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Cityscrapes: Streetcars, debt and us

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The list of certificate-financed projects in the budget is a long and hefty one. Beyond the $32 million the council committed to the Downtown streetcar, there’s $22.6 million for a new Downtown parking garage, and $1.7 million for the Brackenridge animal adoption center, as well as $1.8 million for a new hangar for Police Department helicopters. And to be sure, there are some perennials as well, projects that seem to keep getting city dollars year after year. Remember the money for the Alameda Theater in 2000? Well, there’s more now, a total of $520,000 in the current budget. There’s $500,000 for Hemisfair Park, $262,000 for Main Plaza, and $3.5 million for access improvements for the River Walk. There’s also a long list defined as “Council District – Infrastructure Improvements:” $500,000 in C of O funds for District 10, $350,000 for District 2, another $450,000 for District 9.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these certificates. They clearly provide a means of financing things like the helicopter hangar or new fire stations that are necessary parts of the city’s business. But as the streetcar example and a long list of others suggest, they also provide the dollars for a kind of municipal “goodie bag”—public improvements promoted by one or another mayor or a favored councilmember, and a means of funneling dollars into Downtown or “economic development” projects that might not withstand the scrutiny of the voting public at the polls. Now that the streetcar plan—at least for a time—is off the public agenda, it’s time for a new mayor and council to think about whether we need to keep spending hundreds of millions in tax dollars without public approval. At the very least, we need the council, and the city manager, to make a real case for this spending, and give San Antonio citizens an opportunity to vote. And then perhaps they’ll listen to us.

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