Monthly Archives: June 2014

Let’s Support Eliza May For City Council District 8

By Bill Oakey – June 16, 2014

As many of you may know, I am privileged to serve as the Campaign Treasurer for Eliza May, who is running for Austin City Council in District 8. We need Eliza May on Council. Here is why I am asking you to support Eliza.

Eliza has a distinguished history of public service, dating back over 25 years to her days as a Legislative Aide.  She is the person who helped me the most on the Over-65 School Tax Freeze and the Truth In Taxation bills that passed in the Legislature.  I have always admired her ability to tackle complex affordability issues with dedication and attention to details.

Over the years since then, she has continued to serve in many positions with integrity and distinction, including her stint as President of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. She chaired the A.I.S.D. Bond Oversight Committee where she ensured that the money approved was spent on projects approved by the voters.

With our new 10-1 City Council structure, we are going to need candidates with the experience and vision to hit the ground running next January.  Eliza has committed to supporting several important affordability reforms, including the ones below followed by her thoughtful comments.

– A general homestead exemption for Austin homeowners.  “A homestead exemption would provide immediate tax relief.  We need to take action as soon as possible to help allow people to stay in their homes.  The City Council has the same authority as the County to provide a homestead exemption.  It can be phased in over a few years, to ease the transition for the City Budget.”

– A comprehensive audit of all City Departments.  “We need to find ways to make City offices run more efficiently.   And we can learn from other Texas cities how to make improvements.  My goal is to put more resources where we need them and cut back in areas where there is waste or duplication.”

– Better transparency and accountability for the taxpayers.  “The public deserves to know what the City is adding to the budget and how much it will cost.  It’s time to stop hiding behind the tax rate when tax appraisals are rising.  We need to inform taxpayers what the true percentage of a tax increase would be, and lower the rate when necessary to keep Austin more affordability.”

-Make City Hall more open for citizen participation.  “Citizens should not have to wait up to 6 hours to speak on agenda items and public hearings.  We must find a way to schedule topics closer to the actual time they will be heard, and allow people to come and speak after normal working hours.”

I encourage you to do three things to help elect Eliza:

1. Join her campaign and learn more about Eliza May on the website.

2. Spread the word to your friends in District 8 and on Facebook and Twitter that Eliza May needs our support!

3. DONATE to the campaign. Your early investment will make it possible to for our campaign to not only have the necessary resources to deliver our message of change and engage the residents in our community, but also to provide the support needed to address the issues our community faces. Austin is changing rapidly and these changes will affect the quality of life in District 8.

Thank you for your action in supporting Eliza May today.

Sincerely,

Bill Oakey, Treasurer

Eliza May for Austin City Council, District 8

@Elizamaydist8  Facebook.com/Elizamayforaustin elizamayforaustin.com

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Victory At City Hall For Water Utility Ratepayers!

By Bill Oakey – June 12, 2014

Today the City Council voted unanimously not to give away $1.4 million in fee waivers that would have impacted the Water Utility.  This is excellent news, and it shows that grass roots action can make a difference.

Thanks to all of you who helped by sending emails to the City Council.  Our voices were heard!

We still have a lot of work ahead of us on the affordability battlefront.

Stay tuned…

New Fee Waiver Would Cost Water Utility $1.4 Million! – What Is The City Council Thinking??

By Bill Oakey – June 10, 2014

Just as we begin to catch our breath from one wasteful move by the City Council, here comes another one!  Item #63 on this Thursday’s agenda would give away $2.5 million of your money and mine in fee waivers to the new Seton Teaching Hospital.   This is appalling when you consider that we just got stock with an unprecedented property tax increase from Central Health that was supposed to cover the new U.T. medical school and this teaching hospital.

But here’s the most outrageous part of the deal on this new fee waiver.  $1.4 million of it would take revenue away from the Water Utility.  (To see the breakdown of the entire $2.5 million in fee waivers, go to the City Council agenda, click on Item #63, and then click on the fiscal note).

This financial hit to the Water Utility comes just after the new Fitch Bond Rating Service report that reduced the rating outlook for some of our Water Utility bonds from stable to negative. And it comes right on top of the news that we could face a 30% base rate increase in water rates under the new budget…PLUS a new drought fee!

A special Joint Committee on Water Utility Finance has been pouring over the books for several weeks, trying to find cost savings to help reduce the upcoming rate increase.  And now we are faced with this bone-headed fee waiver.  I can just hear somebody from the City saying, “Oh, but the $1.4 million in fees from Seton was not anticipated in the budget, so the waiver will have a neutral impact.”  I don’t know if it was in the budget or not, but we have heard statements along those lines before.  It’s only money after all, so what does it matter?

The bottom line from this City Council is becoming very clear.  They don’t understand the frustration of the taxpayers.  We know for certain that Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Mayor Pro-Tem Sheryl Cole are in favor of this latest fee waiver because they are both co-sponsors of the item on Thursday.  In fact, Leffingwell told the Statesman that the City has a “moral obligation” to do the fee waiver.

But where is the “moral obligation” to the taxpayers and ratepayers???

This week it’s a total of $2.5 million in fee giveaways, plus $30 to $40 million in wasteful spending by Austin Energy to build a new building, when they could buy a bigger space for less than half the price.  How much more in bad funding decisions will we see next week?  And the week after that?

Our only chance is to let our voices be heard, loud and clear!

Send an email to all the City Council members using this link.

Who Do You Know That Supports The Highland Mall To Riverside Rail Plan?

By Bill Oakey – June 6, 2014

Quick question – How many friends, neighbors and acquaintances do you know that plan to vote for the Highland Mall to Riverside urban rail bonds in November?

What was that…say again…?

Try asking that question the next time you are at a restaurant, a backyard gathering, a party, or a civic function.  The first thing you might hear is that they haven’t really thought enough about it.  Or, you might hear that they need to wait and see what the City Council decides to put on the ballot.

What you probably will not hear is a resounding chorus of support for the proposed rail plan and the staggering stair steps of annual property tax increases that come along with it.  (The Austin American-Statesman reported that the tax bite could raise our property taxes by 15% over the next six years).

I’ve been to enough public events over the past year to know that the kind of broad support needed to pass the rail bonds is simply not there.  The core voters who turn out for every Austin election do not have the “yes word” on their lips when the subject comes up.

What’s even more telling is how seldom the subject comes up at all.

We all hear a lot about traffic and transportation, and how Austin needs to find a way to deal with it.  But in all my discussions with various City Council candidates for the districts and the mayor’s race, not a single one has voluntarily brought up the Highland Mall to Riverside rail plan or told me that they were clamoring for it to pass.

And I will go another step further.  I’ve had numerous appointments with current City Council members on affordability issues since last year.  Not a single one of them has urged me to support the urban rail plan.  This tells me that at least some of them probably dread the fact that they are up against an August deadline to make a decision on what to put on the November ballot.  I strongly suspect that several Council members toss and turn at night, wishing that the issue would simply go away.  With the possible exception of Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

So, Where Does That Leave Austin After The Rail Bonds Fail?

That will be the subject of my blog posting on Monday.  You might be very surprised at the positive outcome that I will predict.

Can We Stop Austin Energy From Wasting Over $40 Million?

By Bill Oakey – June 5, 2014

Update: Response From Austin Energy Is Now Included

If you owned a business that needed more space, what choice would you make on this deal. Would you build a brand new building for $67 million, or would you buy a bigger building with plenty of parking right next door for less than half the price?

Well, guess what…Austin Energy not only wants to spend $67 million for the new building, but on June 12th they will ask the City Council for an additional $9 million to develop the PLANS for it!   The bureaucracy is alive and well, but this time we can’t let them get away with it.

Brian Rodgers, who is well-known for exposing the commercial tax appraisal inequities several years ago, sent out an alert this morning on the Austin Energy building boondoggle.  A broker friend of his advised him that the huge 48 acre campus formerly owned by AMD is available for sale for $25 million.  The address is 5900 East Ben White.  It is located just a few feet away from the spot where Austin Energy wants to build their boondoggle.  The price tag for AE’s dream building comes in at $375 per square foot, which is higher than the going rate for many downtown buildings.  There is also another building nearby that should be evaluated for cost.

Right now, we need to do two things:

1. Contact all seven City Council members, using this link, to ask them to cancel the $9 million planning contract for the new building.  This is Item #13 on the Council Agenda for June 12th. Ask them to evaluate purchasing the former AMD campus at 5900 East Ben White, as well as Building 312 at 6800 Burleson Road.

2. Work with the new candidates running in November to establish a reform.  All proposed City building projects should be evaluated on a matrix against specific alternatives, using strict cost-conscious guidelines.

Austin Energy Responds – What Part of “Affordability” Do They Not Understand?

Late this morning, the Austin American-Statesman posted an online story on the criticism of Austin Energy’s expensive new building plans.  The response from Austin Energy will probably not surprise you.  Vince McGlone, a facilities manager, made this comment regarding the former AMD facility that is bigger and half the cost:

“I’m very familiar with that building, I used to work there,” McGlone said. “It does not suit our needs, it is 1986 vintage equipment. What we’re trying to do with our new suite is create a building that does not draw upon natural resources as much.”

Sandra Strauss-Jones, an Austin Energy project manager, offered this description of the new building that they want.  “The new East Austin building would highlight the green-building practices the utility preaches. It will have solar panels in the parking lot, rainwater harvesting and pedestrian walking and biking trails.”

My Comments:  It would be great if they could provide some type of solar panels for whatever building they get.  There are lots of green building options out there.  They need to go back to the drawing board and find a way to do it cost effectively with an existing, cheaper building.  As for the bicycle and pedestrian hiking trails, I’m sorry.  But we just want you to keep our lights on, guys!  Do your hiking on your own time at your own expense.  Or else, uh, take a hike!  What part of “affordability” do you not understand?

A Look Back At Austin Energy’s Current Headquarters

For a bit of nostalgic history, here is how Austin Energy wound up in their current headquarters on Barton Springs Road.  In the late 1980’s that building was called the Sumiken Building.  A hack “consultant” who had worked in the mayor’s campaign lobbied for the contract to construct that building.  Even though this guy had no real estate license, and often wore no shoes, he received a fat commission for speaking on behalf of the project at City Hall.  Citizens were so outraged by this and other insider deals, that they elected several new council members who were far worse than what we had.  It wasn’t until a few years later that Brigid Shea, Daryl Slusher, and Jackie Goodman were elected on a neighborhood and environmental platform.

Austin Leaders Should Unite Behind Tax Appraisal Reform

By Bill Oakey – June 4, 2014

The Travis County Commissioners Court took the first step on Monday toward meaningful action on tax appraisal reform.  Thanks in large part to the efforts of commissioner candidate, Brigid Shea, the Court is seriously exploring whether to legally challenge all of the commercial tax appraisals in Travis County.  Two stunning facts tell the story of gross inequities in the current system:

1. Commercial property is currently being assessed at only about 60% of its market value, thanks to a gaping loophole in State law.

2. The Travis Central Appraisal District is out-gunned by high priced lawyers who often sue in court and win if those property owners don’t get the appraisals they want from TCAD.

The end result is that residential homeowners get the shaft.  And with Austin taxes hitting unsustainable levels, local leaders are speaking out on the need for reform.  If the County Commissioners follow through with their challenge, the entire state will take notice, and regardless of the outcome, the Legislature will be confronted with the issue come January.

County Judge Sam Biscoe stated after the discussions in executive session on Monday that a lot of legal questions will need to be answered before commissioners can decide whether to take action.  A formal challenge would trigger the need to find out what set of appraisals the City, County, and other taxing entities would use for tax collections in the upcoming year.  A potential delay in tax collections could jeopardize the chances of a challenge being filed.  The issue will return to the Commissioners Court on June 17th.  At that time, homeowners will be given an opportunity to speak.

City Council Member Kathie Tovo has scheduled an item for the City to consider an appeal as well.  What would really be helpful would be a coordinated effort, including AISD.  The year of 2014 apparently marks the tipping point where citizens and local leaders have finally gotten the message.  Austin cannot continue to grow and maintain a booming economy unless there is available money to pay for services.  Homeowners cannot be expected to carry a lopsided portion of that burden.  It’s not even a matter of whether they WANT to pay.  The fact is that rapidly increasing numbers of them simply can’t afford to pay any more.

Mayoral Candidate Steve Adler Adds His Voice To The Call For Reform

I especially appreciate the comments that Steve Adler made on Monday in his handout to the packed crowd of frustrated homeowners at the Commissioners Court on Monday:

“Residential property owners are being unfairly burdened with property taxes. The city and local governments should have challenged the system years ago. There is nothing new about this problem and it is good to see Travis County considering action now.”

“Politicians should be honest when they talk to taxpayers about raising taxes, regardless of what they do with the tax rates. Taxpayers deserve truth in taxation.”

Mr. Adler’s characteristic breadth of scope in approaching complex issues will place him ahead of the pack when it comes to tackling property tax issues.  His experience working in the Legislature will help with respect to appraisal reform.  And he has made it clear in discussions with me that he would not tolerate the deceptive City Hall practice of hiding behind the tax rate during annual budget deliberations.  It was Steve Adler who brought to my attention the fact that the 7/10 of a cent tax rate reduction in the City Manager’s budget forecast actually adds up to a 5.5% tax increase.

I was reminded of John Kerry’s comment in his acceptance speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, “Imagine a President who believes in science!”  Well, how about this.  “Imagine a mayor who believes in truth in taxation!”

If This Is A Chess Game, What Is The Next Move?

By Bill Oakey – June 2, 2014

If you often feel like a pawn in somebody else’s chess game, you are not alone.

The Players are looking down at Us from their perches on the upper floors of the tall towers. Those towers are all over the country, and even in some places overseas.  They can see us on their super-HD computer screens.  I’m not talking about literally seeing us through the cameras on our computers.  I’m talking about the figurative representations of us.

They are the kings and the queens, the rooks and the knights.

We are the pawns.

The City of Austin is just one ledger on one page in their impressive portfolios.  Of course, there are more of these viewing stations in downtown Austin than there are in New York, California , and Dubai.  But the objective is the same.  Move the pieces on the chess board around.  And try to outwit the opponents.  Try to make as much money as they can as fast as they can.  If only those gosh darned pawns didn’t get in the way sometimes!  They could make even more money.

We are the little dots seen slogging through the crowded streets, trying to get to work, to the grocery store, or perhaps over to Barton Springs, if only we could find a parking place.  And then slogging back home again to get some rest.  Before getting into the game all over again the next morning.

The Players have to be pretty worried right now.  Our tax appraisals were not a pretty picture. The news media is telling them that we have been observed acting restless.  So, what does that mean?  What will They do if We fall victim to the simple laws of economics?  No amount of maneuvering on the chess board can change the fact that we only earn X amount of income.  We can only afford so much in taxes.  We can only afford to vote for X number of bond elections.

The economy is part of the game too, but it is a Silent Player.  Just like Mother Nature is silent. You can’t do anything about the weather.  And when the economic scales get tipped out of balance, it becomes a desperate race against time.

Can The Players find enough new pawns to replace the estimated 40 current pawns who are leaving Austin every day?  Can they build enough self-enclosed “apartment communities” where the lowest rent for a one bedroom apartment is $1,375 per month?  These places have secured club rooms, open terraces with views, green lighting, and DNA testing for dogs.  You read that right.  If you find dog poop on your doorstep, THEY know whose dog did it. They have everybody’s dog’s DNA.  (I’m not making this up!  I saw it last night).

They want you to sell your single-family house so they can scrape it off and add another “apartment community” to their portfolio.

But what will happen to Them if the economy and Mother Nature don’t cooperate?  They have to scrambling to find a solution to the drought problem.  (I have to wonder how They feel about the proposed 30% water rate increase, with a new “drought fee” added to it).

Reports keep popping up in the news, stating that too many of Us are have stagnant wages and we can’t keep up with the costs of living in Austin.  So, I will end with the same question that I started with.

If this is a chess game, what is the next move?