By Bill Oakey – September 12, 2014
We often hear statements made about Austin as though they were carved in stone. “Austin is This” or “Austin is That.” And we are expected to march along, blindly accepting whatever Austin “is” or whatever it is being turned into.
But what if the majority of citizens have a different desire for what they want Austin to be? Is there anything we can do to change the status quo? Well, I can assure you that if I did not have the heartfelt belief that we can do something to change the status quo, this blog would not exist and you would not be reading it right now.
I’m going to paint an analogy that feels a whole lot like what Austin residents have been subjected to in the last few years. Suppose you went to work one morning and the boss unexpectedly called you into his office. He announces that your entire division at the company is being outsourced. Over the next six to eight months, your assignment will be to train your replacements. But let’s add one more little piece to this analogy. The boss tells you that in order to accommodate the good folks who will be taking your place, he will need to dock your pay significantly so that you and the others in your division will shoulder the cost of the transition.
In other words, you have just been told that it’s only a matter of time before you are kicked out of your office. And to add insult to injury, you will foot the bill to pay the cost of bringing your replacement into the workplace that you have enjoyed for the past twenty odd years. Sound familiar? All you would have to do is substitute “neighborhood” for “division,” “home” for your job, and “city” for your company. The people who control the planning and policies of Austin are working hard to convince you that the “right thing to do” is to abandon your home and your neighborhood so that some people you have never met can come in and take it over. And on your way out, you can kindly leave a check for your share of the expenses of the upgrade of your neighborhood.
Hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear somebody say, “Well, the population is going to double by the year so-and-so” and we just “have to start somewhere” to make the investment needed to accommodate all of the new people. We are expected to be good little soldiers and head down to the polls on November 4th and vote to double our bond debt for the new urban rail system. If we don’t like the route, that’s not a problem. This is only the first phase of a citywide system that will cure all of our traffic problems. Never mind that the price tag for a citywide rail system would be $8 billion to $10 billion.
Is There Anything We Can Do to Change the Status Quo?
Indeed there is, but it will not be easy. After the new City Council is sworn in, we need to let them know that “Austin” is not just a page in a banker’s ledger book or a real estate broker’s portfolio. It is a place where living and breathing people already have homes, families and jobs. There are numerous words that politicians and power brokers use to describe their aspirations for Austin. One of those is “competition.” Austin is supposedly in constant competition with other cities for the next corporate tax handout. Well, what if the people told the politicians that we would rather be in “competition” for an affordable place to live?
A word that you will hear very seldom if ever is “capacity.” What is the public’s financial capacity to pay for an endless parade of plans and projects to turn Austin into a completely different and unaffordable place? Do you suppose that there just might be some practical limit on how much a homeowner should be expected to pay for property taxes? I submit that there is a limit, since we know that many Austinites have already clocked out and left for more affordable pastures. For those of us who remain, how much more in property taxes can we absorb? A $10,000 annual tax bill? $12,000? $15,000? Who knows where it will all end up if we stay on the path that we currently find ourselves on.
Within the context of capacity, we have transportation experts who can measure our road capacity. It is not terribly difficult to predict how long it might take for certain roadways to reach total gridlock. So, what do we do about that? The boneheaded planners who conjured up the limited-access “Lexus Lanes” on Mopac certainly did not help matters any. And do you really think it’s a good idea for the City Council to approve a PUD along MoPac with more retail square footage than Barton Creek Square Mall? If we thought real hard about it, we might just realize that the plans in place could be revised under the new Council to help preserve our neighborhoods.
Attempting to go up against the well-funded and firmly entrenched powers-that-be who pull the strings on City decision-making will not be easy. But the new 10-1 Council system is our best chance in a very long time. There have been plenty of extensive discussion on various reforms that could be enacted to set Austin on a more financially sustainable path. But one fundamental concept underlies all of those reforms:
Citizen involvement in the planning process.
Until we convince our elected leaders that we and our neighbors are entitled to a seat at the table during major planning sessions, and that our input must be included in the published reports on the plans, then we can only expect more of the same. Healthy doses of Inclusiveness, transparency, and financial accountability are essential ingredients for any reform package that will tilt the balance of future opportunity and prosperity back toward the existing residents who helped make Austin the desirable place that it is today.