AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — According to documents filed late Wednesday in the 320th District Court of Potter County, retired Judge William Sowder filed his “findings of fact and conclusions of law” after his final judgment in the litigation surrounding the funding of the Amarillo Civic Center Complex project.
According to previous reports by MyHighPlains.com, Sowder ruled in late October that the city of Amarillo could not use $260 million in anticipation notes to fund the Civic Center project, ruling that the city violated portions of the Texas Open Meetings Act, the Texas Government Code, the Texas Tax Code, the Texas Constitution and the city of Amarillo’s Charter.
What was in the document?
Prior to diving into the specific violations, Sowder issued initial facts and findings that he ruled, including information about Proposition A from the November 2020 election, along with how “any sizable tax increase by the city of Amarillo would be a matter of special interest to the public.”
These initial facts also included information about each of the ordinances in question, including Ordinance 7980 surrounding the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone No. One Board’s amendment to the zone’s project plan, along with Ordinance 7985 which was the ordinance surrounding the passage of the anticipation notes for the Amarillo Civic Center Complex project.
In the document, Sowder then listed his “findings of facts and conclusions of law” regarding violations of various portions of state and local law.
Ch. 551 of the Texas Government Code
Chapter 551 of the Texas Government Code covers the Open Meetings Act, according to the code. Through this portion of the document, Sowder goes into detail about how the city of Amarillo violated the Open Meetings Act through both the TIRZ No. One-related ordinance and the anticipation notes-related ordinance.
In this portion, Sowder stressed that a debt issuance the size of the one for the Amarillo Civic Center project is “a matter of special interest to the public,” which gives the city the requirement to provide more specific information in their agenda notices surrounding the debt. Sowder also said that the May 5 TIRZ No. One Board agenda “failed to mention the Civic Center Complex and failed to sufficiently inform the public that major components of… the complex would be deliberated upon for inclusion in an amendment” to the board’s project plan.
One of the arguments the city brought forward was that the Civic Center Complex was specifically mentioned in the agenda notices for both the May 10 and the May 24 City Council meeting. However, Sowder ruled that each of the respective transmittal memos for both related ordinances “was not sufficient notice to the public because it would be unlikely that an average Amarillo citizen would know or spend time to look at the back of an agenda notice, sometimes hundreds of pages after the actual agenda notice, for additional information regarding specific agenda items.”
Ch. 311 of the Texas Tax Code
The majority of the violations the judge ruled surrounding Chapter 311 of the Texas Tax Code were regarding the involvement of the TIRZ No. One Board and amending its project plan to include the Amarillo Civic Center Complex project within its project plan.
Sowder ruled that the city violated this portion of the Texas Tax Code by failing to publish a number of newspaper notifications and by failing to host public meetings surrounding this proposed amendment to the TIRZ No. One Board’s project plan.
Sowder said in the documents that this intention was the city’s plan to “avoid an election on an increase of ad valorem taxes above 3.5% as required by House Bill 1869…” which would ultimately require an election.
Ch. 1431.008(a) and Ch. 1431.004 and of the Texas Government Code
According to Chapter 1431.008(a) of the Texas Government Code, officials state that governing bodies do not have the ability to issue anticipation notes that are payable from bonds secured by ad valorem taxes unless an election occurs.
In his ruling, Sowder said that because the city planned to use refunding bonds for the $260 million in anticipation notes in the future, it violated this portion of the Texas Government Code, with no election being hosted surrounding these notes.
This is something that the city’s legal team previously argued, according to previous reports, with them stating that Chapter 1431.008(a) centers on bond anticipation notes and not the tax anticipation notes which were passed by the Amarillo City Council during the May 24 meeting.
The other portion of Chapter 1431 of the Texas Government Code that Sowder covered in his final judgment was Chapter 1431.004, covering whether or not the Amarillo Civic Center is considered a “public work.” In his “findings of fact and conclusions of law” document, Sowder states that the complex “does not meet the applicable meaning of public work.”
In the documents, Sowder cites one of the city’s “intended purposes” for the facility being “housing a semi or professional sports team.” Because of this, Sowder ruled that the facility cannot be then considered public work.
During the motion to modify the hearing, the city’s legal team argued this portion of the final judgment, stating that no agreement exists between the city and a private entity to serve as the main tenant for the facility. The team stressed that the updated complex would be used in the same manner as how the current complex is used, including hosting rodeos, graduations, youth sports, and the Amarillo Farm and Ranch Show, but with more space.
Article VII of the Texas Constitution and Article II of the Amarillo City Charter
In regards to violations of Article VIII of the Texas Constitution, Sowder ruled that the city violated this by failing to notify the public of its intent to increase taxes because of this debt and failed to have a public hearing surrounding this tax increase.
Sowder stressed that the $260 million in debt under Ordinance 7985 “would substantially increase ad valorem taxes, almost double ad valorem taxes over the first two years, for Amarillo residents.”
In the document, Sowder also ruled that the portion of the Amarillo City charter surrounding the referendum petition process did apply to these specific anticipation notes, stating that the Texas Attorney General had not yet been authorized.
According to previous reports by MyHighPlains.com, officials with the city of Amarillo stated that a referendum petition surrounding the Amarillo Civic Center funding-related ordinance was not authorized to be submitted because it did not conform to portions of the Amarillo City Charter. At the time, officials said that the petition did not include a valid “affidavit of circulator” along with a written or printed copy of Ordinance 7985.
For a look at the full “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law” document, click the link below.
Both parties in this case, including the city of Amarillo and Amarillo Businessman Alex Fairly, have filed respective notices of appeal regarding the final judgment in this case. While documents have been filed in this case in Amarillo’s Seventh Court of Appeals, no briefs have yet been filed as of Thursday.
This is a developing story. MyHighPlains.com will update this article as new information becomes available.
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