kits, why are we passing a bond election onto the taxpayer to improve hike and bike trails?” asked Elizabeth Perez, a bond issue opponent, referring to the $166-million the city hopes to borrow for parks.

They also circulated news releases saying Houston’s population and HISD’s enrollment have been on the decline, an assertion that left local school officials scratching their heads.

Voters in the Houston area will pass judgment on a whopping amount of debt totaling more than $2.5 billion.

HISD wants to borrow $1.9 billion—the largest school bond issue in Texas history—to renovate, rebuild or replace 38 schools, as well as take care of a laundry list of other items for local education.  The bond package comes with a property tax hike that district officials estimate would cost the owner of a $200,000 home another $70 a year.

The Houston Community College System wants voters to approve a $425 million bond issue that would expand campuses and bankroll a new medical center facility.  HCCS taxpayers would pay another 2 to 3 cents per $100 valuation on their homes, officials estimate, costing the owner of a $150,000 home at least $37 a year.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker wants voters to pass a $410 million package of bond issues paying for everything from libraries to affordable housing to police and fire stations.  But the biggest portion of the package -- $166 million—would pay for a plan to link the city’s unconnected network of parks and bicycle trails.

“What we’ve got to do is send them back to the drawing board, look at something more reasonable that we can all live with and something we can also afford,” Wilson said.

But school bond issue supporters, who took cameras on a tour of the 76-year-old Lamar High School, argue that it’s the perfect time to borrow money for necessary education expenditures.

“We know these buildings are going to have to be replaced,” said Terry Grier, the HISD superintendant.  “It’s just a matter if it’s now or it’s later.  Right now, interest rates are at their all-time low in the area.  It’s a great time to be doing construction.”

Just how effective the bond opposition campaign can become is questionable.  A survey conducted for bond advocates last month indicated voter support for the issues was so strong, even supporters were surprised.  The opponents called their campaign’s kick-off news conference just a week before early voting begins and mail ballots are already in the hands of many voters.

The newly formed group plans to launch a radio advertising campaign to get out the vote against the bond issues.

 

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