Leander City Council takes Capital Metro item off agenda, votes to schedule workshop with transit authority

The Leander City Council meeting was filled to capacity July 18, during which the council was anticipated to make a decision regarding Capital Metro in Leander.

The Leander City Council meeting was filled to capacity July 18, during which the council was anticipated to make a decision regarding Capital Metro in Leander.

Leander City Council did not go forward with hiring an attorney for legal services regarding the possibility of withdrawing from Capital Metro during its July 18 meeting.

Council voted 6-0 to pull the item regarding Capital Metro from its meeting agenda and schedule a workshop between council and Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke on Aug. 22. Council Member Michelle Stephenson was absent from the meeting.

“While I am satisfied with this direction, I want to emphasize that the fee structure that small cities pay must change at some point, and I’m committed to seeing this happen,” Mayor Troy Hill said during the meeting. “For the first time, I believe it can and will happen, which is a game changer for our city.”

Capital Metro said in a statement sent during the meeting: “Under current Texas state law, it is unconstitutional for us to reduce the sales tax for just one, or a few, but not all member cities. Capital Metro believes in regional mobility solutions and we are happy to discuss with Leander and other regional stakeholders how we can better facilitate partnerships that meet joint goals.”

Hill said he recognizes this is a legislative issue.

"I believe that with Capital Metro being a partner with us and lobbying the legislature and possibly getting other suburbs in to join the effort, I think there is promise there," Hill said.

City council's decision comes after an item posted on the July 18 agenda sparked conversations over whether or not Leander should continue to be part of the transit authority.

Some 180 people showed up to Pat Bryson Municipal Hall for the meeting, filling the council chambers to capacity and spilling into the nearby lobby. More than 30 members of the community shared their thoughts on Capital Metro in Leander to the council.

Several residents said they moved to Leander because of Capital Metro, which provides rail and bus service into Austin. Some expressed concerns about the effect its removal would have on property values and discussed the role the system has had on attracting development to Leander. Residents also said Capital Metro is not perfect and supported council’s decision to work with Capital Metro going forward.

Shawn Conly, a Leander resident, said he uses the Capital Metro in Leander five days a week to get to work in Central Austin. He has a disability and said he relies on the public transportation in order to get to his job.

“Being disabled, I can’t drive,” Conly said. “Capital Metro enables me to support my family.”

Conly said he is cautiously optimistic about the decision council has made to work with Capital Metro.

“I’m glad to see Mayor Hill and the council understand that their desire to pay less in taxes is not a decision that Capital Metro can make without legislative changes,” Conly said. “I’m glad to see they are willing to sit down at the table and work on the partnerships and relationship they have.”

One percent sales tax levied by the city of Leander and other service members in the Austin area funds Capital Metro. In the last fiscal year, Leander contributed around $5.1 million to Capital Metro.

Hill said he thinks the city is paying Capital Metro money it could be using elsewhere.

“Paying half our sales tax in the system puts us at a competitive disadvantage when competing with cities around us for companies’ relocations,” Hill said.

If the city were to leave the transit authority, the city would have a financial obligation to the authority, according to Capital Metro spokesperson Mariette Hummel. As of December 2018, the cost of withdrawal was estimated to be $9.8 million. This amount is calculated by a formula in the Texas Transportation Code.

Data from Capital Metro shows in fiscal year 2017-18, Capital Metro’s operating cost to service Leander was around $9.3 million.

In addition to Leander residents, Thursday’s meeting also attracted former City Council members. Former Leander Council Member Michell Cantwell addressed the council, flanked by five other former council members.

"Public services cost money and don't always benefit every single person in the community, but they make it a better place to live," Cantwell told the council. "I ask each of you before you make some of these decisions, something as big as CapMetro, that you please think of the long term impact."
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