One man, one vote, a multimillion-dollar utility district – Austin American
Gary Bechtol is a powerful man in these parts; these parts being the Williamson-Liberty Hill Municipal Utility District. Just recently, he single-handedly approved the local property tax rate and the issuance of $84.7 million in bonds.
Not bad for a framing contractor who’s only lived here a few months; “here” being a mobile home (a nice mobile home, but a mobile home) at the end of a short gravel road (a nice gravel road, but a gravel road) leading from County Road 266.
Bechtol’s power derives from the sainted seat of power in America: the ballot box. More specifically, it derives from the fact that Bechtol was the only voter who showed up at the ballot box when the tax rate and bond issues were approved. But when Bechtol voted early for the Nov. 8 election, turnout hit 100 percent.
The son of the late Hub Bechtol, a 1940s Longhorn football great and longtime Austin civic leader, Gary Bechtol is the sole voter, the entire electorate in the Williamson-Liberty Hill MUD, which was created in 2007 in another one-voter election (different one voter). He wound up in the district through a relative’s connection with the developer working on this project. For now, Bechtol — who says he performed a similar single-voter function when Davenport Ranch was being developed in Travis County in the 1970s — lives in the mobile home he leases from the developer.
In Texas, one-voter MUD elections are not all that unusual. But this MUD’s history is special.
“It’s a fairly long, tortured story,” said Austin lawyer John Carlton, the district’s general counsel.
The story includes a no-voter election.
Let’s roll back to 2007, when Pacific Summit Partners wanted to develop a 228-acre tract between U.S. 183 and Texas 29 as Highland Meadows, with up to 885 single-family homes. As with many such projects, the plan began with establishing a MUD.
In 2007, lawmakers approved creation of the district, contingent on approval by voters (actually, the voter) within the boundaries. In November 2007, by a 1-0 margin, the Williamson-Liberty Hill MUD was born, governed by five board members elected by the lone voter.
Things stalled when Pacific Summit had financial problems. The tract was acquired through foreclosure by IMH Financial Corp., an Arizona-based firm, in 2009.
In May, with an eye toward moving forward, the MUD called an election to authorize a tax rate and bond issues. Bechtol moved in as the lone voter. But it turned out there were no voters for the May election. He registered too late.
“There were no registered voters in the district at the time of the election,” Carlton said. “They thought there would be at least one registered voter at that time. And once you call an election, you can’t uncall it.”
In the immortal word of a local governor, oops.
And that’s how the Williamson-Liberty Hill MUD wound up with the Nov. 8 do-over election in which the now-eligible Bechtol cast the lone and deciding ballot in favor of a property tax of up to $1 per $100 valuation, and issuance of $74.2 million in bonds for facilities, $4.9 million in bonds for parks and $5.6 million in bonds for roads. It was all made official on Wednesday when the MUD board met for a lunch meeting (the casserole was a hit) at Carlton’s office.
“Your one voter did vote and voted favorably on all four propositions,” he reported as the board canvassed and unanimously approved the election returns.
Weird, yes. Unusual, no, says Austin lawyer Sharlene Collins, who does lots of MUD work.
“The land is in a new district that is generally undeveloped. It belongs to one individual or one entity, and there is no one else who lives out there,” she said.
So who lives there?
“It depends,” she said. “Sometimes someone moves onto the property and establishes residency there. Sometimes you have the seller of the property, maybe a farmer, who sells most of the land for development, but he or she and a spouse still live there, and they vote.”
One voter is good. Two can be a problem. “I’ve heard stories in the past about a husband and wife voting differently and it’s a tie vote,” Collins said.
A caveat: Where I see democracy at its most adorable (what’s cuter than a one-voter election?), others see red flags. Bennett Sandlin is among the others. As the Texas Municipal League’s executive director, he is well aware of problems MUDs can cause for cities that often wind up annexing the districts.
Many MUDs, Sandlin said, provide infrastructure that’s “not up to snuff” by city standards. As he sees it, MUDs generally make more sense in rural areas than they do on the outskirts of burgeoning urban areas, like Austin.
That’s not a problem on Bechtol’s radar as he stands at his front door.
“It’s very peaceful,” he said of pre-development MUD life. “Very peaceful. Got a driving range in the backyard, and I just come out here and hang out here in the country.”
And vote to set tax rates and issue millions of dollars in bonds.