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LUFKIN – From his desk, Steve Bartlett can see Nacogdoches’ historic downtown, beautiful if worn down by centuries of residents who have called this place home. Uneven sidewalks are difficult for residents with mobility issues to navigate. And tightly-crowded roads present unsafe conditions for drivers. Underground, water flows through 100-year-old lines repaired in bits and pieces with PVC pipe.
The infrastructure is beyond its useful life and has reached a point where patchwork repairs no longer suffice.
“We’re the 'oldest town' in Texas and have the oldest infrastructure in Texas,” Bartlett, the city’s director of public works, said, referring to the town's motto.
City leaders in this East Texas town of 32,137 people — which traces its first settlement to 1716 and its first government to 1779 — are asking residents to approve a series of propositions this election that would allow them to borrow $44 million for capital improvements such as road repairs, upgrades to the fire department and storm drainage.
It’s the first time the city council has asked residents in decades to allow them to take on more debt — and a fraction of what the city needs to fully repair itself.
Nacogdoches is one 218 local governments asking voters to approve new debt, or bonds, this fall for city, school, water district and county facility upgrades. The smallest project Texans will decide comes in at $425,000, according to a state database maintained by the Texas Bond Review Board. That’s for improvements to Nacogdoches’ Sunset Cemetery. The largest: $2.5 billion for a Harris County hospital.
Since 1951, Texas taxing districts have held more than 8,600 bond elections for upgrades and new buildings, according to the Texas Comptroller. And Texas cities owed nearly $89.5 billion in voter-approved debt in 2022, according to the latest data from the Texas Review Board. Of that amount, $15 billion was issued in 2022.
Asking voters to approve new debt for public services is always a gamble in a tax-averse state like Texas. The challenge is even greater in smaller, rural communities that don’t have a large tax base.
Unlike other local governments which typically detail all of their plans into one ballot question with one price tag, Nacogdoches split its projects into seven different ballot questions so each one could be considered on its merits alone. The proposed bonds would go toward improvements in: fire protection, storm drainage, the airport, city sidewalks, city streets, cemeteries and parks and recreation facilities.
Bartlett believes this will make the proposals easier for voters to swallow. They don’t have to vote for a $44 million bond that has projects they don’t agree with, but can approach it a la carte.
“In other words, we’re not poisoning an entire bond issue that’s all bundled together like you would see a school district do,” he said.
Any combination of approved projects will get the city started on tackling significant infrastructure decline. According to the city’s estimate, Nacogdoches has at least $200 million in needed upgrades.
Nacogdoches last saw an increase in debt to about $40 million in 2012 due to refinancing and has been steadily paying it off over the last decade. However, issues have compounded as the infrastructure has aged with no steady influx of capital investments.
With a limited city budget, officials say they often have to take a “Band-Aid” approach to repairs. And inflation has not helped, Bartlett said. What may have cost $1 million to solve 10 years ago will now cost closer to $2 million just to get caught up.
A committee of 20 residents helped the city craft the proposals, which are a mixture of lifestyle and public safety needs. A lack of sidewalks in some areas has resulted in civilian injury or fatalities, which is a problem the city and TxDOT have been working to address outside of the bonds. And improvements at the Nacogdoches County Airport could resolve constraints surrounding emergency air transports.
Investments in parks and recreation facilities, meanwhile, would go a long way toward improving day-to-day life for residents and meet some of their basic needs, said Lily Phou, who sat on the bond committee. She is also the treasurer of NacNow, a political committee that supports the bond questions.
“Yes, they look like they’re nice things to have, but they are absolute must-haves just to provide a better well-being for the citizens of Nacogdoches,” she said.
While each member of the committee began with different ideas and opinions on what was important for the city to repair, they came together with a unanimous decision on the seven propositions. And they narrowed the scope of projects down to what could be realistically covered by the city without raising citizen taxes, Phou said.
Now, it's up to the voters to decide what is most important to them.
In Texas cities of a similar size, Nacogdoches has one of the lowest amounts of debt obligation in general and per capita, Texas Review Board data shows. But in a year where legislators have fought to lower property taxes for Texas landowners and debates over school bonds have abounded, the residents behind Nacogdoches’ bonds are hopeful but realistic. Not every proposal will pass.
An online reader survey from the local paper, the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel, found 17% of volunteer respondents wouldn’t support all seven propositions. While the survey is unscientific, it serves as a fresh reminder that supporters of the bond have an uphill battle to win over the public.
Knowing voters are likely overwhelmed with everything else on the ballot this November — there are more than a dozen constitutional amendments every Texas voter will consider — NacNow members made a point of attending community events and spreading the word. This meant public speaking events, Spanish language events, Facebook lives and more.
For Bartlett, he sees the election as a point to tell residents the facts and let them decide for themselves how tax dollars are allocated.
“It’s their tax dollars, and I want them to be in charge of how they are spent and where they are spent and in what priority,” he said.
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