Among the biggest issues facing the city of San Marcos in 2017 are a potential bond issuance and ongoing flood recovery effort, City Manager Jared Miller said. Here Miller discusses 2016 and looks ahead to 2017.
What were the highlights of 2016 for the city of San Marcos?
We’ve had a lot of things going on. It would be difficult to characterize what the top thing was. In our situation, the top thing is the successes that we’ve had in Washington D.C., getting the funding to help with flood recovery. Making our city more flood resistant, flood resilient, flood tolerant.
Economic development successes, such as Best Buy, Amazon—those are huge. They’re going to bring a lot of jobs and economic vitality [and] a lot of revenue from the Best Buy perspective. We’ve made a lot of progress on utility projects. We passed the hands-free ordinance. That’s a big positive from our area from a safety standpoint.
Last year the city was preparing to transition to fire-based emergency medical services. Is that still a priority?
We’re still planning to be prepared in case that happens, but the reason it was more of an important issue last year is because it looked like the failure of the current arrangement was imminent. We’ve made significant strides with our partners in EMS provision to kind of shore that up. So we have a little bit more confidence that it does have a little bit of longevity left to it. And possibly it could go beyond just a little bit. We’re not fully positive we will be taking on fire-based EMS in the next year or two. We can have a little bit of flexibility it looks like. We are still working to staff up our paramedic ranks inside the fire department so we are prepared in the event that happens. So I think we’ll be able to handle that with relatively short notice in case it does happen at some point in the future.
Has any progress been made on the city’s potential 2017 bond election?
We’ve been working with a community improvement program task force. We’ve met with them five or six times so far. That’s staff and the task force itself [that have met together]. The mayor is a member of the task force. We did that because we knew he would no longer be on council by the time a recommendation [of what projects to include in the potential bond] was made to council. We wanted to have someone on there who was very familiar and intimate with the intent of council [and] with the objectives of council when it came to these projects.
They tasked us with looking at necessary facility projects and also working with the task force to see if there was anything else that they felt we could reasonably try to do inside the financial constraints that we have. One of the things we’re evaluating and probably will come forward with is some form is a tax increase proposal that would go forward as a general obligation bond election. But we have to address pretty much a comprehensive lack of space in all facilities. Not just lack of space but age-related challenges with most of our facilities, either foundation failures or just general age-related failures.
Primarily it is facility needs we’re focusing on. Like I said, if there is something else they would like us to look at and the task force feels that we have capacity to do some of those things, then obviously we would want to do that. It could alternatively be that we focus a recommendation on facilities but also seek a resolution or some other form of commitment and support for a future process to look at other types of projects, be they parks or other types of projects, infrastructure, transportation, other projects that have historically been done through bonds.
Does the Federal Reserve’s recent decision to increase the short-term interest rate affect the city’s potential bond issuance?
It depends on how aggressive the Fed gets on rate increases. I don’t have an indication and I don’t have a crystal ball, like we were in in the ’80s where we’re at 12, 13, 14, 18 percent interest rates. But even a little bit of an interest rate increase reduces the amount of effectiveness you get out of a tax increase or a bond issuance. We definitely are going to be more effective now than a theoretical future where the interest rates are 2 or 3 percent higher.
One of the primary things council wants to do is make sure that whatever we recommend to them are things we can get started on within five years. We don’t want to approve a bond and then sit on it. One of the reasons for that is we want to take advantage of bonds when they’re less expensive to get. If we wait, and interest rates do go up seven years from now, we don’t want to be issuing debt that was authorized in 2017 in 2025 or 2023. There is no reason to wait on that. We’re trying to make sure and bite off only what we can accomplish inside a reasonable time.
Has the task force issued any specific recommendations as far as projects to be included in the bond?
There’s not specific recommendation yet. Facilities that have been focused on evaluating are City Hall, public services—which is all of the outside facilities, like fleet maintenance, facilities maintenance, parks and recreation maintenance, operations, streets, water and wastewater, electric utility, [and] all of those back-of-house shops. Also [included are the] library and public safety [departments]. We’ve got to make some renovations and expansions at the police department. We have to build at least two new fire stations. One is a replacement and one is an additional fire station. We’re considering whether or not we need to build a fire-training facility. That’s an important thing to have for continuing training of fire fighters. There are a number of facility projects.
Mostly our facilities projects are focused on expanding or replacing aging facilities. There is a new fire station in there. There is replacement of an inadequate fire station. If you’re familiar with the fire station we have on the west side of town, it’s basically a house. We’ve outgrown a number of facilities and we have a number of facilities that are just failing.
Would this be a May bond or November bond?
The whole process is structured around evaluating the potential of a May bond.
When would City Council need to formally call for a May bond election?
That would need to be called by Feb. 17. That would need to be called on second reading by Feb. 17. So there are a number of things that need to happen leading up to Feb. 17, so you can plan backwards from Feb. 17.
What else is on the horizon in 2017?
We’re working through the final stages of Code SMTX, [or] the land development code. I think it’s safe to assume that from a code standpoint [and] from a land development standpoint, we’re taking care of our neighborhoods and taking care of our river.
We want to focus on economic development that brings good jobs to our community.
We’ll be working on transportation and parking issues downtown.
What will be done with the tax increment reinvestment zone that has been in place to fund transit-oriented developments in the downtown area? Does the dissolution of the Lone Star Rail District affect that TIRZ?
That’s going to continue forward. The county is committed to continuing work on that. That’s TIRZ No. 5. We are going to be revising the projects that those funds can be used for. We have not finalized that. But the funds were originally focused on the Justice Center property and projects that would facilitate a future transportation-oriented development on that site. Now we’re still going to work on transportation and other infrastructure projects downtown, but we need to work with the county to characterize exactly what those projects would be and revise the allowed project list for that TIRZ.
Is there a feeling of moving away from Lone Star Rail? Is it considered dead now?
There are a lot of people who think it is completely done. I know other transportation-oriented developments and transportation systems went through many, many phases. Even with regard to [Union Pacific Corp., which owns the track the Lone Star Rail commuter train would have been built on]. In California, I think in the Los Angeles area, they killed UP’s participation in a rail project and then eventually they came back. I’m not saying that’s going to happen. Until it comes back we’re going to plan without them. I think Lone Star Rail, it sounds like that is done. But UP could theoretically come back in the future. I’m not holding my breath on that.
Have you heard of any commuter rail solutions since the dissolution of Lone Star Rail?
San Marcos is committed to finding and participating in a commuter rail program of some kind. I think our regional partners are as well. Nobody has a viable solution in mind or at hand. Until we have a viable solution, we’re all just going to be committed to doing something. It’s a little bit hollow, but it’s a challenge to find an answer to something that complicated in a congested area like ours.