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City to pump up bike lane funding

Profile image for By Lowell Brown / Staff Writer
By Lowell Brown / Staff Writer

Denton City Council members agreed Tuesday to double next year's budget for bicycle and pedestrian projects, in a move designed to appease bicycle advocates and secure matching funds from the county.

The proposed 2011-12 budget had allocated $50,000 to help implement a pending bicycle and pedestrian accommodation plan, but advocates filled a Sept. 6 public hearing to ask for more money.

Council members informally agreed Tuesday to increase spending on the plan to $100,000 by pulling $50,000 from a pot of unallocated revenue. The decision came after Mayor Mark Burroughs said Denton County Commissioners Hugh Coleman and Andy Eads had tentatively offered $100,000 to help implement the plan if the city matched the amount.

The council will vote on the budget Sept. 20.

Advocates had pushed for $250,000 to help implement the bicycle plan, which has not yet come before the full council. Including the possible county money, the city's budget for the plan would be $200,000 next year.

"Considering we started at $50,000, I'm very pleased," said Amber Briggle, who served on a bicycle plan task force and pushed for more funding. "I still think it's underfunded, but it's a really good start."

The council's summer budget talks focused largely on how to spend about $333,000 in unallocated revenue, even though the number is a fraction of the $587 million total budget. The decision Tuesday leaves the council with about $283,000 to allocate.

Council member Jim Engelbrecht wanted to spend another $50,000 on the bicycle plan, saying the city had neglected the issue for a decade. At least some of the county's potential funding would be dedicated to Pennsylvania Drive in the Southridge neighborhood, in Coleman's precinct, which Engelbrecht said wasn't a high-priority area for people who want more bicycle lanes in the central city.

But Mayor Pro Tem Pete Kamp said she wanted to stick with the council's initial idea of waiting to allocate the remaining $283,000 until after the budget is passed. The council is waiting on cost estimates and other details for several unfunded projects, including a proposed downtown shuttle that would be coordinated with the Denton County Transportation Authority.

Burroughs agreed with Kamp but promised to revisit the bicycle plan funding when more information is available. The council's three-member mobility committee of Burroughs, Kamp and Dalton Gregory heard a report on the bicycle plan earlier Tuesday, and the plan is expected to come before the full council this year.

Gregory, who supports more bicycle lanes, said the city needs to spend $262,000 a year for a decade to fully implement the plan. Unlike Engelbrecht, Gregory praised the county's push for bicycle lanes on Pennsylvania Drive, saying it would comply with the city's bicycle plan and addresses a longstanding need for safer routes for area schoolchildren.

Council member Chris Watts repeated his reluctance to spend the unallocated revenue, which is based on financial projections that could change.

"Let's make sure we're not jumping the gun on what the economy is going to do," Watts said.

Council member James King, who has called for saving the money, was absent.

The budget would hold the tax rate steady, boost spending on streets and raise utility rates to help fund system improvements. Households would pay an average of $7.22 more each month for utilities under proposed rate increases for water, wastewater, trash and recycling.

City employees would be eligible for an average 2 percent merit raise after most saw no pay increase this year.

Salaries make up more than 70 percent of the proposed $88.46 million general-fund budget, which excludes utilities and other special funds. That budget balances recurring costs and revenues but allocates about $1.5 million in reserve funds for several one-time costs, including street maintenance and an update to the city's comprehensive plan.

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Also Tuesday, the Denton City Council heard an update on Denton Municipal Electric's transmission line upgrade project in northeast Denton.

DME General Manager Phil Williams said staff members are still studying alternative routes and are expected to announce a preferred route at least a week before an Oct. 3 public meeting. Public hearings are scheduled for Oct. 18 and Nov. 15. The council could vote on a final route as early as Nov. 15.

The council agenda Tuesday included a closed meeting with attorneys to discuss acquiring land for the project, but it was unclear whether the discussion would occur.

As the open meeting ended, a resident of a neighborhood affected by one of the routes challenged City Attorney Anita Burgess to explain why the public should be shut out of the talks.

The Texas Open Meetings Act includes exceptions for deliberations of real property and consultation with attorneys, but resident David Zoltner said the project is too preliminary to justify the closed session. DME is still seeking permission to survey some of the affected properties and has not started acquiring land.

"We're not suggesting that you will never have that opportunity" to discuss real estate negotiations behind closed doors, Zoltner said. "We're just suggesting this is very premature to discuss any of these matters beyond what you've seen tonight."

Burgess did not respond.

Mayor Mark Burroughs said the council was running out of time and might have to cut the discussion from the closed session agenda Tuesday. He would not explain the justification for the closed meeting beyond what was posted on the agenda.

"We don't discuss with members of the public or audience about closed session items, the thinking behind it," Burroughs said before asking the public to leave the council work session room. "It's a recommendation from the staff's legal counsel that there are elements that we could discuss [in closed session]."

The project would upgrade a transmission line from the Spencer Road substation north to a new Kings Row substation west of Loop 288 and west to the Denton North interchange at Locust Street and Hercules Lane.

DME officials say they need wider easements to safely build and operate the line, which carries 69,000 volts but would be rebuilt to eventually handle 138,000 volts. Most existing easements are 35 feet wide or narrower, much less than the 75 feet needed for the rebuilt line.

-Lowell Brown