by Tabish Khan
For my field assignment I attended a Lost Creek Municipal Utility District (MUD) board meeting. I had reviewed the agenda beforehand and it seemed relatively routine, some accounting, and what seemed like benign topics for discussion. Little did I realize however, that I was about to walk into a meeting that would be covering one of the most contentious issues in this community. I entered a small characterless building attached to a playground and as I walked in the very first individual that caught my eye was a Travis County Deputy Sheriff. At first I hesitated, perhaps this was the wrong place, why would a law enforcement officer be at the meeting of a quiet community tucked away in a nice neighborhood in west Austin? The assembly that followed answered this question.
Developers establish MUDs in order to enable the buildup of utility services such as water, sewage, and trash pickup for communities they establish that are outside of the realm of the city center and have not yet been annexed. The MUD takes out bonds in order to build up the infrastructure required and the community pays additional utility fees to pay off the bonds. Once the bonds are paid off by the community the MUD is supposedly meant to be dissolved and the city continues to bill the community. Of course this is likely easier said than done if the city has not yet annexed the community which begs the question of who will maintain the infrastructure that the MUD provides. This was among the several issues the community members in attendance at this meeting spoke to me about. The biggest issue however, the one which had emotions flaring, allegedly offensive and blocked emails, off color remarks, verbal outrage, and a lawsuit was sidewalks. The neighborhood of Lost Creek is embattled over a roughly 1600ft. stretch of sidewalk which will cost the MUD a little over $175,000. One might initially think this is an absurd thing to have a heated debate much less a lawsuit about. At least I thought so, but that is because I have always been a renter and did not consider a basic rule of property ownership. Property value is directly proportionate to property tax and a sidewalk increases these. If the Lost Creek MUD decided to build sidewalks across these properties, even with the owner’s consent, the tax rates of everyone around them would supposedly go up. In addition, the money funding this sidewalk was coming from the MUD, which obtains funding from the entire community. Some time ago, the decision was put to a vote, pro-sidewalk won. Now a revote is being demanded by what according to the MUD is a vocal minority. The anti-sidewalk group alleges that based on their surveys of the community the neighborhood is not in favor of the sidewalk, and that it is not even within the MUD’s authority to build sidewalks. According to the MUD it is and they are charged with building recreational facilities, sidewalks, and a number of other facilities in the neighborhood. To this a community member fired back that the sidewalks clause refers to sidewalks that facilitate recreational facilities. Obviously, these points could go back and forth and with a lawsuit they likely will. Community members that supported the sidewalk were not at the meeting in large numbers, perhaps it is because they knew that the decision was already made, perhaps they had better things to do. According to one who did attend the meeting, there was widespread support for the sidewalk in the community. I did notice that the supporter of the sidewalk appeared to be a young mother. The anti-sidewalk group were elderly and I think it would be safe to assume they did not have young children. A community member whispered to me that the young mother was likely a “helicopter mom”. The subjectivity of that claim is something I will resist judging, but perhaps I already have.
I came to this meeting hoping to hear about water issues in the MUD, however, it seemed those issues were overshadowed by sidewalks. There was a water related issue of the community being overcharged on there bills by the city for an extended period of time. The MUD was addressing this with the city and another lawsuit was being discussed as a last resort. In this case it would be the MUD suing the City of Austin if Austin did not reimburse the community members it overcharged. One meeting, two lawsuits, many emotions, and hours of quarreling. The phrase “water is for fighting” unquestionably rings true in Texas.