LUFKIN – From his desk, Steve Bartlett can see historic downtown Nacogdoches, beautiful though worn by centuries of residents who have called this place home. Uneven sidewalks are difficult to navigate for residents with mobility issues. And busy roads present unsafe conditions for drivers. Underground, water flows through centuries-old pipes repaired in pieces with PVC pipes.
The infrastructure has exceeded its useful life and has reached a point where partial repairs are no longer sufficient.
“We are the oldest city in Texas and we have the oldest infrastructure in Texas,” said Bartlett, the city’s public works director.
City leaders in this East Texas town of 32,137, which dates back to 1779, are asking residents this election to approve a series of proposals that would allow them to borrow $44 million for capital improvements, such as repairs roads and improvements to the fire department. and storm drainage.
It’s the first time in decades that the city council has asked residents to let them take on more debt, and a fraction of what the city needs to fully repair itself.
Nacogdoches is one of 218 local governments asking voters to approve new debt or bonds this fall for improvements to city, school, water district and county facilities. The smallest project Texans will decide on amounts to $425,000, according to a state database maintained by the Texas Bond Review Board. That’s for improvements to Nacogdoches’ Sunset Cemetery. The biggest: $2.5 billion for a Harris County hospital.
Since 1951, Texas taxing districts have held more than 8,600 bond elections for improvements and new buildings, according to the Texas Comptroller’s Office. And Texas cities owed nearly $89.5 billion in voter-approved debt in 2022, according to the latest data from the Texas Review Board. Of that amount, $15 billion were issued in 2022.
Asking voters to approve new utility debt is always a gamble in a fiscally distressed state like Texas. The challenge is even greater in smaller rural communities that do not have a large tax base.
Unlike other local governments that typically detail all of their plans in a single ballot question with a single price tag, Nacogdoches divided its projects into seven different ballot questions so that each could be considered solely on its merits. The proposed bonds would go toward improvements to: fire protection, storm drainage, airport, city sidewalks and streets, cemeteries, parks and recreational facilities.
Bartlett believes this will make the proposals easier for voters to accept. They don’t have to vote on a $44 million bond that has projects they don’t agree with, but they can address it a la carte.
“In other words, we are not poisoning an entire bond issue that is bundled together like a school district would,” he said.
Any combination of approved projects will cause the city to begin addressing a significant decline in infrastructure. By the city’s estimate, Nacogdoches has at least $200 million in needed improvements.
Nacogdoches last saw its debt increase to about $40 million in 2012 due to refinancing and has been steadily paying it off for the past decade. However, the problems have worsened as the infrastructure has aged without a steady influx of capital investment.
With a limited city budget, officials say they often have to take a “Band-Aid” approach to repairs. And inflation hasn’t helped, Bartlett said. What may have cost $1 million to solve 10 years ago will now cost closer to $2 million just to catch up.
A committee of 20 residents helped the city craft the proposals, which are a combination of lifestyle and public safety needs. The lack of sidewalks in some areas has led to civilian injuries or deaths, which is an issue the city and TxDOT have been working to address outside of the bonds. And improvements at the Nacogdoches County airport could address limitations surrounding emergency air transport.
Meanwhile, investments in parks and recreational facilities would go a long way toward improving residents’ daily lives and meeting some of their basic needs, said Lily Phou, a member of the bond committee. She is also treasurer of NacNow, a political committee that supports bond issues.
“Yes, they seem like they are nice to have, but they are absolutely essential simply to provide better well-being for the citizens of Nacogdoches,” he said.
While each committee member started with different ideas and opinions about what was important to repair for the city, they came to a unanimous decision on the seven proposals. And they reduced the scope of the projects to what the city could realistically cover without raising taxes on citizens, Phou said.
Now it’s up to voters to decide what’s most important to them.
Among Texas cities of similar size, Nacogdoches has one of the lowest amounts of debt obligation overall and per capita, Texas Review Board data show. But in a year when lawmakers have fought to reduce property taxes for Texas landowners and debates over school bonds have abounded, the residents behind the Nacogdoches bonds are hopeful but realistic. Not all proposals will be approved.
An online reader survey conducted by local newspaper Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel found that 17% of volunteer respondents would not support the seven proposals. While the poll is unscientific, it serves as a fresh reminder that bond supporters have an uphill battle to win over the public.
For Bartlett, he sees the election as a point to tell the facts to residents and let them decide for themselves how tax dollars are allocated.
“It’s your tax money and I want you to be in charge of how it’s spent, where it’s spent and what priority,” he said.
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