Monthly Archives: April 2015

Who To Contact To Support Property Tax Relief At The Legislature

By Bill Oakey – April 30, 2015

The State Legislature has convened a joint House / Senate Budget Conference Committee. This committee will iron out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget.

We need to support the Senate version, which provides $2.4 billion in property tax relief. The House version contains no property tax relief, and would only give a tiny reduction in the sales tax. Here is a link that describes the Senate’s proposal for property tax reductions.

I urge everyone to email or call the House members of the Conference Committee listed below. Ask them to support the Senate’s recommended property tax reductions in their budget negotiations. Let them know that Austinites are struggling to keep up with sky high taxes and double digit appraisal increases. Please email, Tweet, and Facebook this blog posting to all of your friends and other contacts and ask them to do the same.

Texas House Members of the Budget Conference Committee:

Click each name to send an email. Phone numbers are listed on each page.

Appropriations Committee Chair John Otto

Appropriations Committee Vice Chair Sylvester Turner

Rep. Trent Ashby

Rep. Sarah Davis

Rep. Larry Gonzales

If you belong to a neighborhood organization or have access to any organization newsletter, please see that this appeal is posted. Try to get it circulated on as many blogs and forums as possible.

Property Tax Appraisals Require Quick Action By Local Leaders

By Bill Oakey – April 30, 2015

As the sun came up this morning, neighborhoods across the City were jolted awake by the continuing shockwaves of this year’s property tax appraisals. They are up by as much as 29% in some areas of town. For many taxpayers, this is on top of crippling double digit increases in last year’s appraisals.

This situation demands a call to action!

As a first step, I will be contacting City and County officials and asking them to make a public statement of support for the Texas Senate’s property tax reduction plan for the State budget. Unfortunately, the Texas House has offered a much weaker plan that reduces the sales tax by a very small percentage.

We need property tax relief now!

Look for another blog posting today, with links for you to contact the members of the House-Senate Conference Committee on the State budget. It is time for all taxpayers to unite in this effort. We will not get another chance for State legislative relief for two more years.

Here’s hoping that our City and County officials will make a strong public statement on our behalf as soon as possible. I will keep you posted.

The Biggest Tax Appraisal Shock Yet!

By Bill Oakey – April 29, 2015

They’re here!

That expression is somtimes used to announce that a flying saucer has landed. Emotions like horror and fear come to mind, especially when you get a peek at what lurks inside.

The same thing happens at this time every year in Austin.

The new TCAD property tax appraisals are now posted online. If you want to get scared out of your socks, just start picking out addresses from various neighborhoods and take a look, using TCAD’s property search page.

It’s not a pretty sight! Here is a map that shows some of the astonishing appraisal increases, as high as 29% in some neighborhoods. Click the graphic to enlarge it.

web_042915_travisappraisals

By reviewing the values across the City on TCAD’s website, you will see many $60,000 to $90,000+ increases for single family homes. Many of these same homeowners saw appraisal increases last year that were well above 10%. So, guess what that means. Even though there is a 10% cap on the home value used to calculate their tax bill, the assessment amount above the cap sits in the system to haunt the taxpayer in future years.

Even if the taxing entities lower their tax rates slightly to compensate for rising appraisals, tax bills continue to skyrocket.

Think about the longtime Austinites who have already seen their tax appraisals double and even triple in the last 10 or 15 years. Then think about the future. If taxes go up just 5% each year, it would only take 14 and a half years for today’s tax bills to double! That’s becuase the impact is compunded.

Ask yourself if the City of Austin can sustain that kind of tax spiral. Then you might want another cup of coffee.

Have a nice day!

The MoPac Lexus Lanes: A More Fair And Compassionate Alternative

By Bill Oakey – Revised Version, April 30, 2015

Longtime Austinites know only too well what a traffic nightmare MoPac has become. Even the name “MoPac” conveys gloomy and forboding thoughts. How many times have heard somebody say, “I sure dread getting onto MoPac today,” or “Can you think of any other way to get there besides MoPac?’

For years we have heard politicians and transportation officials talk about possible improvements to MoPac. Last year, we finally heard about a plan. But for nearly all of us, it was not a proposed plan up for discussion. Instead, it was a “Here’s how it’s going to be” plans. (I was tempted to say, “It’s our way or the highway.”)

The CTRMA, which is the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, has decided that it’s in all our best interests to “fix” MoPac by adding new toll lanes. It’s bad enough that our local leaders did not fight hard to keep MoPac free. After all, if the sections of MoPac and I-35 that run through Austin are not the highest priority for State funding, then tell me which other roads are.

Later this year, North MoPac will usher in new “express lanes” for the privileged few who can afford them. The tolls will be jockeyed up and down by a convoluted system designed to “manage” the traffic flow on the new lanes. The more traffic, the higher the tolls. This particular scheme has been adopted in other cities. But CTRMA’s version is a terrible idea for many reasons.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

This plan was dumped in our laps with little widespread public discussion. We haven’t been told how much the seesawing scale of tolls will cost those bold enough to try this brand of “traffic relief.” But we can be sure of one thing – the price will not be cheap. Especially in an increasingly unaffordable Austin.

Here is the picture that comes to mind with the new Lexus Lanes. One reason that MoPac has become so crowded is that thousands of folks have been priced out of their Central City homes into more affordable suburban neighborhoods. These are the good, hard working citizens who paid their taxes in Austin for 20 or 30 years, if not longer. What is their reward for helping to make Austin the desirable place that it is today? Banishment to the suburbs with high commuting and car maintenance costs. Not to mention the excruciating traffic woes.

The people who face the biggest financial burdens and deserve traffic relief the most are being told that their place on the “improved” MoPac will be at the back of the line. As they sluggishly crawl through gridlocked traffic day after the day, they will be treated to a most unwelcome sight. A zippidy-fast  parade of well-to-do drivers will be streaking by in their Lexuses, Teslas and fancy sports cars. These folks will not even notice that there are thousands of “regular people” inching past their hometown neighborhoods, en route to suburban exile. Instead of worrying about traffic, the Lexus set will be savoring their luxury shopping and dining experiences at the Domain or something similar.

So, What’s the Word On the Toll Cost and Other Big Questions?

Just chew on these words, taken directly from the MoPac Express website:

1. How high can the toll rate go?

There is no limit on the toll rate. Most of the time, the rate is expected to be $4.00 or less, but it could be much higher at times when traffic is especially heavy and demand to use the Express Lanes is high.”

(Note that at $4.00 per one-way trip, the monthly cost for 21 workdays would be $168.00. But it will only be that low when traffic is not “especially heavy.”)

2. Will carpools pay a toll to use the express lanes?

“Yes. Drivers who carpool will pay the same toll as regular users. However, because carpoolers are sharing a ride, they will have the option to split the cost, making trips more affordable.”

(In a review of several other cities with express lanes, every single one I found offered free access for carpoolers and even motorcycles).

3. Will disabled veterans, Purple Heart and Medal of Honor recipients be exempt from paying the tolls?

“The Mobility Authority Board and staff are grateful for the dedication and sacrifice of our military veterans. However, in order to ensure the Express Lanes remain free flowing, toll free travel will only be provided to buses and van pools operated by public transit agencies like Capital Metro and to vehicles specifically exempt from toll payment under state law.”

(OMG! Many other Texas toll roads offer free access to these classes of veterans. See this link).

4. The first item under the “Tolling” section of the FAQ’s on the MoPac Express website contains the most important sentence you will ever see. To ensure that it is never lost to history, I have preserved it as a screen shot:

“The goal of the higher toll rates is not to increase revenue but to manage traffic and maintain free flow speeds on the Express Lane.”

(Remember that quote. It can help us win the battle to reform the MoPac “improvements!”)

What Can We Do To Take Back MoPac and Preserve Austin Values?

I have submitted the following proposal to the Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners:

  1. Set up a lottery system for regular commuters to register online to be eligible to drive on the express lanes. The winners would pay an affordable fixed-rate toll. Their TxTag numbers would go into the computer system. Drawings could be held every 3 to 4 months.
  2. Determine how many driver slots should be allocated for each drawing. I believe that the majority of the available capacity should go to the commuters. This would need to be measured against the number of registered vanpools, buses and emergency vehicles.
  3. The appropriate number of leftover vehicle capacity could be subject to the variable tolls. There are people who may want to pay for a faster trip for any number of reasons, and some may not use MoPac at all on a regular basis.
  4. Set up a meeting with the CTRMA. Ask them to adopt this proposal on behalf of the people of Austin. The proposal is “out of the box,” for sure. But we will never reach affordability results without innovative solutions.
  5. Ask the CTRMA to deliver a set of potential scenarios for the slope of the curve on the variable tolls. What will the criteria be for determining the variable price points? Why not make the curve as affordable as possible until the traffic gets very close to the capacity limit?
  6. Provide full transparency to the public after the final decision is made on how the express lanes will operate. This is critical to ensure a successful public buy-in for the project.
  7. If there is already a contract in place that sllows the CTRMA to manage the lanes without any oversight or input from the City / County, then meet with them anyway, and urge them to compromise for the good of the community. A positive spirit of cooperation should be at the heart of Austin’s New Way Forward.

If you agree with this suggestion, please use these single email links to contact all members of the Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court.

Guest Editorial On MoPac “Improvements”

Oakey: MoPac project will hurt affordability and worsen congestion

Posted: 6:00 p.m. Sunday, April 19, 2015

By Bill Oakey – Special to the American-Statesman

Last summer I blogged about my concerns about building so-called express lanes on the northern portion of MoPac (Loop 1). Now we are confronted with a new plan for more toll lanes on the southern part of MoPac. The new section will include an upper deck and flyovers that will dump thousands of cars onto Cesar Chavez Street next to Austin High School. Instead of improving traffic, this will cause much worse congestion.

No one doubts that MoPac needs improvements. But when you look at the big picture, the current plan is problematic on several levels. The expansion of Texas 45 will ultimately create a link between Interstate 35 and MoPac. It will saddle MoPac with untold numbers of cars from new developments being built over the Edwards Aquifer. Imagine the bottlenecks from all those cars when they exit MoPac. Central city roads have capacity limits, and when you exceed those limits you risk serious traffic gridlock. Adding lanes to MoPac is a welcome idea, but the design should take local neighborhoods into consideration.

On the affordability front, I still can’t swallow the notion that MoPac can never be improved without toll lanes. Why can’t state dollars be used for the sections of MoPac that run through the main part of Austin? I haven’t heard anyone in the Legislature make that suggestion, even though more funding for highways seems to be in the works.

Somebody should step in and nix the cornball scheme for “Lexus Lanes” on North MoPac. The luxury housing binge in the urban core has priced many of the once-considered middle class people out into the less expensive suburbs. Even without tolls, the commuting costs for these residents is high. So adding express lanes for the privileged will not help them at all.

These pay-if-you-can toll lanes will feature a variable pricing structure that actually drives down the number of people who can afford the tolls. During the morning and afternoon rush periods, the toll meter will jump as more cars enter the lanes. The gimmick here is to keep the traffic flowing faster, with fewer drivers willing to pay. But this could easily backfire if too many frustrated drivers clog the toll lanes. These drivers could find themselves paying a lot of extra money, while not moving any faster than the folks in the free lanes. That will push them back onto the free lanes, only to create intolerable congestion on those.

My final concern is the one factor that makes our express lane project unique. Ours is the only one among those listed on CTRMA’s website that does not offer free access to car poolers. That flies in the face of Austin’s traditional approach toward air quality and traffic mitigation.

I shudder to think how much it will cost to build and maintain the complex electronic apparatus to constantly assess and juggle the variable toll rates.

Our local officials should have fought much harder to keep MoPac free. Maybe they will reconsider if the “Lexus Lane” concept receives a lukewarm reception.

Oakey is the author of the blog AustinAffordability.com.

New Travis County Courthouse Is Much Too Expensive!

By Bill Oakey – April 2, 2015

My apologies for getting off to such a slow start with the blog this year. 2014 was a very busy time leading up to the City Council elections. That took an abundance of watchdogging and tons of energy. So, now it’s time to take a fresh look at both the City and the County. We need to remain vigilant and ensure that enough folks are looking out for the taxpayers.

The first order of business is to inform you that Travis County has gone far astray in their planning for a much needed new civil and family courthouse. Early last year I was appointed to serve on a Community Focus Committee to review the progress of the project. Unfortunately, my hopes for a cost effective plan have been completely dashed. You will find the details in my letter to the County Commissioners below.

Hello Travis County Commissioners:

I have decided to resign my position as a member of the Community Focus Committee On The Civil and Family Courthouse (CFC).

Please know that this has been a very difficult decision. I have served on the committee since its inception, and did so intending to make a vital contribution to the process. However, as an independent advocate for the local taxpayers, I have concluded that the high cost of the Civil and Family Courthouse cannot be justified. The members of the CFC are actively engaged in educating the community on the project. Without my wholehearted support of the $300 million project, I do not believe that my continued service on the committee would be helpful.

As you may recall, I have been active since 2013 in researching the cost of new civil and family courthouses across the country. I was able to identify one in Broward County, Florida that cost roughly half the price per square foot as the being planned for Travis County. After sharing this information with County officials, I felt confident that we could reduce the cost of our project accordingly.

At their September 13, 2013 meeting, I asked the Travis County Commissioners for a resolution calling upon the consultants to ensure that our new courthouse would be designed as “a national model of cost effectiveness and efficiency.” This language was adopted by the Court unanimously.

Upon my appointment to the CFC, I anticipated much discussion from County staff and the consultants on steps being taken to achieve the status of a national model of cost effectiveness and efficiency. However, this topic was only touched upon lightly, and did not reflect anything close to what I would consider a serious commitment. We were not presented with innovative strategies that would significantly reduce the cost of the project. Instead, we were told fairly recently that factors such as “the hot real estate market in Austin” and “the high cost of labor” will make it necessary to build the courthouse at a cost very close to $300 million.

I cannot point to even one concrete example of a unique cost effectiveness or efficiency planning or design initiative that was presented to our committee. Nor can I recall one single example of such an element that other counties across the United States could look to and say that we established a “national model of cost effectiveness and efficiency.”

What appears quite likely now is a scenario similar to what happened in Broward County, Florida when their proposed courthouse was first placed on a bond ballot. The voters overwhelmingly rejected it. This forced their County officials to delay the project and embark on a much more cost effective plan that would be acceptable to the taxpayers.

Just this past November, Austin voters approved a $386 million construction package for Austin Community College. This price tag included construction of a main campus at Highland Mall, plus renovations for quite a few other buildings. And yet, County taxpayers will soon be asked to pony up $300 million for just one downtown building. This bond proposal is likely to fail, just like the first one in Broward County, Florida.

Let there be no mistake about it, Travis County is badly in need of a new civil and family courthouse. In fact, that need is long overdue. However, I think it would behoove the members of the Commissioners Court to re-examine the current project with its high cost and come up with a streamlined proposal that would place a much smaller burden on the taxpayers.

I strongly believe that some serious fundamental questions were not addressed in the early planning for this project. Please consider the following points and how they relate to the courthouse project:

1. Travis County now has 16 civil and family courts. And yet they want to build a huge skyscraper the size of the Frost Bank Tower to house those courts. We have been told the increased space will be needed to handle court expansion well into the future. But has Travis County really seen that much of an exponential expansion of civil and family courts in recent years? Has there been a definite trend towards increasing the number of courts in sufficient numbers to justify such a large, expensive building?

2. Wouldn’t some of the money being proposed for such a large courthouse building be better spent toward programs for conflict resolution and better coordination between City, County and non-profit social programs? Such an effort could reduce the number of cases that ultimately wind up going to court.

3. Austin’s overwhelming traffic, water and affordability issues will pose serious challenges for planners with the City, County, AISD, ACC and Central Health. We will need bonds for transportation improvements. AISD will need bonds for building improvements and new schools. The City and County will both need bond money for various projects to keep pace with growth. We face ongoing pressure on water and electric rates as a result of the water crisis and the high cost of maintaining the electric grid.

Taxpayers can only absorb so much. Therefore, we look to our leaders for smart planning and the best judgment possible on every project that comes before us to consider. The lavish and expensive building that is being proposed for the new courthouse might have been acceptable in an earlier time when the cost of living in Austin was not as high as it is today. We simply cannot afford a “business as usual” approach to a project as important as the badly needed new courthouse.

I urge the Commissioners to please think long and hard about the September 10, 2013 resolution I proposed that was adopted unanimously. Then go back to the drawing board and plan a new civil and family courthouse that does indeed represent a national model of cost effectiveness and efficiency.