An Open Letter To City Hall

By Bill Oakey – May 7, 2021

A Quick Background Summary

I have been a community taxpayer advocate since 1983. I have recently urged the Austin City Council to allocate a significant portion of their $195 million in Federal COVID Rescue Plan Funds to cover the City’s budget shortfall, and reduce or eliminate any property tax increase in the upcoming City Budget. So far, I have run smack into a brick wall. They never even thought of what I’m suggesting, and the City’s CFO has asked the City for authorization to raise taxes all the way to 8%, instead of using the Federal money. Please go to the home page of this blog and scroll down to earlier postings for more details.

Please Send Me Your Hardship Stories…

Use the Comments section of this blog, or email me. If you or someone you know is facing difficulties with this year’s high tax appraisals, send me their stories. Do you know a landlord who cannot afford to keep their property because they can’t raise the rent high enough to cover the taxes? Or someone who could be forced to give up their own home? Or a small business that will have to close if their taxes continue to rise beyond reason? I will compile these stories and submit them to each member of the City Council. It is HIGH TIME that longterm Austin residents and our iconic business owners had their voices heard at City Hall!

Read On, And Let’s Break Through That City Hall Brick Wall!

On Wednesday, I met with a City Council policy advisor. It did not go well. And I’m afraid that many others at City Hall have had their heads dunked into the same sour vat of faulty reasoning. The comments below are addressed to all of them. The last part is a fervent appeal to anyone at City Hall who might be willing to wake up and see what is happening around them.

Hello to Anyone Listening at City Hall,

I don’t know where you are getting your advice from. But they steered you in the completely wrong direction. Their mode of thinking will make our City’s financial condition much worse than it is today. You won’t have to take my word for it. You will see it unfold yourself, and it will not be a pretty picture!

If you and the people who have influenced you cannot see that $195 million in aid from the Federal government can help a City mitigate their financial difficulties, then maybe you and they are beyond help. There are many other cities that saw it several months ago, and they are taking the obvious and correct actions. This is not just about lowering taxes. The Federal money needs to be applied towards shoring up the city’s financial foundation, regardless of where you set the tax rate.

Providing tax relief during a recession and a pandemic is a separate issue. And it’s one that should be considered as well. It could only be done for a year or two, but THAT’S WHAT A RECOVERY IS. It’s a temporary thing. If you don’t want to cut the effective tax rate to zero, then cut it to 1%.

Do not obsess over the limitations placed on the City by the State Legislature. If you are concerned that their limit on raising taxes will hurt the City’s financial condition long term, then get this. That’s all the more reason to shore up the budget now with Federal money. That’s a major reason why Congress passed the American Rescue Plan in the first place!

You have the information on the other cities that are following the correct path. You can choose to ignore it. Or, you can choose to dissect each of those cities’ plans, and conjure up reasons why Austin’s situation is somehow different. But it won’t change the reality. Austin is in financial trouble, for all of the reasons that you pointed out. But refusing to take advantage of a large infusion of money that could provide relief to the citizens makes no sense at all.

Please do not think that what I am telling you is coming from me alone. This is not about one person sitting at home with a blog. A large number of people across the City are involved in this effort – because they care about Austin. All of them can easily see a few simple facts:

1. Austin’s bond rating has already been lowered once. We cannot afford to pass up the opportunity to prevent it from being lowered further.

2. Spending nearly all of the Federal money on the homeless and other social programs would be a very bad idea. There is plenty available to take care of those needs AND shore up the City budget too.

3. In my meeting on Wednesday, I was told 15 or 20 times that the City cannot afford to lower taxes because of Austin’s debt, contracts with City workers and the City’s structural financial weakness. If that is the case, then please tell the community HOW IN THE WORLD we can possibly afford billions in additional debt for Project (Dis)Connect??!!

4. The high tax appraisals and looming tax increases facing homeowners and small businesses are not on the City Council’s radar at all. You can’t address a problem until you make it a top priority. It is long past time for at least one or two City Council members to stand up publicly and finally take notice! Which one or two of our City Council members will it be?

Please use this single-click link to email the Mayor and City Council. Forward this blog piece to your friends, post it on social media, and ask your friends to do the same.

Mayor Steve Adler

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes

Council Member Mackenzie Kelly

Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria

Council Member Paige Ellis

Council Member, Leslie Pool

Council Member Kathie Tovo

Council Member Gregorio “Greg” Casar

Council Member Ann Kitchen

Council Member Alison Alter

Part 1 – The Wild, Crazy Adventures Of A City Hall Watchdog

By Bill Oakey – May 5, 2021

If you have been reading this blog, you may be wondering – Why does this guy think he can beat City Hall? Well, I didn’t ask myself that question, back in1983. That’s when all the crazy adventures started. Stick around for a few wild stories, all of them the honest-to-God truth.

My First Encounter With the City Budget

In 1983, I had never met a City Council member. I don’t think I even knew all of their names. But I did know one thing. The newspaper sitting on the desk in the downtown accounting office where I worked was begging for my attention. So, once my lunch break came, I read the front page article.

It said, “City Council Approves 20% Electric Rate Hike.” I asked myself, how in the world could that be? Who ever heard of a rate increase that high? City Hall was only a few blocks away, so I took off walking over there. I was told that the rate increase was all explained in the City Budget. They gave me a copy, and I took it home that evening.

My newest circle of friends were folks I had met at Austin Neighborhoods Council meetings. Larry Deuser, their president, held some fun, informal gatherings at the Copper Skillet at 3418 North Lamar. I showed up with my nose stuck in the City Budget. That raised a few eyebrows. Who is this guy, they wondered? Is he really one of us? Who lingers over those boring numbers in the City Budget?

Late one night, probably close to midnight, I sat straight up in bed. I stared at one amazing sentence in the introduction to the Budget. I read it twice, just to be sure. To paraphrase, it said, “The 20% electric rate increase is based in large part on successful passage of the lignite coal bonds in the October election.” Well, the Budget was adopted and signed in late September. It took effect on October 1st. The lignite bonds failed by a comfortable margin in the October 22nd election. That was thanks to flower salesman, Max Nofziger’s clean energy campaign. Max was later elected to the City Council.

The next day after the big sentence discovery, I called Council Member Sally Shipman’s office, and asked for an appointment. Her name had been mentioned positively by some of my new friends. I had zero clout at City Hall, but my revelation prompted them to schedule an appointment with Ms. Shipman at the Avenue Restaurant at 908 Congress.

To this day, I wish I had a picture of the look on her face, when I slid the Budget across the table and showed her the “magic sentence.” She gave me the most vociferous apology I had ever heard. She said the City Staff had never called it to their attention. She swore that she would never have voted for a 20% electric rate increase if she had known that information. I took her advice and spoke to the City Electric Utility Commission at their next meeting.

Fast forward a few weeks to a City Council meeting that holds special memories. The Electric Utility Commission gave their monthly report. Included was my recommendation to cut the rate increase in half, to just 10%. The City Council agreed. Then my mom in San Antonio finally quit saying, “You can’t fight City Hall.”

One of Austin’s most colorful characters back then was Peck Young. Among many other things, he served as chairman of the Electric Utility Commission. It’s hard to describe him. He always wore a drooping, white cowboy hat. If he launched into a tirade, just the wind coming from his direction was enough to make people scatter. But I was not easily intimidated.

In my humble opinion, Peck was right on the issues, most of the time. But we came to verbal blows one morning on KLBJ-AM, on the Olin Murrell show. I was trying to get the City Council to pass an ordinance regulating the transfer of Electric Utility profits to the General Fund. I understood its purpose, but the amount had been growing by about 20% per year. Peck argued vigorously against me, but the City Council passed the ordinance that I suggested.

The 1985 City Council election was a moment for triumphant celebration. We elected a progressive slate of candidates, hoping to slow down the developers, protect neighborhoods, and save Barton Springs and the Barton Creek Watershed from pollution. The new Mayor, Frank Cooksey, was joined by George Humphrey, Sally Shipman and Smoot Carl-Mitchell.

I joined a group of friends on election night. In those days, we took our campaign signs to Palmer Auditorium, and stood behind our candidates in the bright glare of the television lights. The whole town was caught up in the excitement, for better or worse. Shortly after I walked into the auditorium, I saw a familiar figure heading towards me. It was the first time I had seen Peck Young since the KLBJ radio encounter. He approached with a broad grin on his face, and stuck out his hand. “How would you like to be on the Electric Utility Commission?” he asked. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted.

On the Commission, we oversaw more than a few heated rate battles, mostly because the big high tech companies always wanted deep cuts, at the expense of residential customers. Peck Young, Merl Moden and Shudde Fath stood squarely on our side. Shudde was, and still is an iconic Austin legend. As a founding member of the Commission, she was my mentor. Shudde turned 105 this past January.

My Name Is Bill And I Would Like To Lower Yours

As the electric rate battles raged in the 1980’s, I often found myself buried in thick reports, laced with arcane terminology and mounds of details. It wasn’t until late in the decade that most people had personal computers. So, I relied on a pocket solar calculator that I had purchased at Foleys for $20.00.  My biggest challenge was trying to reach the public with plain and simple facts. We were up against powerful special interests, who had more clout with the City Council.

I was in several media debates with the chairman of the Federation of Austin Industrial Ratepayers. During that time, I wrote a letter to the editor for the Austin American-Statesman. It went something like this:

Isn’t it interesting how many English words have more than one meaning. Take, for example, the word, “bill.” Birds have bills, entertainers are listed on bills, the Legislature passes bills. But the worst kind of bill is the kind you have to pay – the kind that keeps going up, like an Austin electric bill. Well, I have a very simple message. My name is Bill and I would like to lower yours.

The last line became my slogan.

Coming up in Part 2 – The City spends over $200,000 on a hearings examiner and other trappings for a convoluted rate-setting spectacle. And the strange case of $43 million that disappeared from the Electric Utility accounts.

In 1983, Austin Was Scared About Its Future

By Bill Oakey – May 2, 2021

Today, as we emerge from the pandemic, Austinites look to the future with both hopes and fears. We hope that our fun times will soon return – live music, outdoor festivals, meeting friends at favorite restaurants, and enjoying our city’s special quality of life. Our fears go well beyond what the pandemic did to the economy and our iconic local businesses.

People are scared that their neighborhoods will be transformed into super-dense vertical villages, where you have to look up to see the sky. We worry that the over-hyped promise of a sleek mass transit system will be bogged down with huge cost overruns, and a downturn tunnel system that nosedives tens of millions into debt, before going bust. And we are scared that our tax appraisals will soar to San Francisco levels, while retired folks and middle income workers struggle to get by. We actually wonder whether City leaders are serving us at all, or just the people they are recruiting to replace us. We even face the twisted notion that trying to preserve our neighborhoods is somehow divisive and racist.

Now, let’s turn the clock back 38 years, and read what the New York Times wrote about our fears back in 1983:

BOOMING AUSTIN FEARS IT WILL LOSE ITS CHARMS

By Robert Reinhold, The New York Times – October 8, 1983

This appealing college town set in the lovely Texas hill country is rapidly becoming a major city with a high-technology economy, and many an Austinite is wondering if that will spoil a good thing.

As a growing number of computer, aerospace and other high-technology companies like Motorola, I.B.M. and Lockheed discover Austin’s charms, many here are asking whether the city will become ”another Houston.” That grim catchword symbolizes for Austinites the worst of Texas’s unbridled urban development: clogged freeways, sprawl, pollution and garish commercial strips.

Widely regarded as the most ”livable” of Texas cities, Austin long got along on just two economic legs: the University of Texas and the state government, a mix that made it a politically liberal and socially tolerant pocket in a conservative state. Now it is becoming a formidable industrial center, too.

Last May, Austin was selected over 57 other places as the site for the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, or M.C.C., a joint research venture of 11 major American computer makers to compete with the Japanese in building the next generation of information technology.

The Chamber of Commerce predicted that the ”multiplier” effect of M.C.C. could turn Austin into the country’s foremost high-technology center. It is a vision that has not been greeted with uniform enthusiasm by Austinites, many of whom remain uneasy about its consequences. But few believe growth can be halted.

”They’ve gotten away from the notion it is possible to stop growth, so now the question is how to manage it,” said Michael Levy, publisher of Texas Monthly magazine, headquartered here. ”What motivates people is fear of becoming another Houston. Every other household has a growth-management expert in it.”

Robert Lane, president of the InterFirst Bank, the largest here, said the city’s ”paranoia” about growth had led it to neglect roads and services. He believes the city must devise a long- range ”road map” to see beyond the weekly battles over zoning and development that consume the City Council.

”Austin really has the last good chance to manage its growth to maintain the quality of life we have,” he said.

Whether Austin can rein in the powerful economic and social forces at work is problematical. For better or worse, there are already signs that it has outgrown its small-town charms. On Congress Street downtown, a half dozen major office buildings are going up, including One American Center, a 32-story complex that has stirred outrage among many because it will block the view of the State Capitol from many neighborhoods. On the outskirts, commercial strips along Highway 183 and Ben White Boulevard are as garish and congested as anywhere.

Barton Springs, a spring-fed swimming hole longer than two football fields that many Austinites consider the town’s greatest natural treasure, is often closed because of bacterial pollution after heavy rains. The closures started after development began in its watershed.

Meanwhile, despite a city ”master plan” that discourages it, developers are inexorably carving up the limestone hills to the west of town to accommodate growing demands for housing there, raising fears about pollution of the Edwards aquifer below ground that supplies the city’s waters.

For years the city tried to limit its growth by denying water and sewer services to developers and by refusing to annex surrounding land; the voters repeatedly turned down bond issues. But this approach backfired because developers got water from the Lower Colorado River Authority, meaning development was occurring anyway and Austin was losing control of it.

As a consequence, the no-growth battle has been given up. Roger Duncan, the strongest environmental voice on the City Council, said: ”We’ve lost that battle. We have not been successful in controlling development in environmentally sensitive areas by utility controls. Now we are trying other things.”

He said he was now in favor of extending utility services to developers in exchange for stiffer landscaping, environmental and zoning standards.

By the same token, the pro-growth forces have begun to compromise politically with the environmental forces. The newly elected Mayor, Ron Mullen, an insurance broker, was a voice of business for years as a Council member. He has since changed his views, he said, and now believes development should proceed in ways that do not damage the aquifer and Austin’s natural beauty.

”I am much more concerned than I was about keeping that quality of life as good or better than it is,” he said, praising his erstwhile environmental foes as ”good consciences for the community.”

An example of the city’s new approach to ”managed” growth is Gary L. Bradley’s plans to develop the old Circle C Ranch, 3,600 acres of cedars and live oaks southwest of the city that is in the aquifer area and outside Austin’s ”preferred” growth corridor. Mr. Bradley, a 34-year-old West Texas native who has been in Austin since 1968, is negotiating with the city to provide him water and sewer lines by approving a municipal utility district with authority to issue bonds for his project, which would ultimately have 7,000 homes and apartments.

In exchange, Mr. Bradley has offered to build special retention dams to reduce runoff pollution and to limit paving and density.

”The city does not have to extend utilities to me,” he said. ”But they want to because they do not want me to buy water from the river authority.” Moreover, he said, he is cognizant of what he affectionately calls the ”granola army,” environmentalists who ”can beat you without money.”

”We’ve got a town with a conscience,” he said. ”We will not have another Houston. We have too many safeguards.”

Others are less hoepful. ”I don’t see any way of avoiding the fate that awaits us,” said Kenneth Manning, a 38-year-old lawyer and environmental leader who used to work for Mr. Bradley. He said the city was unable to take a strong hand in channeling development because ”it is extremely difficult to get the City Council to tell a developer ‘no’ once in a while.” All six Council members and the new Mayor ran with contributions from developers in April’s elections. The Best of All Worlds

Austin in a way has the best of all worlds: the fine restaurants, theaters and good bookstores of urban life, yet a small-city layout with lots of parks that lets you get home from work in 15 minutes. Many of its residents are Texans who came to study at the university and stayed, many of them professionals who have sacrificed more lucrative careers elsewhere. Many artists, writers, poets and artisans have also gravitated here.

It is just these things that have brought high-technology businesses seeking refuge from the high costs and congestion in California’s high-technology area and wanting an agreeable setting to help recruit staff. Austin’s population swelled from 254,000 in 1970 to 345,000 in 1980. The chamber estimates its has since grown to more than 367,000, and some estimates say the metropolitan area will exceed a million by the year 2000. Over the last decade, the number of passengers using the municipal airport has grown from 600,000 to more than 2 million yearly. The growth is accelerating. Since 1979 2.6 million square feet of office space has been built; 2.3 million more is now under construction.

Frank W. McBee, a native Austinite who heads the pioneer technology firm here, Tracor Inc., welcomes all this. ”If I want to come into Austin I could put my plant in Elgin, Buda or Georgetown and not pay the city any taxes,” he said, referring to nearby towns. ”The city needs to embrace growth, manage it and benefit from it.”

Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, U.S.N., retired, head of the new M.C.C. venture who is a former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, agreed, saying, ”I think the fears are greatly overstated.”

In 1979 the City Council adopted a master plan to encourge growth along a north-south axis on the theory that new development would be most efficient where there are aleady utilities and transportation lines. But people prefer to live on the hills to the west, and nothing has been able to stop them.

The Council is devising new, more stringent zoning and building codes, and pressure is mounting for strict new rules to limit density in the ecologically fragile Lake Austin watershed to the west. Many, too, are urging the city to annex aggresively lest nearby towns hem it in, even though annexation means that the city must supply services. Over the next few months voters will be asked to approve more than $1 billion in bonds for water, sewer and electric service.

The watchword is low density, but that means high cost. Austin’s population is about 20 percent Mexican- American and 10 percent black, and Councilman John Trevino, son of a Mexican laborer, has his doubts about managed growth.

”Low density development eliminates most minorities,” Mr. Trevino said. ”Are we building an elitist community? Yes, we want to enjoy the environment. But none of my folks will be able to move in.”

New City Management Policy Will Fix All Of Our Problems

By Bill Oakey – April 30, 2021

It is with great pleasure that I release this breaking news story, exclusive to this blog. Remember, you read it here first! No more worries about homelessness, police oversight or nightmarish property tax increases. Those problems and all of the others will be solved very soon. The memo that you are about to read explains it all.

To:                  Those Designated, As Deemed Appropriate

From:             The Leadership Evaluation Facilitation Subcommittee

Through:        Balder Dash and Gobble D. Gook, Senior Coordinating Facilitators

Subject:          Subject to Change Without Notice

Date:               Within the Near Term Time Frame

————————————————————————————————————————————–

Greetings. You have been pre-selected to participate as a planning member of the City Manager’s recently announced “Go Austin Go!” program (GAG). You will be assigned to Milestone I and Milestone II. The first is “Measured Utilization of Management Behavioral Objectives” (MUMBO), which will be followed by “Job Usefulness and Motivational Bio-therapeutic Outreach” (JUMBO). White tablecloths and facilitators will be provided, to help everyone get in touch with themselves.

These programs seek to provide real-time training solutions, with special emphasis on enhanced relationships with mission statements. In Milestone I, managers will attend seminars to learn who they are in the modern working environment. Executives will be given coping assessment drills, which will measure behavioral adjustments to changes in organizational buzzwords.

Milestone II is an innovative approach to task phase linkage and goal attainment. In this module, you will be given an assignment and taught how to “not” get it done. You will learn that “not doing” a job effectively can expand your thought base and de-escalate downtime. The bio-therapeutic outreach will facilitate optimal communication between administrators under stress and the lavish plants in their offices.

The subcommittee has determined that JUMBO is more user-centric than MUMBO, so you will begin with Milestone II. You actually began your training when you started reading this memo. It hasn’t been released yet, so it must be kept strictly confidential. With all assignments under JUMBO, you must “not do them” so well that no one will notice. Thus, critical projects can be allowed to take place before they happen, to determine if they should be made official. If it is later decided that you did not do what you did, you will be informed that you have been doing something else.

It is really quite simple. You will be given a pretty, color-coded notebook with fancy charts for each linkage phase in the goal-attainment grid. The consultants have assured us that these notebooks will only cost the taxpayers $16,000 each.

Should any external questions or concerns arise, acquaint yourself with the need to adhere to the following:

  1. If it’s from the City Council, redirect it.
  2. If it’s from the media, deflect it.
  3. If it’s from a citizen, by all means, reject it.

In the event of an encounter with uncertainty, follow the guidance that applies to all City Management projects. Delay or study it indefinitely until further notice, unless instructed otherwise.

-Facilitated By Bill Oakey

You Can Help Win The Taxpayer Battle!

By Bill Oakey – April 28, 2021

Let’s cut right to the chase. We now have the facts we need to win a taxpayer victory, with the Federal Rescue Plan funds. The City will have to recognize that an 8% maximum tax increase won’t be necessary in the upcoming budget. They can simply cover the shortfall with the Federal funds. You’re going to be amazed, when you see how obvious the evidence looks:

1. Houston – City Controller Chris Brown says, “A $615 million influx of federal funds will help Houston stave off a potentially disastrous budget season.”

2. New Orleans – Officials said that they hope to stretch the funds to cover what could be years of budget shortfalls from the drop-off in tourism and sales taxes.

3. Grand Rapids, Michigan – Proposed budget shortfalls offset by American Rescue Plan

4. Memphis – This is the clincher! Mayor Strickland: “Federal funds will go to budget shortfalls, the tax rate will go down.”

5. Kansas City, Missouri – Received $195 million, exactly what Austin got! They will use it to restore budget cuts and enhance public services.

Check out my clumsy attempt at poetry, and then hit the single-click link to send an email to the Mayor and all 10 City Council members.

What’s wrong with some of our local officials?
Are they too inept to even write their initials?
All they have to do is look around
The solution is right there, so easily found

From Memphis to Grand Rapids, and towns in between
They’re applying Federal funds to their budgets so lean
In Austin where homes are so hard to afford
They just want to tax us, good gracious, Good Lord!

I research this stuff in the dead of night
And I’m nowhere near ready to give up the fight!
So, City Council members and County Commissioners too
The taxpayers are advancing, you know what to do!

Please use this single-click link to email the Mayor and City Council. Be polite, ask them to do right, and we can win this fight!

Then share this blog piece with everyone you know, and post it on social media.

Musical Accompaniment For This Blog Piece:

1. “Memphis” – Johnny Rivers
2. “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans”– Freddy Cannon
3. “Houston” – Dean Martin
4. “Saginaw, Michigan” – Lefty Frizzell
5. “Kansas City” – Wilbert Harrison
6. “Walkin’ To Missouri” – Sammy Kaye, 1952. First record in my music collection, at age 5

How Austin Can Apply COVID Rescue Funds To Tax Relief

By Bill Oakey – April 27, 2021

Winning a battle to help the taxpayers is not an easy task. It’s like climbing up a hill backwards during a snowstorm in the dark. But it can be done, and this time it really must be done!

Get Ready To Go Down Into The Weeds!

This is what I have learned so far in researching the Federal American Rescue Plan Act. I am sharing this information with the Austin City Council:

1. Drill down on the American Rescue Plan details. Here is a good summary.

Take note of Item 2. on Page 17, under “Allandale Use of Funds”:

2. for the provision of government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue (i.e. online, property or income tax) due to the public health emergency.

This provision nails it. Austin has lost sales tax, property tax and various fee revenues since the pandemic began. These revenue losses can be covered with American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds. Some or all of the City’s projected budget shortfall can be covered with these funds. Here’s how to determine the exact amount:

This information is from the bottom of Page 2, in this Texas Municipal League document.

Eligible uses of ARP funds include:

– Responding to the public health emergency with respect to Covid-19 or its negative economic impacts, including assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits, or aid to impacted industries such as tourism, travel, and hospitality.

– Responding to workers performing essential work during the pandemic by providing premium pay to eligible workers performing services inside recipients’ territories, or to eligible employers that have eligible workers who perform essential work.

– Providing government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue of such recipient due to the pandemic relative to revenues collected in the most recent full fiscal year of the recipient prior to the pandemic.

– Necessary investment in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.

The third bullet applies to our City Budget. Our most recent full fiscal year prior to the pandemic was FY 2019. It appears that pandemic-related revenue losses in the FY 2020 Budget are covered by the Rescue Plan funds, to the extent that the added revenues will bring the total up to the FY 2019 level, for each type of revenue. This provision does not make clear whether any FY 2021 revenue losses can be replenished with Rescue Plan funds. Please address this question to the Texas Municipal League or the U.S. Treasury. If I find out, I will let you know. You have until December 31, 2024 to spend the Rescue Plan funds. So, you could easily apply them to next year’s Budget, and provide relief on taxes and fees.

2. The Rescue Plan funds can be used for various health initiatives and social services. Many of these programs are funded annually in the City Budget. It seems to me that you should be able to apply the Rescue Plan funds directly to those eligible services, in lieu of property taxes. That would be in addition to the revenue shortfalls that you are allowed to cover.

Here’s the Bottom Line

You folks on the City Council have a unique opportunity to bring tax relief to homeowners and small businesses during this stressful period of the pandemic. This should be an easy win-win for everyone concerned. Think about these words from the recent KXAN News story:

Patrick Brown, a former Travis County chief appraiser, said with people already strained, an increase in the property tax calculation cap may put too much of a tax burden on Austinites. 

“It’s definitely going to affect all the commercial properties and land, and rental properties and the landlords, particularly ones that have acquired a mortgage loan in the last two or three years,” Brown said. 

That, in turn, he said will affect rental rates. 

“And that could push a number of residents out into the periphery and make Austin even less affordable than it is already,” he said.

Stay Tuned and We Shall See What Happens…

The next step is to ask the Travis County Commissioners to use part of their $247.1 million in Rescue Plan Funds for property tax relief. This news article makes no mention of their planning to do any such thing.

Taxpayer Alert – City Considers 8% Property Tax Hike, Instead Of Using COVID Rescue Funds!

By Bill Oakey – April 26,  2021

Before the ink was barely dry on tens of thousands of shockingly high Austin property tax appraisals, City budget officials crafted a startling and alarming memo to the City Council. First reported by KXAN News last Thursday, the memo describes a purported $23 million shortfall in the upcoming City budget that will be hammered out this summer.

Despite Receiving $195.8 Million in American Rescue Plan Funds, Chief Financial Officer Suggests 8% Tax Increase!

The Texas Legislature has placed a 3.5% revenue cap on City and County tax increases. But, there is an exception to the tax law. I had to rub my eyes and blink twice to believe that I read his words correctly. But this is what Austin CFO, Ed Van Eenoo said to KXAN News:

“Essentially the language says that, you know, if there’s a disaster declaration, the year of that disaster declaration and the subsequent year, cities have the opportunity to go to the 8% increase,” Van Eenoo said. He estimates that change would result in about $15 to $20 million more in revenue for the city.

He Forgot to Mention That Austin Received $195.8 Million In  COVID Rescue Plan Funds!

The City has a special webpage that celebrates the huge Federal windfall. But you won’t find a single word about using it to provide critical property tax relief for homeowners and small businesses. Are they completely out of their minds?! The spending plan includes these categories: Public Health, Economic Recovery Resources, Hotel Occupancy Tax-Funded Services and Contingency. The $39.2 million contingency is for “unanticipated events.”

Well, Guess What…The “Unanticipated Event” Contingency Would Wipe Out the City’s Budget Shortfall

Or, the City could easily adjust some of the other non-health categories. The disturbing memo that the Budget Office sent to the City Council on April 16 echoes the CFO’s bizarre obsession with raising taxes to the 8% legal maximum. Here is the very first “Action Item” in the memo:

“Council must take action to direct that the voter‐approval rate be calculated using the higher, 8% increase factor. This initial action does not require that Council ultimately adopt a property tax rate at this higher level, but this direction must be given in order for Council to retain the option to do so during its budget adoption proceedings in August.”

The memo also lays out a parade of fee increases, stretching over the next five years! And don’t forget this year’s 23% tax increase for the Project Connect boondoggle!

Please Join With Me. Let’s Unite Behind a Much Better Property Tax Increase Amount:

Use This Single-Click Link to Email the Mayor and All 10 City Council Members

Tell them you support zero property tax increase and zero fee increases in the upcoming City Budget. Be sure to ask for a zero increase in the “effective tax rate.” That would actually lower the rate that goes on your tax bill, and help offset the huge tax appraisal increases. It’s a no-brainer to use a portion of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to bring tax relief to struggling Austin homeowners and small businesses.

Keep in mind that 6 City Council seats are up for election next year! Share this blog link with all of your friends, and post it to social media.

The Brookings Institution Recommends That Cities Use ARP Funds to Cover Budget Shortfalls

You may hear excuses for why tax relief can’t be done, or why it isn’t a good idea. That is poppycock! Here is what the Brookings Institution says about it:

“Based on our on-the-ground work in Northeast Ohio and Birmingham, Ala., we believe that elected officials—and the networks of civic, business, philanthropic, and community stakeholders that surround them—should take a three-pronged approach to using their ARP funding: stabilize, strategize, and organize. Stabilize – ARP provides state and local governments with the resources to stabilize their operating budgets.”

Raising Taxes As High As Possible Is Embedded In the City’s Bureaucratic Culture

Starting the budget process with the highest possible tax increase is like giving a teenager a $100 bill to go to the movies, and hoping he will bring back $86. The City’s motto seems to be “Raise taxes first, and ask questions later.” It is time for every homeowner and small business owner to rise up and stop that nonsense dead in its tracks!

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

1. “Rescue Me” – Fontella Bass, original version, 1965
2. “Love Minus Zero / No Limit” – Joan Baez, written by Bob Dylan
3. “Zero Zero” – Bent Fabric
4. “Emotional Rescue” – The Rolling Stones
5. “Rescue Me” – Linda Ronstadt, 1972

Welcome To Austin’s Newest Mass Transit Bureaucracy

By Bill Oakey, April 20, 2021

First of all, the pandemic has upended the old historic model of mass transit. But, does the City Council and Capital Metro recognize that? Have they modified the plans for Project Connect the way other major cities are doing? Ridership has decreased dramatically, peak times have shifted and routes have been altered. See these two extraordinary articles:

2. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Austin taxpayers face a bleak future of spiraling property tax increases for a new bureaucratic morass that may not even succeed in their mission. Unless we have strong oversight and rigid accountability standards, the high cost will displace many thousands of longtime Austin residents.

1. The City of Austin’s property tax increase this year for the Project Connect plan  is 8.75 cents per $100 valuation. That is almost as high as the 11 cent tax for Central Health, and even closer to Austin Community College’s 10.6 cent tax!

2. The City and Capital Metro created a whole new bureaucracy for implementing Project Connect’s $7.1 billion plan. It is called the Austin Transit Partnership. I have tried several online searches for “Austin Transit Partnership budget,” and cannot find one that is published anywhere. So, who can tell us how this year’s 23%, 8.75 cent City property tax increase, that is almost as high as ACC and Central Heath is being spent?

3. The $7.1 billion transit plan was sold to the voters as an “initial investment.” The final cost for a citywide plan would easily be 3 to 4 times that amount in local funding.  In 2016, Seattle voters approved a $54 billion plan to expand their existing rail system. By 2019 it was already over budget!

4. I am proposing to the City Council an annual public review process for the Austin Transit Partnership budget. It would closely follow the City’s budget process, with a proposed budget released a few months ahead of final adoption. This would be followed by 2 or 3 public hearings, with City Council members present. The final budget would have to be approved by our elected City Council. I am also asking for this year’s budget for our 23% property tax increase (8.75 cents) to be published and posted online.

5. The new Austin Transportation Partnership is busy recruiting coordinators, facilitators, liaisons and all manner of other bureaucrats to begin the process of studying and evaluating the approach to formulating the implementation of Project Connect’s $7.1 billion plan (!) Check out this colorfully worded job posting for “Manager, Board Relations:” The very first sentence has a typo with repeated words:
Manager, Board Relations
“The Manager Board Relations reports directly to the reports directly to the General Counsel and Chief Administrative Officer.“

Here is one of my favorite bullet points in the job posting:

“Develop and maintain viable systems and procedures to implement board policy providing knowledgeable input to the Board in their decision-making process.”

6. There are serious questions as to whether the proposed downtown tunnel is even feasible. The fault that runs north and south through underground Austin poses major engineering challenges. And our downtown streets were elevated several feet in the late 1800’s, because of severe flooding. In the 1980’s, an amateur explorer crawled through a narrow tunnel and discovered what remains of the old downtown streets. He showed a film to the City Council. This evidence of a previous downtown, and why it was buried still lies beneath us today, shrouded in mystery.

Musical Accompaniment For This Blog Piece:

1. “Ambrose (Part 5)” – Linda Laurie, 1958
2. “To Tell the Truth TV Show” – featuring Linda Laurie

San Francisco Is Worried That Austin Is Becoming Like San Francisco!

By Bill Oakey – April 19, 2021

My cousin pointed me to a Bloomberg Business article that clearly shows how out of whack things are getting here. People from the Silicon Valley have been coming here for years because  they liked Austin. That’s the Austin that had a thriving live music scene, a funky “keep it weird” vibe and lots of other things that the locals created. For many of us, it’s been fun meeting the new people at various festivals and other events.

But, what happens when the very factors that drove people out of California start happening right here? Well, we don’t have to wait long to find out. I will provide a link to the “San Francisco Is Worried” story. But first, here are a few things they need to think about before and after they get here. Maybe one of their high tech think tanks could discuss these, and then sit down with the folks on our City Council. Here’s what they need to know…

To The Good People Of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley:

Our transportation system will get much worse before it gets better!

Last year, Austin voters were promised a dazzling crosstown rail system, with a downtown tunnel, and two lines crossing Lady Bird Lake. One of those will extend to the airport. The grand plan, which was easily approved by voters, is riddled with problems. For starters, the “initial investment” of $7.1 billion won’t go very far. In 2016, Seattle approved a $54 billion expansion of their existing rail system, and it is already over budget. Our new system, even if it could be built on a wing and a prayer, will leave several of Austin’s busiest roadways with only one car lane in each direction.

I requested detailed feasibility and engineering studies, prior to the bond election. Why were they not provided to me? Because they don’t exist. Studies were set to begin many months after voters bought the plan and started paying taxes for it. The plans call for two crossings over the lake, but doesn’t specify where, how, or even whether enough land is available or could be acquired near either crossing. Nobody has been able to figure that one out yet.

The downtown tunnel is a dead-on-arrival pipe dream. A fault runs under part of downtown, causing occasional leaks into basements in buildings. There are numerous utility fixtures under the downtown streets. The rock in the ground is so hard that utility contractors have a difficult time even drilling a small space for a maintenance vehicle to squeeze through. Project Connect’s fairy tale image of people sipping cocktails across from an underground rail station, while grooving to a live band are positively hilarious!

Wait Till Austinites See Their Property Tax Bills Later This Year!

The $7.1 billion “initial investment” by taxpayers is only a drop in the bucket for the expected final cost. Any modern citywide rail and expanded bus system would easily cost 3 to 4 times that much in local funding. This year’s 8.75 cent property tax for the sure-to-fail-rail is almost as high as the 11 cent annual tax for our entire Central Health System. And it’s even closer to our 10.6 cent tax for Austin Community College. In my next blog piece, I will introduce you to the boondoggle bureaucracy that will “enhance, engage and facilitate” the implementation of the big fairy tale plan.

Perhaps I’ve Said Enough for One Tough Swallow!

I wouldn’t want to spoil anyone’s lovely welcome from San Francisco, before they even get their moving boxes off the truck. So, I won’t bemoan the fact that I-35 will be torn apart for 10 or 15 years with new construction, at the very same time that rail construction rips up the streets across the city. And I’ll say no more about the hapless diggers who will try to bore their way under our downtown streets. Oh, and I almost forgot to say this to our kind and gentle friends from San Francisco…Welcome to Austin!

And Now For That Entertaining Story…Click the Headline:

Silicon Valley Is Flooding Into a Reluctant Austin

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

1. “San Francisco “ – Scott McKenzi
2. “San Franciscan Nights” – Eric Burdon & The Animals
3. “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” – Tony Bennett
4. “Fairytale” – The Pointer Sisters

KXAN Forecasts Historic Wave Of Property Tax Protests

By Bill Oakey – April 16, 2021

Just as Austinites began enjoying the marvelous joys of spring weather, amid hopeful signs of finally escaping the pandemic, a thunderous roar could be heard reverberating across the city. On Thursday afternoon, the initial sounds were much quieter – little mouse clicks and computer keystrokes. And the nearly silent taps and swipes across phones and tablets. Then came the sweeping surge of audible gasps, quickly followed by various combinations of howls, shrieks and screams. Many people exclaimed out loud, “How could this even be possible!!??” The Travis Central Appraisal District’s website went live with this year’s stunning property tax appraisals.

On the evening local news, KXAN became the first to report on the story. Click here for the video, or read about it below:

Tax Experts Anticipate More Home Appraisal Protests Than Ever

By Kevin Clark, April 15, 2021

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the local housing market changes dramatically, hundreds of thousands in Travis County are getting their home appraisals from the Travis Central Appraisal District for this year. The numbers are important because they’re used to calculate property taxes. But tax experts tell KXAN they expect more homeowners than ever to fight back.Last year, TCAD says there were 127,000 protests. This year, even more are expected.

“We’ve already had folks calling us and asking us to help them, anticipating that ‘hard hit’ in those values,” said Debra Bawcom, CEO of Texas ProTax, which helps represent homeowners who want to protest the values set by the appraisal district. (Link provided by this blog).

As it does around this time every year, TCAD has begun sending out appraisal notices. But as housing demand continues to skyrocket, the appraisal district is reporting higher median home values. In 2020, Travis County’s median home value was $354,622. This year, TCAD says it has reached $413,403. The only year this number didn’t go up from the previous year was last year — that’s when the appraisal district froze appraisals because of a data dispute.

“I think it’s going to really shock the property owner how much that value is going to increase because the appraisal district is going to have to play catch up now for two years,” Bawcom said.

Bill Oakey is just one homeowner feeling the effect. He owns one-third of a triplex in West Austin. According to the appraisal notice Oakey received, its value went up 55% from last year.“The first thing that occurred to me was that the alarm was going to go off, I’m going to wake up and tell everyone about the bad dream I just had,” he told us.

Property owners have until May 17 to protest their appraisals. From there, homeowners can try and reach a settlement with TCAD informally or have a formal hearing in front of the Appraisal Review Board. More details on the process and timelines can be found here. Texas law caps increases of tax-assessed value to 10% per year for those with homestead exemptions. Anything above that is ripe for a protest, which is exactly what Oakey plans.

“I’m going to try to become an example of how you can win,” he said.