Our Local Leaders Need to Stop Planning And Add Up The Costs

By Bill Oakey – February 22, 2016

One way to at least take a stab at the affordability problem is to look at how many “plans” our local officials have stacked up on various office shelves. And just remember, every time you hear about one more ambitious plan, remember this. Every single one of them comes with a hefty price tag.

Our “new” City Council has now passed their first year in office. We have seen a few notable stumbles on the affordability front. They passed a huge affordable housing initiative, without first realizing that it will cost about $100 million against our water bills and property taxes over the next 20-30 years. And just recently, they accepted the word of a private appraiser, who now estimates that it will cost $360,000 apiece to buy out the latest batch of flooded homes in Southeast Austin. Council Member Ellen Troxclair cautioned her colleagues from the dais that this appraisal figure is highly inflated. She has since confirmed that fact with the Austin Board of Realtors. I have asked the City Council to reconsider these inflated appraisal amounts.

The bottom line is that too many big ticket items are slipping through without the proper amount of due diligence. It was the flood buyout and mitigation program that reminded me of the alarming cost of the growing mountain of city plans. Yes, there is a Flood Mitigation Task Force. And yes, they are working on sort of a plan. It is called “Options for $100 Million Additional Funding.” We can pay for it with up-front cash out of the drainage utility fund or with borrowed money to be repaid from property taxes or the drainage fees.

Close your eyes and try to imagine how many different sets of plans the City has, sprinkled across every office in every department. Suppose the City Council asked the City Manager to make the rounds, gather up all the latest reports on these plans and bring them into a single room. I would like them to do this in the open and invite the public to come down and see how it all turns out.

There is absolutely no telling how many plans there are! That’s the whole point. I am going to formally ask the City this week to lay out all of the published plans and tally up the total cost of every single one of them. Then they need to meet and discuss how to prioritize the plans. Once that step is complete, they should consider reviewing every one of the plans to see which items within each plan are considered essential and which ones can either be postponed or eliminated. From what I can tell, there is no way we could possibly afford the cost of all of the plans, at least not anytime soon.

You might be wondering if I am “planning” to show a list of the plans that I have uncovered. The answer is yes, but I want to warn you first that looking at it might make you a bit dizzy or queasy. So here goes:

1. Bicycle Master Plan (2014) – $151 Million. Here is a teaser from Page 16:

“The cost of priority unfunded investments includes 200 new miles of on-street facilities for $58 million, at an average cost of $290,000 per mile. The cost per mile for on-street facilities varies greatly upon the type of treatment and is accounted for in the estimate. The estimate also includes 47 new miles of Urban Trails at $93 million at an average cost of $2 million per mile.”

2. Sidewalk Master Plan (2009) – $120 million. I am not sure how much of that is left to pay for.

3. Aquatic Master Plan (2016) – $41 million. Aquatic refers to swimming pools. The $41 million estimate is from last year, but the assessment will not be complete until sometime this year.

4. South Central Waterfront Initiative – Master plan due by June 2016

Other examples include:

Urban Forest Plan
Parks and Open Space Plan
Austin Resource Recovery Plan
Urban Trails Master Plan
Community Climate Plan
Watershed Protection Master Plan
Airport Boulevard Corridor Plan
Burnet Road Corridor Plan

It’s Time for a Reality Check!

A complete list would be impossible to assemble by relying on Internet searches alone. The City staff needs to gather these plans up and present them to the City Council for a major overview and affordability assessment. We need a timetable and yearly tax impact determined for every one of these plans before any further planning takes place.

The City needs to realize that voters have turned down bonds for AISD, “Urban Rail” and a costly County Courthouse. We are not living in the 1980’s anymore. We cannot afford the flashiest and the most elaborate park-scapes, street-scapes, and every other kind of urban “scape” that anybody can think of. Many thousands of us are struggling to afford the amenities that the City has right now. It might be nice to have a perfect “zero-waste” resource recovery system. It might be super to have the snazziest, most beautifully landscaped lakeshore in the Western Hemisphere. There is no end to the fantasies that various consultants, committees and task forces could come up with.

But until the current batch of plans is vetted and scrutinized by the City Council and the community, it’s time to call a halt to the creation of any more planning initiatives.

Musical accompaniment for this blog posting:

  1. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” – Paul Simon, 1975
  2. “Making Plans” – Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton, 1980



3 thoughts on “Our Local Leaders Need to Stop Planning And Add Up The Costs

  1. crhudspeth

    I agree wholeheartedly. When I look at the costs of Mopac expansion alone, as well as the ugliness it is bringing, I would like to see a moratorium on all these “improvements” until we gain some restraint in spending.

  2. samikiofatx

    I appreciate the City’s attempt to look at the bigger picture by creating master plans. But, as you’ve brought up, who is looking at the larger picture of how these plans fit together for our city as a whole, and how does that impact affordability for Austinites? I often feel like our elected officials and City management suffer from tunnel vision, evidenced by those often embarrassing conversations at City Hall where departments make decisions in a “silo” (to use CM Houston’s word). Case in point, the Pilot Knob deal, where staffers failed to consult with Austin Water to dive deeper into the diversion of water fees into the proposed affordable housing fund.

    Does the Imagine Austin plan weave together all these other master plans we have floating out there? Maybe we need a master plan for all the master plans? We need an eye on the big picture in a larger sense in addition to the big picture for what we do with our pools. Yes, my neighborhood pool could use renovating, but I’d like to know the trade-offs. I want more sidewalks, but how does that impact City spending and my pocketbook? Perhaps we need to hire a Chief Affordability Officer? (Kidding, but this seems to be the City’s modus operandi). Really, though, who is responsible for looking at that? I will be following your updates on this very closely. Thank you!


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