Affordability Proposals That Will Really Make A Difference

By Bill Oakey – March 1, 2017

Even though it is commonly accepted that Austin has a serious affordability problem, there are some who do not believe City officials are taking the matter seriously. A recent newspaper article even used the word “affordability” with quotation marks around it. I believe it is well past time to get very serious about it and permanently remove the quotation marks.

Here is a set of proposals that will make a real difference in the lives of many Austinites:

1. Work With Area Businesses to Raise the Minimum Wage

The City does not have the legal authority to require businesses to raise the minimum wage. But they could certainly call business leaders together and work to make it happen. In January, 19 states raised their minimum wage. Major cities, such as St. Louis, Baltimore and many others  have either raised it or are scheduling votes to do so. Many of those plans call for a phased-in approach to reach a certain wage target between now a some future date.

Here in Austin, low-wage workers have struggled for the past several years to stay afloat amidst appalling rent increases and stagnant wages. It is time for somebody to step up to the plate and call for a voluntary agreement to phase in increases to the minimum wage. Downtown business leaders are not going to do this on their own. It will take a major leadership push on the part of City officials and labor advocates, as well as grassroots citizen involvement.

We always hear the same arguments against raising the minimum wage – It will put people out of work, it will cut workers’ hours, etc., etc. And yet, whenever the Federal government has raised the minimum wage in the past, businesses somehow survived and people kept working. What is terribly galling in all this is that businesses will gladly pay for increases in rent, utilities, furniture, supplies and everything else you can think of…except the very people who keep their businesses running and serve their customers.

2. Set Priorities On Austin’s $8.3 Billion Set of Costly, Ambitious Plans

Last year on this blog, I asked several time for a complete listing of all of the plans across the City’s entire spectrum of departments.  Finally, during last summer’s budget discussions, Council Member Ellen Troxclair asked for a list of plans and the costs for each one of them.

 Here is the list of plans. If you put these plans and costs into a spreadsheet and total them up, the price tag comes to a staggering $8.3 Billion! And keep in mind that several of these items only show annual costs, without saying how many years it will take to complete them. So, the real total is considerably higher than $8 billion. And the plans keep coming. Another one was probably started while you were reading this!

The City needs to publish a complete list of plans in a single printed volume and also post them on their website. We need to have a major public discussion on prioritizing these plans. There is no way we could afford to pay upfront or borrow anything close to $8 billion dollars anytime soon. It would be irresponsible for the City to continue writing and developing any more plans until they can come up with an affordable timeline to pay for the ones we already have.

3. Allow People 65 and Over to Opt Out of the New Composting Fee

Sometime during the past year, some person or persons on the City staff woke up one morning with a brilliant idea…Let’s start charging every utility customer a brand new $5.00 composting fee! Hey, why not? It’s only money, and it would sure make Austin look green, cool, and hip! Well, in case you haven’t noticed the “add-on fees” that are tacked onto our monthly utility bills are growing faster than the annual increases in property taxes. You can look up the annual budgets online and see this disturbing trend. The new composting fee is scheduled to be phased in, and there is currently no opt-out provision. Seniors are already overburdened with skyrocketing taxes year and year and many of us are living on fixed incomes. An opt-out for seniors on the composting fee is a very reasonable request.

4. Establish a Two-Year Freeze On Utility Bill “Add-On Fees”

For almost 150 years, the City of Austin paid for all of its service from property taxes, sales taxes and transfers from the Austin Energy and the Water Utility to the General Fund. Then, a creeping trend began to evolve. Some bureaucrats decided to add things like a drainage fee, transportation fee and “clean community service” fee to our utility bills. These fees are rarely discussed in detail during budget season, but they have been rising at an alarming rate in recent years. The City Council should order a freeze on increases to these fees for two years and direct the staff to come up with efficiency plans to control the spiraling costs.

5. Set Policies to Protect Austin’s Remaining Affordable Neighborhoods

Austin is far from being the first city to face an affordability crisis. San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and other cities have faced the same issues of gentrification and displacement that we have. It is time for our City officials to reach out to these other cities and collaborate with them to determine what policies can be put into place to save some of our older neighborhoods before it is too late. We have heard lots of talk about traffic impacts and neighborhood preservation. But where are the proactive strategies to ensure that we don’t continue to lose every square inch of Austin land to luxury retail and extremely dense residential development?

We already have plans and reports that claim to include these protections. And yet we watch as communities in East Austin and along South Congress and other areas fall prey to the greedy whims of outside profiteers. To them, Austin is just another page in their ledger book. If our economy collapses under the weight of wage stagnation and economic inequality, then it’s no problem for the profiteers. They can just move on to wherever the next “It City” happens to be. And Austerities will be stuck with the massive debt hangover that comes with another boom and bust cycle.

If the City wants to get serious about affordability, our leaders will approach the problems of wage stagnation, displacement of older residents and enforceable standards for neighborhood traffic and land use compatibility. There should be plenty of examples to follow from other cities that have stumbled along the same treacherous path that we find ourselves on today. We should all call upon our City Council to take the quotation marks off “affordability” and get to work on some serious, meaningful solutions.

Three Words To Improve Austin Traffic – Hard Capacity Caps

By Bill Oakey – January 26, 2017

Traffic congestion and affordability go hand in hand, because building and improving roads is very expensive. Many Austerities swallowed hard when they voted “Yes” on last November’s whopping $720 mobility bond proposition. It was an audacious and very precarious leap of faith that all that money would indeed lead to meaningful traffic relief.

There were many skeptics on that question, myself included. Not all of the skeptics voiced outright opposition to the bonds, but there were wide-ranging fears that betrayed their silence. The heart of the mobility bond package was the so-called “corridor improvement plans.” These plans have been on the books for several years, and the complete picture of their purpose may not be clear to everyone in Austin.

But make no mistake about it. The corridor plans are geared much more heavily to growth enhancement prerogatives than to traffic relief for existing residents. These plans, their direction and their outcomes were crafted and influenced from beginning to end by major development interests. So, if you like your friendly neighborhood pet shops, bakeries and local handmade craft shops, be prepared to see many of them bulldozed and replaced by mountain-sized resort-style apartment “communities.”

You will be free to sell your comfortable home on its quiet tree-lined street and move into one of those ugly, imposing structures. That is, if you are wiling to write a check every month to an out-of-state landlord for anywhere between $1,500 to $2,500. It is all rent with no equity, but you will have your very own protected bike lane to ride 7 miles  to and from work in the 105 degree summer heat. The nearby homeowners who pass you in their cars will be saddened to see their property values continue to skyrocket because of the luxury accommodations that have encroached upon them.

Setting the Stage for a Series of Traffic Nightmares

People need to know that the implementation of the corridor plans is directly linked to the policy prescriptions in the ongoing CodeNext discussions. You can be sure that every developer from Austin to Boston, to New York to Dubai, and everywhere in between has been having wet dreams about every square inch of land along Austin’s roadway corridors. Knocking down those charming little shops with a lifetime of memories for Austin residents promises a whole generation of new developer profits. Step one will be the one to two-block long high rises. Step two will be the total gentrification and annihilation of existing single family areas. Each corridor and its adjoining neighborhood is already on some developer’s drawing board to become a trendy, utopian “complete community” that will be walkable and bike-able. But it will also be  ultra-luxurious, and frighteningly expensive

So, What’s Wrong With This Picture?

It’s the Traffic Impact!

Whenever a developer submits a plan for a new project, they are supposed to provide a “traffic impact analysis.” But have any of your friends ever seen a literal translation of one of those bureaucratic documents? Do they really have any real meaning or enforcement mechanisms attached to them? Undoubtedly not.

There is only one way to assure that a traffic impact analysis lends actual value to real people in real neighborhoods. And that would be for the City to determine a few simple things:

  1. How many vehicle trips per day can the roadway handle? That’s the road’s capacity.
  2. What is the current number of vehicle trips per day on that road?
  3. How many new vehicle trips per day will the proposed development generate?

If the City Transportation Department reviews those numbers and publishes them accurately and honestly, then the solution to traffic congestion becomes very simple. The developer cannot be granted more living units than the exact number that will avoid exceeding the roadway’s vehicle capacity. And how do we establish an enforcement policy along those lines? We ask the City to determine the “hard capacity caps” for each of the corridors, and simply not allow any developer to build anything that would generate traffic that exceeds those caps.

Transparency Is Key to Maintaining the Hard Capacity Caps

This is where CodeNext comes into play. It is absolutely critical that the time-honored phrase “traffic impact” when applied to the new development code be strictly and transparently defined and communicated to everyone. And it needs to be done with real numbers that are unambiguous. For example, if a roadway corridor is determined to have a capacity of X number of vehicles per day, then any proposed development must be required to generate not a single iota more traffic than that number.

Here’s the Bottom Line!

The Capacity Numbers for Each Corridor Must Be Published Online By the City. Along With the Current Number of Vehicles Per Day. And finally, Published Verification That Each Proposed Development Will Not Exceed That Capacity.

Period…

Ellen Troxclair Is First To Stand Up For Affordability

By Bill Oakey – August 21, 2016

With Austinites reeling from another year of double-digit tax appraisal increases and neighborhoods across the city losing longterm residents because of high taxes, this blog has called for City Council action on affordability. In Saturday’s Austin American-Statesman, Council Member Ellen Troxclair became the first to speak up, with an op-ed calling for an official “Year of Affordability.” (This recommendation is Item # 8 on the Affordability Petition to the City Council, posted here on August 11th).

Council Member Troxclair’s willingness to stand up for the taxpayers should be embraced immediately by the rest of the City Council. Although the technically non-partisan Council often splits along obvious party lines, affordability is such a critical issue that it demands attention from all quarters. Kudos to Troxclair for pointing out that the City Budget is growing much faster than our population, and that they have $40 million in new revenue to spend without any tax increase at all. And yet the proposed budget raises them to the legal maximum of 8%.

Remember This – If The City Keeps Raising Taxes 8% Every Year, Your Taxes Will Double In 9 Years!

One of the reasons that the budget is so high is that it includes funding for a wide variety of City plans. As this blog has pointed out several times, there is no coordination or systematic approach to the City’s overall planning process. There are so many plans on the books that no one on the City Staff or the Council would even know where to begin if they were asked to list them all or determine what their total cost might be. And yet, more and more new plans pop up every year, costing millions of dollars to develop and publish. Just close your eyes and try to imagine any private company stumbling blindly into the future without any earthy idea how many plans they have or how much they might cost. The City just plugs the numbers into the budget each year, and crosses their fingers that the taxpayers won’t mind. (See Item # 7 on the Affordability Petition).

Let’s Ask the Entire City Council to Reduce the Budget, Lower the Utility Fees and Live Within Their Means – Just Like You and Your Families Have to Do!

Here is the single-click link to email the entire City Council. Feel free to submit the link to the Affordability Petition from this blog.

Here is Council Member Ellen Troxclair’s Editorial. Let’s hope she can find co-sponsors to make the budget more affordable.

Troxclair: Make this the year of affordability

By Ellen Troxclair – Special to the American-Statesman, August 20, 2016

When voters sent the new 10-1 council to City Hall, they did so with a clear mandate to address the rapidly rising cost of living in Austin in order to slow gentrification, address economic segregation, keep long time Austinites in their homes, and protect seniors — and the rest of us, too — from losing their quality of life. Yet, as we enter our second budget cycle, “affordability” seems to be slipping further and further away.

In these next few weeks leading up to budget adoption, critical decisions about property taxes, utility bills and city programs will be made. This is when the difficult choices are supposed to happen. But the proposed budget takes the easy road at every turn.

It includes an increase to all utility bills and every major fee in the city, and it proposes adopting the maximum tax rate allowable under state law. General Fund spending is increasing a whopping $58 million, and an additional 437 new city employees are being added to the payroll.

To put this in perspective, since 2010, the increase in the adopted tax rate, when compared to the effective tax rate, never rose above 4.4 percent. Last year, that increase was 6.85 percent. This year, we are faced with an 8 percent increase. This occurs despite the fact that Austin already has a higher cumulative property tax bill than all the major cities in Texas when calculated as a percentage of income.

While the individual financial impact will vary, if you live in the median-valued home — which is $278,741 — with the 8 percent homestead exemption, your property taxes, utility bills, and fees will increase an estimated $150 a year. This, of course, does not include the impact from the other taxing entities like Travis County, Austin ISD, Central Health or Austin Community College. If you own a business, or have an older home that is not considered energy efficient, you will likely be faced with an even greater increase.

Some argue that we’re a growing city and we have to keep up. While this may be true, our spending is greatly outpacing our increase in population. The city’s population grew 2.5 percent in 2015, but our spending is increasing a massive 6.7 percent.

The growth is certainly already contributing the city’s coffers. Property tax revenue from new construction is expected to increase by $10.2 million. Sales tax for the city is expected to increase by $8.5 million. Hotel occupancy taxes could rise by $11.2 million. Licensing, permitting, and inspection revenues could increase by $9.1 million. Charges for services other than utilities could increase by $2.4 million. Parking revenue could go up by $900,000. Other taxes, which includes alcohol tax is expected at $1.7 million.

This means that the city is already bringing in well over $40 million in additional revenue this year, and is still going to turn to you for more money.

The city must learn to live within reasonable means, set goals that have measurable outcomes, and scrutinize every program in order to become relentlessly efficient with taxpayer dollars.

In this year alone, I have voted against hundreds of millions in spending, from high priced consultants to vehicle purchases to cost overruns. I did not vote this way because replacing vehicles every three years or hiring consultants aren’t nice things to do. It is because each vote and each purchase ultimately impacts affordability. We must ask ourselves: Is this item a higher priority than financial relief for Austinites?

Beyond that, the city could choose not to add any new positions until the over 1,000 existing vacant — but fully funded — positions are filled. Save the money allocated to these vacant positions as a credit to the next year’s budget. The city could limit the surprisingly large marketing budgets and significant transfers to other departments from Austin Energy, Austin Water, and Austin Resource Recovery.

None of these choices would result in laying off employees or cutting critical services, which is so often the false narrative when confronted with the idea of slowing spending.

Austin residents need a break — and this is the time to take their pleas to heart. We have to end the pattern of consistently increasing spending that has become a crisis for our city. It’s time for action, and it’s time for this budget year to be the Year of Affordability.

Troxclair is a member of the Austin City Council, representing District 8.

Affordability Petition To The City Council – Let’s All Join In!

By Bill Oakey – August 11, 2016

Unless Austinites come together quickly and petition the City Council, the new budget will hit us with the biggest round of property tax, utility and monthly fee increases in several years. The entire concept of affordability has been tossed to the wind by a City Manager and staff that appear to be isolated from the realities facing us. The lofty language in the budget crows about a booming local economy. But it doesn’t mention what’s happening to you and your neighbors – being taxed out of your homes, runaway rent increases, and stagnant wages.

This Petition Needs To Move Quickly. You Can Print It and Distribute It To Your Friends. Or Just Share This Blog Link By Email And Social Media

Affordability Petition to the Austin City Council – August 2016

We call upon the Austin City Council to reject the City Manager’s FIscal Year 2017 Budget recommendation. We respectfully ask you to recognize that affordability is the number one civic issue, and to protect the interests of taxpayers by taking the following actions:

1. Make responsible adjustments to the Budget to reduce the effective tax rate increase from 8% to 4% or less, in line with most City Budgets adopted since 2011. Delay or phase in new programs. purchases and staff positions, rather than sacrificing critical community needs. (Annual increases of 8% would cause property taxes to double in 9 years – even sooner if tax appraisals go up).

2. Place all utility charge and utility bill add-on fee increases on hold. Ask the City Manager to report back to the City Council with a much more affordable fee schedule. (The dollar impact of the utility and fee increases is 2.4 times higher than the property tax increase for a typical resident).

3. Provide senior citizen discounts for all utility bill add-on fees. This is necessary since these fees are growing faster than property taxes.

4. Establish a sliding scale for City employee pay raises. Consider a flat dollar amount or a percentage with a dollar cap. Provide living wages for low-income workers. (2.5% raises over 10 years would increase a $150,000 salary by $37,329. But a $30,000 salary would only increase by $7,466. This would promote economic segregation).

5. Allocate equal City resources to retaining existing Austin residents as for recruiting new businesses. Please consider the AustinAffordability.com ”Homeowner Retention Initiative” as a starting point, along with policies and practices to help renters.

6. Establish a formal timeline to rapidly implement the Mayor’s “Music & Creative Ecosystem Stabilization Recommendations.” We need to protect Austin’s creative Industries and our quality of life.

7. Compile a comprehensive list of all City plans, determine estimated costs for each plan, along with a grand total cost for all of the plans. Publish the list on the City’s website. Seek public input to prioritize the plans and develop an affordable timeline for implementing them.

8. Make an official declaration of 2017 as “The Year of Affordability,” and pursue it as vigorously as you did the 2016 declaration for “The Year of Mobility.”

For more details on how the FY 2017 Budget shuns affordability, read this posting.

How to Get the Petition to the City Council

The fastest way is to use this single-click link to email all of them at once. Just tell them you support the AustinAffordability.com Affordability Petition. Or copy and paste it into your email. If you want to distribute printed copies, those can be mailed to: Austin City Council, P.O Box 1088, Austin, Texas 78767.

Come to the Public Hearings Next Thursday, the 18th

Please invite your friends and come to speak at the City Budget and Tax Rate public hearings. These will be held at 4:00 on Thursday August 18 at City Hall, 301 W. 2nd Street. You can sign up to speak on Item # 82 and Item # 84 at the kiosks in the City Hall lobby beginning next Monday, August 15th.

ALERT – City Budget Shuns Affordability With Record Tax, Utility And Fee Increases

By Bill Oakey – August 4, 2016

Before you even start reading this, get ready to think about what you can do to help. The proposed City Budget is moving like a freight train through City Hall. We don’t have much time to slow it down. What we face is a taxpayer, utility ratepayer and fee payer disaster on two major levels:

1. The budget raises property taxes by 8% above the effective rate, which is the highest allowed under Texas law, without triggering a rollback election.

2. Every utility charge and utility add-on fee is slated for increases – so high that the total dollar impact on the “typical” resident is 2.4 times higher than the record tax increase!

Hang Onto Your Hats for This One Folks – If They Raise Property Taxes 8% Every Year Going Forward, Your Taxes Will Double In 9 Years!

And if your tax appraisals keep going up, they will double a lot sooner. Now let’s take a look at what I found after reviewing the City Budgets adopted since Fiscal Year 2011. In most of those years, the effective property tax rate only increased by about half of the legal maximum of 8%:

Fiscal Year Effective Tax Rate Increase
2011 2.9%
2012 4.2%
2013 4.1%
2014 3.9%
2015 4.4%
2016 6.8%
2017 8.0% (Proposed)

You can review several years of the Austin City Budget here.

How Does the City Staff Rationalize These High Proposed Increases?

In Volume 1, Page 29 of the budget, you will find a cheerful note declaring that a “typical family” would only pay $324 per month for City taxes and fees. They state that this is only 4.8% of the median family income for our region. Well, just look at your utility bills and your property tax bills. Then, sit down with your neighbors and take a look at theirs. Ask each other how many of you would consider yourself “typical,” based on this chart in the Budget. If you live in anything larger than a small condo, your utility bills, fees and taxes are probably much higher.

But here’s the biggest flaw in the argument about City taxes and fees being “only a tiny portion” of your annual income. That doesn’t account for the long parade of other taxes from AISD, Travis County, Central Health and ACC. Of course you could isolate just one taxing entity on your total bill and claim that it isn’t really all that bad. But hey, we have to pay the entire bill! And it’s absurd to suggest that a “typical” family currently pays only $221 per month on their utility bills. The mere suggestion put forth in the City Manager’s proposed Budget that we the citizens don’t have a problem with these costs is outrageous, preposterous and insulting to our collective intelligence!

Please Share This Blog Piece With Your Neighbors, Friends and Co-Workers

Ask them to use this single-click link to email the Mayor and every City Council member. If the City Manager and his staff can’t find a way to make the City departments run more efficiently and more affordably, then it is simply time for them to hit the road!

How Could the City Council Easily Trim the Budget?

Last year I fought hard to convince them to apply cost of living pay increases on a sliding scale. The wealthy managers and executives at the top do not need the same percentage increase as the lowest paid grunt workers. Several City Council members spoke favorably of the idea and even floated various scenarios to make it happen. I pointed out that many times during my 35 year career as a State employee, the Legislature gave us flat dollar amounts as pay raises. This helped the lowest paid workers and held down the skewed impact of percentage increases.  But last year, the City Manager sent a screaming and crying letter to the City Council, complaining that the entire staff had been humiliated by the suggestion of more equitable pay increases. This caused the City Council to fold their tents and abandon the idea immediately.

But Here’s the Crazy Irony In the Situation

Year after year, City officials complain that the State will not allow a flat dollar amount to be used for the City homestead exemption on our property taxes. Every City Council for as long as I can remember has wanted the Legislature to change the law. They have argued correctly that a percentage increase in the homestead exemption favors wealthy homeowners. A 20% exemption on a $1 million home is $200,000. But for a $150,000 home, it is only $30,000.

Well, here’s my question. Why not apply that same logic to across the board pay raises for City Employees? The chart below shows what happens to lower end and higher end employees if they all get a 2.5% pay increase every year for 10 years. Ask yourself if a flat dollar amount would be more equitable. Or at least a sliding scale of some sort on the percentage amount.

City Employee Pay Raises at 2.5% Per Year
Year Low End Salary High End Salary
1 $30,000 $150,000
2 $30,750 $153,750
3 $31,519 $157,594
4 $32,307 $161,534
5 $33,114 $165,572
6 $33,942 $169,711
7 $34,791 $173,954
8 $35,661 $178,303
9 $36,552 $182,760
10 $37,466 $187,329
     
Total Increase $7,466 $37,329

You can see how the rich get richer. For the record, Politifact Texas reported that as of Sept. 1, 2014, 879 City workers earned between $100,089 and $304,657.

Let’s Put a Human Face On Austin Affordability

My friend, Todd Jones, sent me the following email and granted permission for it to be published. I can’t think of anything to add to his comments. Except that I would like for each City Council member to print it and leave it by their bedside between now and the end of the budget cycle.

Bill,

I am over 65 and my property taxes are still around $10k this year even though my AISD portion was frozen when I came ‘of age.’
My home is paid for but my taxes are far more than what I paid each year when I had a mortgage.  I am retired and my pension and social security check did not go up this year.
I just received a utility bill for over $500. for July.  This is the highest bill I have ever received during any summer month since I moved back to Austin from San Antonio in 1983.  We are not lavish when it comes to running our air conditioning.  In fact, we recently bought an expensive high SEER central air conditioner in effort to save money on our electric bill.  Apparently that was for naught given the city’s ridiculous tier system for measuring water and electricity.  We water twice a week to keep our yard from becoming a desert.

We are a man and a wife, both retired finding living in Austin un-affordable.  I suppose we receive some benefit from our taxes we pay but it’s hard to rationalize the amount we pay -vs- the benefits received.  We hope to continue living in Austin because we have a son and a grandson who live here.  However we feel like we have no representation when it comes to affordability.

While we could make a lot of money by selling our home and moving to almost anywhere else…we really would hate to pack up and leave in disgust.

(Feel free to use this letter or a portion as one example of disillusionment with living in a city and county on spending sprees that do not take in to account individuals on a fixed income or people who do not make a lot of money).

Todd

Musical dedication to the City Manager and any other staff members who do not understand affordability and who refuse to accept the notion of pay equity for City employees:

“Hit the Road Jack” – Ray Charles, 1961

How You Can Be Screwed By American Airlines – Seven Ways From Sunday!

By Bill Oakey – July 26, 2016

When I travel by air, I almost always fly Southwest. So, I was horrified to learn about the boarding trap that American Airlines can snare passengers in. I was coming back from Albany to Austin on July 18th. I had to change planes in Charlotte, North Carolina. The flight out of Albany got rerouted because of thunderstorms. This caused a delay of about 45 minutes.

About halfway to North Carolina, I asked a flight attendant about my connecting flight to Austin. I wanted to know if the airline coordinates arriving passengers with departing flights, to ensure that you don’t miss your connection. I would not expect them to hold outgoing flights for half an hour or 45 minutes. But I was hoping that passengers who arrived in the terminal before their connecting flights took off would be allowed to board those flights within a reasonable time frame. In my case, the fight to Austin was the last one of the day. So, delaying it for a few minutes would not cause a chain reaction affecting any subsequent flights.

The flight attendant’s response to my question was brief and blunt. “You are on your own,” she told me. “Connecting flights are not coordinated these days.” She agreed to try to obtain the gate number for my flight to Austin. Then she offered me one positive concession. “If you miss your flight and have to stay overnight, we will give you a free hotel room.”

As our flight to Charlotte neared its end, I nervously started checking my watch. We hovered above the city lights below for what seemed like an eternity. When they finally announced that they were going to make their final descent and land, we were 20 minutes away from my Austin flight’s boarding time. The passenger sitting next to me knew the Charlotte airport well. He said I could make the run to my departing gate in about 5 minutes. I was sitting close to the front of the plane, so I knew I could exit quickly.

I arrived at the departure gate completely out of breath and plunked my boarding pass down on the counter. “Austin is gone,” the man said. Just like that – gone. I could see by my watch that it was precisely three minutes past the scheduled departure time. I could see the gate attendant’s fingers zipping across his computer keyboard.  “The next flight to Austin is at 7:00 tomorrow morning,” he announced to me and a couple of other stunned passengers who stood next to me. “I’ll see what kind of accommodations we can arrange,” he explained.

I told him that I had been promised a complimentary hotel room. From that point forward, everything went from bad to worse. They don’t give free hotel rooms if the flight delay is weather-related. I was told that I would get a discounted room, and that “most of the hotels offer free shuttle service.”

I was given a slip of paper with a 1-800 phone number for a third-party “stranded airline passenger service.” After going through several menus and waiting on hold, I was informed that all of the hotels close to the airport were full. The nearest available room was seven miles away at a Holiday Inn. They have no shuttle service, so I would have to pay for a taxi to get there.

This all happened on a Monday night. If it had been a weekend, I hate to think how far away I would have had to go, and at what cost. The Holiday Inn provided me with three and a half hours of sleep for $106.00, including taxes. The cab fare was a fixed rate of $25 each way, not including tips. There was no restaurant open in the hotel for breakfast the next morning. I had to be ready for the cab at 4:30 AM.

As frustrated and furious as I was at American Airlines, the situation could have been even worse. I found out that they have an iron-fisted, arbitrary policy about letting passengers with boarding passes get through the gate and onto a plane. They allow people to board up until 10 minutes before the departure time. Then they shut the door. If any breathless passengers arrive at the gate 2 seconds after the door is shut, they are simply screwed. They get to watch their plane sit for 9 minutes and 58 seconds, and then soar into the clouds without them. A fellow traveler told me that he got stuck exactly that way with 45 other people headed for Austin. Even though all of their seats were available and the plane was still sitting at the gate, American Airlines refused to let any of them board. They were all given the choice of sleeping at the airport or paying for a hotel room and two-way taxi fare.

This policy obviously suits the airline just fine. The more planes that arrive and depart on schedule, the better for their profits. The policy applies to all flights under all circumstances. No consideration is given for good weather conditions that might allow a pilot to make up the lost time. The arriving and departure gates for connecting flights could be right next to each other. Or, the departing flight could be the last one of the day, with no risk of compounding delays. Despite all of the expense and inconvenience to thousands of passengers every week, American’s CEO probably sleeps comfortably every night. He knows that every penny of profit is protected to the maximum extent possible. Including whatever cut they take from the third-party vendors who arrange hotel rooms for the stranded passengers. And sure enough, Bloomberg reported last January that American earned record profits in 2015.

While searching online for more information about American and their despicable policies, I discovered something else equally disgusting. Back in March, the Washington Post reported that passengers can get screwed by another boarding policy, even before the first part of their trip begins. Suppose that you could not download your boarding pass onto a computer or your phone before you arrived at the airport. Maybe you had to leave in a hurry after a meeting. Or maybe you couldn’t get your mobile Internet connection to work. American has a weird policy that no new boarding passes can be generated once the clock reaches 30 minutes before your departure time. So, you could be at the security checkpoint, standing at a boarding pass kiosk. If it’s less than 30 minutes before your departure time, congratulations! You lose your seat and your flight. No one can issue you a boarding pass because “the system” cannot handle it. If it’s late in the evening, you’ll get to spend the night. Won’t that be fun?

airport-sleeping-2012

At 5:00 AM on Tuesday July 18th, I sat at my gate at the airport in Charlotte. Finally, I would be going home to Austin. In the next row over, I noticed a woman huddled in a blanket, waiting for the same flight as mine. She had spent the entire night sitting upright in her chair. Suddenly, the image of another person in another chair crept across my mind. I was thinking of the CEO of American Airlines. He was probably basking on the beach at one of his vacation homes on the other side of the world. I imagined him sipping a drink while nervously checking his watch, just as I had done the night before as my flight came in to Charlotte. Only the CEO’s anxiety would be a little bit different from mine. He would be stressed by an upcoming decision by the board of directors. Would they or would they not approve his $2 million bonus for delivering another solid year of record profits?

Fat-Cat-on-the-Beach

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:

  1. “The Biggest Airport In the World” – Moe Bandy,
  2. “L.A. International Airport” – Susan Raye,
  3. “The Great Airplane Strike” – Paul Revere & the Raiders
  4. “Leaving On a Jet Plane” – Peter, Paul & Mary
  5. “Ebony Eyes” – The Everly Brothers
  6. “Outbound Plane” – Suzy Bogguss
  7. “Trains And Boats And Planes” – Dionne Warwick
  8. “Next Plane Out” – Celine Dion
  9. “Airplane” – Indigo Girls
  10. “Come Fly With Me” – Frank Sinatra

Revised Texas School Finance Reform Proposal

By Bill Oakey – July 13, 2016

For the past few months I have been working with AISD and other interested parties on a proposal to reform the Texas school finance system. The current “Robin Hood” system that recaptures funds from “property rich” school districts and distributes those funds to “property poor” school districts is badly flawed. The Texas Supreme Court acknowledged that fact, even while issuing its ruling that the controversial funding plan is legal under the Texas Constitution.

My original reform proposal served a valid purpose in starting a conversation with AISD  officials. I never expected to hit the ball out of the park on the firs try. But thanks to the gracious help, encouragement and input from Kendall Pace, President of the AISD Board of Trustees, I now have a revised proposal that is ready to present to the Texas Legislature.

Without some type of meaningful reform, the Austin Independent School District stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars over the coming years. One estimate shows that AISD’s recapture payment to the State would skyrocket from $181 million to $445 million over a three-year period. Our community simply cannot sustain that level of accelerating financial loss. Austin pays more into the “Robin Hood” system than any other school district in the entire state.

Here Is the Revised Proposal

1. Keep the existing geographic boundaries for calculating the “property rich” and “property poor” school districts across the state.

2. One important fact should be fundamental to the reform discussion. The school districts classified as primarily “property rich” may have a large number of students living in poverty. The school districts classified as primarily “property poor” may have some number of students living above the poverty line.

3. The State could set up a clear and fair method for calculating an offset for the students within the “property rich” districts who qualify as living in poverty. This offset could be subtracted from the recapture amount that the school district sends back to the State.

4. The offset could be as simple as a fixed dollar amount per student classified as living in poverty.

5. If there are easily definable variables that should be applied to the per-student-in-poverty calculation, those could be factored into the funding formula.

6. Conversely, if there are students living above the poverty line in the school districts classified as primarily “property poor,” then another offset could be applied to equalize the funding formula for those districts.

The purpose of this proposal is to build more equity into the recapture and redistribution system. There is probably no method available that everyone would characterize as perfect. Historically, the Texas school finance system has been viewed by many as overly complicated. Battles have been fought on the floor of both houses in the Legislature and in the State court system for far too long. Others who understand school finance much better than I may find ways to improve my proposal, or perhaps consider another plan that works better. But here’s hoping that Austin students and teachers, as well as our local taxpayers will emerge from the upcoming Legislative session with a much better system than we have today.

Before I leave this reform discussion, let me put the issue into a human perspective that I hope everyone reading this will appreciate. I do not have any children in the Austin schools. But my sister and my nephew have both worked as teachers, and my uncle Joe Oakey was the Commissioner of Education for the State of Vermont. My heart and my spirits were uplifted on the evening of this past May 23rd. On that date, I went to the AISD board meeting to speak during Public Communications. This happened to be the occasion for a large number of students to receive their annual achievement awards. I have a permanent memory of the smiles from those students and the proud looks on their parents’ faces.

Before the meeting, we all stood and recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. For a few brief moments, I remembered what it was like to be a kid in school once again. We should all keep in mind that school funding is not just about courts, judges, Legislators and piles of papers and statistics. None of us would have any of the skills and talents that we try to use today unless the people who came before us really cared about the value of a good education. Let’s all try to come together and make the same thing happen for future generations of children in Texas.

My First Grade Class Picture

My First Grade Class Picture