Monthly Archives: May 2014

New Survey Says It All – Austin Is Headed For Very Serious Trouble

By Bill Oakey – May 9, 2014

Yesterday veteran Austin pollster, Peter Zandan, released the results of a survey called “The Zandan Poll: Voices of the Austin Community.” These words rose from the page upon my first glance at the report:

65% of Austinites are dissatisfied with the cost of housing

59% of them are dissatisfied with the cost of living

You can read a summary of the survey here.  And see the full report here.

Not surprisingly, the typical media response to the survey incorporated lots of spin.  That was easy to do because there were plenty of “feel good” responses about Austin as a city.  KUT’s website trumpets the poll with the cheery headline, Austinites Optimistic About City’s Future.”   Two important words were left out of that statement.  A more accurate telling would read “Very Young Austinites Optimistic About City’s Future.”

Even the numbers for the respondents aged 18-35 are far from universally rosy.  67% of them say that Austin is headed in the right direction.  But 19%, almost one in five, say that the City is headed down the wrong track.  Among the 35+ age group, the numbers are most disturbing.  Only 46% say that we are headed in the right direction, while a whopping 37% say that we are moving down the wrong track.

Mr. Zandan should be commended for producing this survey at his own expense.  His goal was to start a conversation about where Austin is headed and the challenges that the community faces.  No amount of media spin can wipe away the underlying concerns about affordability.  Traffic and water are highlighted as well.  The most positive results from the poll indicate that people love Austin and would like to remain living here.  They would recommend our city to their friends as a fun place to live.  And, yes, Austin’s “weirdness” also fared well in the survey.

It is unthinkable to me that anyone with the power of the pen would not publicize all of the concerns expressed in such an important report.  The trend lines for Austin’s future do not look very encouraging.  If 59% of Austinities are not happy with the cost of living today, how in the heck are they going to deal with it five years from now?  We have two basic choices.  We can either pretend that Austin is one big party town, go out and enjoy the drunken binge of full throttle growth and festival fun, and not worry about the huge hangover that looms over it all.  Or, we can step out of denial and admit that bold, innovative, and decisive action is our only hope to avoid some sort of highly volatile boom and bust cycle.

As I have stated before to our elected officials and those seeking to replace them – your most ominous opponent is the quiet inertia of business as usual.  The path that we are on now is literally unsustainable on many levels.

The young hipsters of today’s Austin will be looking for houses to raise their own families in a few short years.  They will step across the line of that survey into the 35+ age column.  What fate will await them at that point?  Perhaps our status quo growth model will try to push them out and replace them with a fresh batch of new young hipsters.  But by that time, the prospective newbies may have already seen the handwriting on their virtual reality screens.   Those may show scenes of a few white-gloved ladies on Congress Avenue, escorted by guys who just stepped out of their lamborghinis.  But the screens may also show an eerie calm on the street.  Where did the rest of the people go?  And who put those boards on all the store windows?

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Does Anybody Know a Rocket Scientist? We May Need Their Help

By Bill Oakey – May 7, 2014

Nobody ever said that fighting City Hall was easy.  I just happen to be bold and / or crazy enough to try.  The victories are few, but very sweet.

This time I’m asking for a little help – from a rocket scientist.

Here’s the deal.  One of my proposed reforms has languished for nearly 30 years.  Everybody should get one proud notch on his belt in a lifetime.  So, here’s how I’d like to earn mine.

Win a reform of the City Council agenda process, so that citizens don’t have to wait six hours to speak at public hearings.

I lost that battle in 1987.  But I stood my ground and fought valiantly, sitting in the Council chambers waiting hours for my turn to speak on the proposal.  The Metro section headline in the next morning’s paper read, “Agenda Reform Proponent Kept Waiting.”

And I’m still waiting, nearly 30 years later.

So, I’m ready to call in a rocket scientist for help.  Perhaps she could measure the trajectory of each weary citizen as they navigate the voyage to and from the City Hall restrooms.  Or, she could track the velocity of the motorized wheelchairs that disabled citizens move about during their extended stays into the wee morning hours.

Maybe she could even stand beside me and help propel me to my proudest City Hall victory of a lifetime.  It would indeed be a sweet victory.  Not really for me, but for the next generation of City Hall visitors who want to participate in making Austin the best place to live.

Should the City Council Wave Goodbye to Special Event Fee Waivers?

By Bill Oakey – May 5, 2014

Once upon a time when Austin was a much smaller city, our local officials did not hesitate to waive the fees for all kinds of special events for things like parades and festivals that benefited the community.  These fees cover everything from park maintenance to permits to security and law enforcement services.  Today, as Austin has grown into an international destination, the cost of managing crowds and handling a host of other festival related functions has grown exponentially.  Many of the fees for those services are still being waived, even for companies that are not dedicated to charities.  And much of the cost to do that comes right out of our property tax bills.

At the April meeting of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, Police Chief Art Acevedo received a thunderous round of applause when he made an appeal for canceling future fee waivers for the SXSW Festival.  This year’s tab for those waivers came in at $756,000.  As Acevedo pointed out, the Police Dept. must compete with other departments for scarce budget dollars.  And when funds are not available to pay for extra police at major public events, neighborhood patrols must be reduced and crime intervention is placed at risk.

Is It Time for a New Special Events Fund?

Last week City Council Member Kathie Tovo put forth a comprehensive and quite innovative resolution to create a new Special Events Fund.  Tovo’s co-sponsors on the resolution were Bill Spelman and Mike Martinez.  This new fund would either supplement or potentially reduce large fee waiver draws from the General Fund, thus saving taxpayers some money and eliminating gaps in funding for parks and police.  Possible sources for the new fund could include ticket surcharges for event patrons, as well as expenditures from the hotel and bed tax.

There are several components of the adopted resolution that reflect a wise effort to plan and review the concept carefully.  These include soliciting input from citizen boards and commissions, and asking City staff to review special event procedures from other cities.  The specific aspects of both large and small events will be reviewed.  In addition, the resolution asks for new guidelines and a matrix to evaluate fee waiver applications for large events.  You can read the resolution here.

It is not clear from my initial reading of the resolution whether the proposed fee waiver guidelines in combination with the new Special Events Fund would result in eliminating most of the waivers.  That certainly appears to be the goal.  But here’s my question.  If enough money is generated from the new fund, wouldn’t the festival organizers apply for a portion of those funds and then use the money awarded to pay the required City fees?   Ticket surcharges turned over to the City would also negate the need for waivers.  I plan to address those questions and some others at a City Hall meeting next week.  It looks like some taxpayer relief may be finally headed our way on this issue.

You Have Been Summoned By the Austin Bulldog

By Bill Oakey – May 4, 2014

If you are reading this blog, the chances are pretty good that you would be interested in an online publication that thrives on investigative reporting about public officials.  It’s called the Austin Bulldog, and you really need to check it out.  In addition to detailed profiles of current local officeholders, you will also find hidden truths and occasional skeletons pulled out of the closets of candidates who are seeking those offices.  The good news about these candidates is up front as well, based on extensive research and interviews with associates who are intimately familiar with their backgrounds.

The mad dog behind this publication is Ken Martin, who originally started In-Fact Daily as a weekly.  In-Fact is a subscription based newsletter that delivers detailed coverage of the hottest agenda topics at Austin City Hall and Travis County.  The publication is now edited by Jo Clifton, and has recently been renamed the Austin Monitor.

But you can read the Austin Bulldog for free.  They are currently examining many of the candidates running for the ten new district-based City Council seats.  And of course, you’ll find coverage of the mayor’s race.  Ken Martin has just published Part Two of his in-depth analysis of mayoral hopeful, Steve Adler.   I encourage everyone to follow this series on Mr. Adler.  Steve is much better known for his work at the Texas Legislature and for educational nonprofits than he is for direct involvement with City of Austin political issues.  The latest Bulldog piece quotes numerous sources as having high praise for Adler.

At this early point in the mayor’s race, all of the candidates deserve our attention.  But the buzz on the street among progressives is that business as usual at City Hall is not working out very well these days.  Unless one of the experienced, currently serving candidates comes up with some form of bold action to counter their previous voting records, we may be looking for new leadership.

One place to look for clues about the backgrounds of both the current and aspiring new officeholders is the Austin Bulldog.  And if you like what you read, you might consider making a voluntary donation.  Then hold onto your seats for a wild and crazy ride, from now all the way to November.  As many in our community have stated, Austin is at a crossroads.  We’re at that proverbial tipping point, where renters, homeowners, medium-skilled job seekers, and longtime Austinites are collectively shaking their heads.  Affordability is a major issue.  This upcoming election may well be the most important one we have faced in several decades.