BY BILL OAKEY – SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Oakey is a retired accountant and writer of the blog AustinAffordability.com.
“Affordability” has become a popular catchphrase for several years now. We hear it often in local political campaigns and public gatherings. Now it is the time for an aggressive, proactive approach to addressing the problem and finding solutions. My suggestion is to establish a group of public officials and citizens with topical expertise to work together in a formal problem-solving effort. It’s time for some folks to roll up their sleeves and make real progress.
The issues are complex and daunting, but one thing is clear. We simply cannot afford business as usual at City Hall or the other local governmental entities. Here are just a few examples of fiscal discipline and accountability gone awry:
• Since February, the Austin City Council has given away millions of dollars in fee waivers, including $756,000 to South by Southwest and $6 million to the University of Texas for road realignment near the new medical school.
• Last year the city spent a $14 million budget surplus with no formal citizen review.
• The city routinely raises property taxes close to the 8 percent legal maximum every year. But they obscure the truth by hiding behind the tax rate. Rising property values provide an easy cover for tax increases.
• Citizens wishing to speak at 4:00 p.m. city budget hearings are often kept waiting for up to six hours. A reform for that madness is 30 years overdue.
• Twice in the past year, Travis County commissioners have sidestepped voter approval for controversial road projects.
As noted in a recent American-Statesman editorial, the owner of a $185,133 Austin home faces an estimated increase in taxes and fees from $6,981 to $8,327 by 2019. That is the combined impact from the city of Austin, Travis County, the Austin school district, Austin Community College, and Central Health. People living in neighborhoods with significantly higher home values will be hit much harder.
Better coordination among local jurisdictions would be a helpful step to lessen the taxpayer impact of large-scale capital projects. Priorities should be set, and perhaps bond issues could be scheduled less frequently. Everyone in public office needs to take a “big picture” approach to all spending, and not assume that every wish list item is a must-have. Not when too many citizens face budget cuts of their own and the possibility of having to sell their homes and leave Austin.
The affordability problem extends well beyond taxes and fiscal prudence. Some owners of our treasured local businesses have complained loudly about onerous and expensive permits for remodeling and expansion. Why couldn’t some of the regulations that don’t involve critical public safety or environmental concerns be reduced or eliminated? I long for the good old days when letters sent from City Hall bore the slogan, “Austin, The Friendly City.” How about bringing that back, for existing residents and not just the tourists?
A recent Leadership Austin breakfast discussion on affordability touched on a housing problem that begs for a solution. Why is there hardly any multi-family housing being built for moderate-income people? The vast majority of it is large-scale and luxury priced. City planners and policymakers need to identify and fix whatever disincentives exist for building smaller projects with affordable units. At the same time, we should not demolish every remaining apartment complex for low- and middle-income renters. We risk losing our population diversity.
Failure at the local level to address affordability concerns could trigger an ominous overreaction from the Texas Legislature. The anti-government fervor from some state officials could lead to strict controls on cities and counties, forcing cuts to badly needed services. Where we do need help from the Legislature is in closing the giant loophole that allows commercial property owners to get tax appraisals at below market value.
Affordability encompasses taxes, housing, transportation and other important areas. Our best hope for finding solutions and making progress towards implementing them is to bring some people to the table and get to work.