Street infrastructure will be a high priority for the bond program the city of El Paso will likely ask voters to approve during the November general election.
The city government is in the early stages of developing the community engagement schedule that will be followed by public outreach before the bond program is introduced in early August.
Robert Cortinas, chief financial officer for the city of El Paso, said there is not a specific list of projects or a price tag for the bond at this stage.
“We know streets are going to be the number one priority, but we may have multiple propositions,” Cortinas said.
Initial city documents show categories for projects could also include solar energy, eco tourism, housing and green infrastructure.
The bond issues would be repaid through property taxes. A 2018 report by the Texas comptroller found that El Paso residents had about $2,900 of municipal tax-supported debt per person, which was 10th among the state’s 20 largest cities.
Tom Fullerton, economics professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, said even though some taxpayers may see a new bond issuance as a financial burden, the El Paso economy emerged from the initial part of the COVID-19 pandemic in good shape.
“Even though the pandemic has not gone away yet, it still has not damaged the economy enough to where the City Council should not take advantage of the opportunity to issue bonds in support of physical infrastructure,” Fullerton said.
He also said focusing the bond on physical infrastructure would be a prudent route to take because those projects last and voters would see the benefits.
Cortinas said it is too early to determine what the impact to taxpayers will be, but if the bond measure is approved, not all of the debt would be issued immediately. He said any projects that get approved would have to go through initial planning and design before they would be ready for construction.
He said debt for the projects would likely be issued over a five- to seven-year timeframe.
He also said the city would closely evaluate when to issue the bonds and take any possible impact to the tax rate into consideration to minimize the impact on taxpayers.
Cortinas said the city is in the process of updating its pavement condition index study which will help identify what work or repairs need to be addressed on city streets. He said the last PCI study was conducted about three years ago and the city is aiming to keep up with the condition of the roads to be able to determine future needs to maintain streets before they deteriorate.
“Even with the amount of investment that we’ve managed to do in the last few years, there’s still a tremendous amount of need (for street repair),” Cortinas said.
In 2012, the City Council approved about $218 million for a streets capital improvement program. Cortinas said a majority of the funding for those projects — including non-voter approved debt in the form of certificates of obligation — has been issued, but there were multiple reconstruction projects that did not have funding and needed to be addressed.
He said the city has about $10 million per year in a pay-as-you-go fund for streets, but that funding is not sufficient to cover the needs.
“(It) is not even a quarter of what we need on an annual basis to get on a regular replacement cycle,” he said.
Cortinas said while streets will be the priority, the community will have ample opportunity to participate and make suggestions for projects they may want to see funded through a bond measure.
In 2019, voters were asked to approve an approximately $413 million public safety bond to fund a variety of projects and improvements for the El Paso Police Department and El Paso Fire Department, including a new police and fire academy.
Cortinas said about 40% of the debt for the bond has been issued and is already built into the city’s tax rate. He said those projects are anticipated to be rolled out over a five- to seven-year timeframe.
In 2012, voters approved a $473 million bond to fund park improvements, library improvements and community centers. The bond issue also included funding for three signature projects — a children’s museum, a multipurpose performing arts center and a Mexican American cultural center. None of the signature bond projects have been completed.
Multiple projects have cost more than originally estimated. The city has used millions in certificates of obligation to cover the costs.
Cortinas said city staff worked closely with the police and fire departments to get estimates for the public safety bond projects as close to accurate as possible.
“We spent months and months on the public safety projects, ensuring that we had really good estimates … to ensure that we know exactly what those projects were going to entail, what the scope was going to look like and whether or not we’re going to need land acquisition,” Cortinas said. “We (will) take the same course of action with whatever potential projects come down the line in the future.”
Cortinas said the debt for all of the projects from the 2012 quality of life bond, with the exception of the Downtown arena, has been issued and the city has completed a majority of the projects ahead of the original 15-year finance plan. Construction for the Children’s Museum and Mexican American Cultural Center that will be located in the Downtown library are underway.
The Downtown multipurpose arts and entertainment center has been stalled for years with ongoing litigation. City Council recently opted to try to negotiate an end to the years-long legal battle.
Alex Hoffman, assistant director of planning with the city’s capital improvement department, said he urges El Pasoans to participate in the process for the upcoming bond planning process.
Hoffman said the city will employ a variety of strategies including community meetings, surveys and outreach over the next several months.
“I would encourage people to give us that feedback. So that way, whatever this (bond) ends up looking like is representative of what the people will also want to see,” Hoffman said.
Cover photo: Workers stand at the intersection of Bob Mitchell Drive and Russ Randall Street in East El Paso, where the city is re-surfacing several neighborhood streets. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)