El Paso County Commissioners Court is considering issuing up to $100 million in debt without voter approval early next year for a slew of improvements to county facilities – and have started talks to put a multi-million dollar bond issue on the November 2024 ballot.

During a capital project planning workshop on Thursday, the commissioners court  waded through a preliminary list of about 150 projects – from improvements to Ascarate Park to upgrading fire safety and AC systems at the jail annex – totaling more than $690 million. The projects will be whittled down and considered for different funding methods, said Jose Landeros, the county’s director of capital planning.

Under the proposal, the county could fund some projects with up to $100 million in certificates of obligation – debt that doesn’t require voter approval – to be issued in January. Separately, the county could ask voters for up to $100 million for quality-of-life projects in two years.

“We’re waiting for the final project listing to share information with the public and begin our public outreach,” County Administrator Betsy Keller said, adding that the county is being diligent about prioritizing projects, paying off old debt and keeping taxes low. 

Preliminary projects being considered include more than $100 million for parks – the vast majority for Ascarate Park – and nearly $90 million to modernize county facilities. Also being considered is $52 million for regional transportation projects; $13 million for water utility improvements; $10 million for historical building restoration and preservation; and nearly $6 million for tech services.

Specific projects with big price tags under consideration include $35 million to renovate the El Paso County Coliseum; $36 million for the Fabens airport area that’s becoming a regional hub of aerospace technology programs; $16 million to open an animal shelter in East Montana; $9 million for the far East Montana jail annex; $8 million for a new medical examiner’s office; $7 million for a senior nutrition meal preparation kitchen; and $5 million to expand the El Paso County Sportspark.

The commissioners court on Thursday was asked to rank their most valued projects from which staff will draft a list of top priorities to be presented to them on Monday. The court is expected to finalize the project list on Nov. 17 and vote whether to approve publishing a notice of intent to issue the certificates of obligation on Nov. 21. Authorizing the sale of the bonds would be voted on in late January.

Preliminary estimates show the $100 million issuance could cost the owner of a $165,000 home about $25 a year, said Brad Angst, director of the county’s financial advising firm Stifel Public Finance.

Landeros, Keller and Angst repeatedly said the certificate of obligation bonds would not increase the county’s tax rate.

However, Rudy Segura, the county’s bond counsel who attended the meeting virtually, warned the court and staff about how they present information on the bonds’ impact on taxpayers.

“You have to be careful you’re not making the representation that you’re not increasing taxes,” Segura said. 

Even if the tax rate remains the same, taxpayers could see larger tax bills if their home valuations increase. Collecting more in tax revenues than the previous year is considered a tax increase under state tax laws.

Segura also noted that the county could face a petition opposing the issuance of debt without voter approval much like University Medical Center of El Paso did this fall.

As part of the El Paso Hospital District under the county’s oversight, UMC had asked the commissioners court to allow it to issue $346 million in certificates of obligation for a slew of projects. But a petition submitted by the LIBRE Initiative carried enough signatures to take that decision out of the hands of the court. UMC now has to decide whether to put the bond up for voter approval.

Segura said deciding which projects to fund with certificates of obligation versus voter-approved general obligation bonds is key because local governments can’t issue COs for any bond projects rejected by voters for up to three years following the bond election.

Landeros said the county is looking to put the proposed bond on the November 2024 ballot to draw on increased voter turnout during the presidential election and also give the county plenty of time to vet its projects internally and with the public. Many of those projects – such as improvements to Ascarate Park, the coliseum and sports park – have already undergone cost studies under a larger county parks and venues master plan

The last time the county asked voters for general obligation bonds was in 1988 for a new county courthouse in Downtown, Landeros said. The county also authorized the El Paso Hospital District to ask voters for $120 million for the construction of the El Paso Children’s Hospital in 2007.

“We’ve been able to lower our debt rate the past few years so fiscally we have some room to get priority projects done, so now it’s just looking at which are ‘keep the lights on’ projects and which are more quality-of-life type projects that taxpayers can vote on,” Landeros said.

El Paso native Cindy Ramirez has spent most of her career in journalism, with some stints in public and media relations and military reporting. She's covered everything from education to local government...