The city of Huntsville is getting ready for orderly economic development by cleaning up the city’s development code and progressing with $18 million in projects, including the design of the federal grant-funded Town Creek Drainage Project, said City Manager Matt Benoit at a State of the City presentation Tuesday.
City staff and Huntsville’s City Council are also gearing up for the challenges of 2016 when a major portion of the city’s debt “rolls off” and a committee of council members will either recommend incurring new debt or guiding the city into a debt-free financial policy, he said.
Benoit outlined the city’s accomplishments and progress in a 45-minute State of the City presentation for about 50 residents at the Walker County Storm Shelter. The event was sponsored by the Huntsville-Walker County Chamber of Commerce.
The city applied for the Town Creek project grant six years ago to solve long-standing issues with the drainage of stormwater run-off into the creek, which causes widespread flooding in lower elevations in the city. Another goal of the project is “to enhance and beautify” the lands along the creek, Benoit said.
The city plans to hire a construction manager to complete the $9 to $11 million construction phase of the project.
In 2015 the city completed an update of the development code to make it clear, consistent and easier to understand, and to align it with state law.
“I believe we’ve done the community a huge favor in cleaning up that document,” Benoit said.
The revised code will help guide even rapid new development in an orderly fashion, he said.
Among other capital projects, Huntsville is working on construction of a new solid waste transfer station to replace the existing one that was “undersized five years after it was constructed,” he said. This facility will help accommodate the increased influx of trash from all over Walker County.
The city has been engaged in several infrastructure-related studies to determine the city’s most pressing needs – streets, water and wastewater, and facilities. By the end of the year, Benoit said, the city will also have finished its parks master plan.
The results of these studies and master plans will be a factor in what a committee, composed of council members Don Johnson, Lydia Montgomery and Joe Rodriquez, recommends with regard to the issuance of new debt, the city manager said.
“We owe it to ourselves to study everything,” he said.
The city also won a $2.4 million Transportation Alternatives Program grant from the Texas Department of Transportation that will be used in part to construct large “pedestrian paths” from Highway 75 South at Boettcher Drive up Sam Houston Avenue to Avenue J. The city will also build these multi-use sidewalks along Montgomery Road and Lake Road. The city will kick in $850,000 for the TAP grant.
With Sam Houston State University adding 1,800 new living units, students would use the sidewalks or multi-use trails for walking or cycling, “allowing for a different dynamic for travel in this community,” Benoit said.
“I think this is going to be a huge move for Sam Houston State University,” he said.
Benoit also discussed the Type B or 4B sales tax proposition on the Nov. 3 ballot. This measure would allow council to set up an economic development board funded by one-eighth of 1 percent of the city’s sales tax, or about $625,000, to be diverted from the city’s General Fund. The board would recommend allocation of funds to support economic development that would create primary jobs and “quality of life” projects.
In response to questions the city has fielded from citizens, Benoit said council chose 4B so that voters could weigh in on the idea of a tax-funded economic development corporation and that the 4B offered more options than what’s known as a 4A sales tax-funded corporation that was limited to creation of primary jobs only.
The board would recommend economic development projects for funding and City Council would have to approve them before funds could be allocated.
When asked if the 4B would cause property taxes to go up, Benoit said that several variables might cause an individual’s property tax bill to increase and that it would be hard to determine if Type B or 4B sales tax had a direct impact on taxes.
Proponents say it’s a good time to set up a 4B because the city’s sales tax is growing and the corporation, with council oversight, would help Huntsville compete for businesses that would provide new jobs.
Opponents of the Type B or 4B say it adds an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy to accomplish what City Council can already do. 4B could very well raise taxes given that the sales tax that would be diverted is designed to give taxpayers relief on their property taxes, they say. And given that state law allows city councils the right to appoint its own members to a majority of the board and the mayor as executive director, taxpayers could actually have little oversight in what projects are funded with 4B funds. Opponents also say the 4B corporation could incur millions of dollars in debt that the voters would not pre-approve.