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The $128M Bond Question the City Can’t Answer

This is the only reason you need to vote NO on Nov. 8

The city of Huntsville is pretty good at sleight of hand, but there’s one crucial question about the $128 million in record bond debt on the Nov. 8 ballot city officials can’t answer.

Why are they asking us to approve all this debt FIVE YEARS before they will even plan and budget these capital projects?

The City Council and the city manager say we need a bunch of city stuff fixed. They also say the city is in a unique position to take on $128 million of debt over the next 30 years to pay for these projects WITHOUT RAISING TAXES or UTILITY RATES. This is La La Land stuff, even if we do need the upgrades to water and sewer systems, city hall, city service center, and public safety facilities.

But what we need and the city’s “no new taxes” pledges are entirely beside the point. This is not how responsible government works.

Real-world capital projects — like the ones the city proposes — are planned down to the last bag of concrete. The project team, led by a certified project manager, writes a specific “scope of work,” from which a project budget is developed and a project timeline set. The company or agency sponsor issues a bid with the scope of work attached and a contractor is chosen. A project manager oversees the project to prevent needless cost overruns and to keep the project on track. If the sponsor must borrow money to pay for the project, this is done before work commences but after a project scope and budget have been developed. Otherwise the project cost could easily spiral out of control.

The city is going a different route. They’re asking voters to say YES to borrowing all the money the city can afford to borrow in 2016 when they won’t start planning these projects until about 2021 when the city’s current debt rolls off the books. Why?

The city thought you might be smart enough to ask that, but not smart enough to comprehend their nearly incomprehensible answer. Here it is — from the FAQs on their website:

“Why did the City decide to put all of these propositions on one ballot and not wait until the [City’s current] debt is paid off to call an election?”

Part 1 of the city’s “answer.” Feel free to skim if bureaucratese ain’t your cup o’ tea. You won’t miss anything.

Waiting to call the elections as the debt expired would have presented two potential problems. First, the City would have been calling (and paying for) bond elections every year or perhaps every other year. Since the bond language would have been essentially the same year after year, that may have led some voters to question whether the projects were in fact “new” or if the City was experiencing cost overruns for previous projects approved.

Translation: Some of you stupid voters can’t distinguish one ballot proposition from another. You see a proposition asking for $73 million in water and sewer plant upgrades as exactly the same as $24 million to remodel city hall and the city service center. If we ask for bond funds year after year for distinctly different projects with different descriptions and different bond amounts, some of you bleeping goofballs will think we’re asking for more money to cover for contractor or city mismanagement on the first project. Which would never happen. Nope, never.

City’s answer, Part 2: Second, some of the expiring debt will result in new bond funds of approximately $3.5 million to $4 million. Unfortunately, the price tag for all of these projects is much higher. Citizens should expect to see results when they authorize a bond election. Having elections for smaller amounts may not have allowed meaningful progress on projects.

Translation: When debt rolls off the books in five years, this will free up a few million bucks for new projects. But we need a bunch more than that. We know that as soon as you let us build one thing, you want to see it pretty much done before you OK money for the next thing. Isn’t it funny then that we can’t explain why this year we’re asking you for $128 million for three projects with no intention of starting them for five years? Sorry. Logic isn’t our strong suit.

Walker County News Today asked a few certified project managers from Houston if they could think of a reason the city of Huntsville would ask to borrow a “not to exceed” lump sum five years before the city scoped and budgeted any of the projects.

“Not a good reason,” they said. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.

“Would you vote for this $128 million bond — even if the project work needed to be done?”

“Not on your life,” they said.

Project managers are smart. Be like project managers. Vote NO on Nov. 8.

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