By Bill Oakey – November 6, 2017
What a difference a day makes! Last Thursday was like any other day for the last several months. I had begun to wonder what happened to affordability. Nobody at City Hall or Travis County seemed to be talking about it any more. Was it even worth it to keep this blog going?
Then I walked into my Friday morning appointment with County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who was joined by her chief of staff, Peter Einhorn. I made a really bold suggestion, thinking at the very least that it couldn’t hurt to try. I told her that the numbers are there to prove that we are facing an “affordability perfect storm” And that the only way to stop it would be to launch a major initiative. We would have to go big!
My recommendation is a joint effort by the City and the County, every bit as ambitious as the City’s highly publicized “Year of Mobility” last year. In my presentation to Judge Eckhardt, I suggested that the issue could be approached on two basic fronts:
- Conduct a “Pre-Mortem.” We need to assemble the data to show that we are on a cost spiral that is absolutely unsustainable. Our local taxes, spending and debt are accelerating at a dizzying pace. Because of our dubious distinction as the most economically segregated region in the United States, we need to shift course before it’s too late. A pre-mortem is simply the opposite of a post-modem. Let’s be proactive and solve the problem now, instead of asking what went wrong after the fact. Think of a chart in front of you that shows what your taxes might look like in five years and again in ten years, at the current rate of acceleration. How much debt would our local governments have? How bad would AISD taxes be without any reform of the Robin Hood funding formulas? What would average home appraisals be? What would our median family income look like with our current mix of jobs and wages? I contend that this analysis would show that we are headed for an affordability cliff. Unless steps are taken to turn the situation around.
- Now for the next step. A lot of very competent people have studied and spoken about affordability. In the last few years, we have heard many great speeches, attended lots of meetings and forums, and walked away with fancy reports tucked under our arms. But after the presenters turn out the lights and send us home, what happens to those reports? Far too often, nothing much. They languish on shelves like lazy cats…
The challenge to Judge Eckhardt last Friday was to see if she would spearhead an effort to turn those affordability reports and committee proposals into concrete action. With a formalized plan and timeline. I suggested that if she would take the lead, others would follow. The exciting news is that she enthusiastically embraced the challenge. “We will get the reports off the shelves,” she insisted. “There will be rules of engagement that will not only look good, they will do good.” We talked about forging ahead with a can-do spirit. And now she is ready to try to make it happen.
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt
Sarah Eckhardt possesses the tenacity and the smarts to tackle a big project by focusing on the broad objectives, and then drilling down to the finest details. In our meeting, she rattled off several examples of ways to implement cost-saving and efficiency measures. Her approach includes protecting seniors, workforce development, affordable housing and many other areas. She would like to exchange ideas, not only with the City of Austin, but with other cities and counties. And she’s willing to confront the State Legislature about what they need to do to help. Here’s hoping that Austin city officials will come on board and allocate the time and resources necessary to deliver some solid results on affordability. It is time for everyone to wake up and spring into action!
Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece
- “What a Difference a Day Makes” – Dinah Washington
- “A Little Less Conversation” – Elvis Presley (selected by Sarah Eckhardt)
- “Where the Action Is” – Freddy Cannon
- “Cat’s In the Cradle” – Harry Chapin
- “All the Cats Join In” – Teresa Doyle
- “Where You Lead” – Carole King
- “I Will Follow You” – Ricky Nelson
- “Stand and Deliver” – Adam & the Ants