By Bill Oakey – December 8, 2014
Have you ever stood next to a giant balloon just as someone pulled the plug and let the air out of it? At first, you hear a giant shhh-ing sound that is so loud and pervasive that it catches everyone’s attention. Then, once the sound begins to taper off, you forget that the change is still taking place.
That is exactly what’s happening with the affordability issue in the City Council runoff campaigns. For several months, candidates touted their concerns about it, usually branding it the number one issue. Some listed it in a tie for first place with traffic. Now here we are, just over a week before the election, and the affordability platforms are nowhere to be found.
Grab a copy of this week’s Austin Chronicle and flip to the first full page campaign ad. The words
“Early Vote Labor Rally!” come screaming at you. Then a few pages later comes a candidate who boasts of being “The Progressive Choice.” She proudly touts her support from “Our Neighborhoods,” “Our Environment,” and “Austin Women.” The word “affordability” appears nowhere on the entire page. Then comes another full page ad, “You Can’t Believe Candidate X on the Environment.” You would think that this election was being held in 1985 instead of 2014. All of those issues are still important to Austin voters. But 2014 has been described by most observers as the tipping point for affordability. We either grab the issue by the reins now and wrestle it into submission, or Austin will be out of reach permanently for thousands of existing residents and newcomers of modest incomes.
Perhaps the campaign consultants who wrote the ads are simply stuck in a time warp. Or else they are deluding themselves by thinking that the same old cliches will bring voters to the polls and help their candidates win. It’s convenient to fall back on the same entrenched coalitions and time-worn buzzwords that have been used in every City Council campaign for decades. But those who cannot see the handwriting on the wall face peril if they ignore the warning signs.
Taxpayers are fed up and they want substantive solutions. They expect much more than back-burner treatment of the issues that lie clearly in the forefront of most Austinites minds today. Our city has become unaffordable and we seek the leadership necessary to turn that situation around. We are sick of lip service and we are tired of written reports that list affordability as a goal, while outlining business as usual at every step of the way in every published planning document.
The big picture view of the problem is very clear. Austin has been hyped well beyond our ability to cope with it. Assumptions of massive population growth are not backed up with any notion of where the money would come from to pay for the infrastructure. We are rapidly running out of water, and our roads are so congested that total gridlock can be expected on many thoroughfares in the very near future. And yet, CAMPO, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, just published a report claiming that we will spend $32 billion over the next 25 years for roads and other transportation projects. But they fail to suggest where “we” will come up with that staggering sum of money. According to a chart published by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, 80% of that $32 billion will need to come from “local funding sources.” Again I ask, what local funding sources? Who in Austin can you point to anyone who believes that local taxpayers can afford $1.3 billion a year, every year, for 25 years in a row for projects of any kind whatsoever? (See my previous blog post, Can Austin Taxpayers Afford to Build a Whole New City)?
The celebrations following the swearing in of the new 10-1 City Council are now just a few short weeks ahead. But that joyous occasion will be followed by a stark reality check. The hard work will be laid upon their laps with a wallop. I know someone who will be down at City Hall reminding them about truth in taxation, budget transparency, limits on funding vacant staff positions, saving budget surpluses for tax and utility rate relief and a host of other affordability reforms. Our voices were heard loud and clear with the trouncing of the urban rail boondoggle. Any politician who did not get that message or does not understand the gravity of affordability among the voters should expect to incur the wrath of the entire city if they don’t stand up and take notice.
If you’re looking for some reading material to tide you over between now and the ushering in of the new City Council, check out this timely, relevant and disturbing article from Salon Magazine that paints a grim picture of Houston that closely parallels our situation here. It’s called “How Oligarchs Destroyed a Major American City.”