By Bill Oakey – September 5, 2014
When you go around Austin these days, how many people do you run into who talk about what a great City Council we have? Come to think of it, have you ever heard anybody say that in the last ten years?
Well, why would that be? Let’s start with a simple question. If your city has a major problem and it is being talked about at every single civic function, wouldn’t you expect your city leaders to do something about it? Wouldn’t you expect them to at least organize some sort of major effort to solve the problem. In the case of affordability, they have done nothing of the sort.
The sad fact of the matter is that our current City Council members do not get affordability. After all this time, they are still not willing to give it anything more than lip service. Because of that, they have lost all public confidence. Most of us are just waiting for them to leave and make way for a new Council that will listen to the people. This Council has proven over and over again that the only thing they know how to do is business as usual.
Lots of us have attempted to delve into the affordability problem, and we have done it in great detail. One of the obvious starting points is the City Budget. We were told way back in February that the City had a $14.2 million budget surplus. A strong citizen outcry pushed back against efforts by some Council members to spend the surplus. We succeeded and none of the surplus has been spent. At least not yet.
But that is soon about to change. I just learned this week from sources at City Hall that all but $3.3 million of the surplus has “gone into the current budget.” And what about the remaining $3.3 million? The word I got on that is this: “The 3.3 million could be allocated for one-time critical funding needs.”
So, here we go again. They wrote a budget one year ago this month that they were satisfied with. Then a large amount of surplus money came in. The reason so many people contacted them and asked them not to spend it is obvious. We have an affordability problem. Got that? Let me pretend for a moment that I am on the City Council. Affordability? Oh, yes. That’s that word that everybody talks about. We are expected to say that we care about it. Not do anything about it, but just write about it in memos from time to time and mention it in public from time to time. That’s all the City Council members think they have to do.
For that reason and many others, there is absolutely no reason to vote for either Sheryl Cole or Mike Martinez for mayor. Where were they when the opportunity came to transfer the budget surplus over to the Water Utility to hold down the upcoming rate increase? Where were any of them when the opportunity came to use all of the surplus to hold down next year’s tax increase? Or to hold it in reserve and apply it next year towards a homestead exemption? I just have to wonder what they think affordability means. Maybe it means nothing to them at all. Apparently so. We will have to wait until next January for any hope of accountability for our tax dollars.
The credibility problem is compounded by the fact that nobody has any confidence in Capital Metro. Today they announced that ridership has dropped this year and is projected to drop again next year. Why? They attribute it to fare increases. Hmmm. So, now we are expected to go out and vote for a massively expensive rail system that will be managed by Capital Metro. And by the way, the City Council is hoping you will forget about who will manage the system. You’re supposed to think of the great and wondrous Project Connect. Those are the folks who came up with the brilliant, but actually warmed over idea of running a rail system from East Riverside to Highland Mall. When you get to Highland Mall, you will run into the passengers who are just arriving from the nearby eastern corridor on the Red Line. Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
It’s very sad that we have to put up with a lame duck City Council for four more months. They will not be missed when they go. In meeting with the many candidates who are working to take their places, I keep hearing that they really do want new ideas. They say they are not satisfied with business as usual. The expectations for them are pretty high. But, considering the fact that things couldn’t get much worse, I would say that we have something to look forward to. It will be up to us as citizens to let them know from their fist day in office that simply applying lip service to affordability will not get the job done.
Right on, Bill!
Unfortunately, I don’t think Steve Adler would be any better for Mayor. His proposal for a homestead exemption completely ignores renters, our lowest-income residents, and may actually hurt them. He does not demonstrate a deep understanding of affordability issues.
Thanks for your comment. I believe that among the candidates running, Steve Adler will do the best job on affordability. The question about how the homestead exemption would affect renters is very worthwhile. I contend that the cost difference for a commercial housing owner would not be significant. It would be difficult for these owners to accurately measure the small shift created by the exemption. And keep in mind that the City may attempt to neutralize the revenue impact by making some carefully determined budget cuts. The biggest impact on Austin rents is a combination of supply and demand, plus the perceived change in the market. Many landlords with older properties did not need to raise their rents as much as they have over the past several years. But they did it anyway, just because they could. It comes down to what the market will bear. Dallas and Houston have offered the full 20% homestead exemption for several years, as has Travis County. Most of us would prefer a fixed dollar amount over a percentage. But we cannot wait forever for the Legislature to make that change. It is conceivable that they may never allow it. One other thought about the homestead exemption and renters. Once the 20% exemption is in place, the cost of the shift per rental unit might be a few dollars per month due to the transition. But once the exemption is in place, there should not be any measurable impact at all in subsequent years.
I think we need a comprehensive affordability plan that helps everyone, especially those who are most needy. If a homestead exemption like this were implemented, homeowners would be silenced about affordability to a large extent and renters would be left in the dust. I prefer to have a large group of people advocating for affordability and come up with a solution that is equitable and reaches those who are the most needy.
“For that reason and many others, there is absolutely no reason to vote for either Sheryl Cole or Mike Martinez for mayor.” You won’t be missed: Lee, Mike, Chris, Sheryl, Bill, and Laura.
The 4 months can’t pass fast enough! Wish these F’ers would just take the rest of the year off.