Monthly Archives: May 2021

A Big Shock Is Coming When The Soccer Stadium Opens!

By Bill Oakey – May 10, 2021

June 19th is just a few weeks away. It can’t come soon enough for area soccer fans, who have been eagerly awaiting the opening of Austin’s first professional sports stadium. Behind the scenes, however, lurks an ugly truth that may not be fully apparent to folks who haven’t been paying attention.

Where In the World Are People Supposed to Park?

The grand new stadium will open with just 835 on-site parking spaces. It comes with a seating capacity of 20,000. Well, surely our City officials, team owners and master planners figured out how to resolve that little nagging problem many months ago. Right? In a word, that would more accurately be put, Nope! Not a chance.

How totally boring and un-Austin-like it would be, if things like this were well organized and planned properly! Just imagine – Nothing to complain about at City Hall. Nobody organizing rallies or gathering signatures on a petition. We would all just glide through our daily lives. But, let’s talk about the real Austin.

The North Austin neighborhoods raised their parking concerns early on in the evolution of the soccer stadium. They opposed the location, primarily because of parking and traffic concerns. But nobody in town wanted the stadium on City parkland. So, the abandoned North Austin industrial site, complete with hazardous chemicals buried in the soil, got the official nod. When the negotiations were completed, the team owners gleefully walked away with fifty years of property tax abatements. The City of Austin surrendered immediately. AISD balked at first, but they, too, eventually rolled over and capitulated.

Neighborhood leaders wrung their hands in frustration over the lack of parking. A close friend told me about long discussions with local officials. But no thorough traffic impact analysis was ever done. Not a single ounce of pavement on any street or major road was expanded, improved or adjusted in any way whatsoever. There are some nearby businesses that could offer some parking after hours, but there is no word yet on any such negotiations. A couple of brew pubs have opened nearby. The owners are overjoyed at the prospect of after-game revelers. Maybe those folks will be well sobered up, after hiking several miles back to their cars, following the binges.

Just Imagine the Scene at the Opening Home Game!

Austin FC will be hosting the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday evening, June 19th. Packages of four tickets are still available at the amazing low price range of just $395.00 to $1,140.00. But here’s something that might be a whole lot more fun to do that day. Why not gather a group of friends and head over to the Domain that afternoon? The sheer madness of The Big Soccer Stadium Opening Spectacle should be an event for the history books. Somebody could even print up some “I Was There” T-Shirts. How often would you get a chance to see the Biggest Texas Traffic Jam of All Time? Maybe you could stroll among the cars, and sell bottled water or “Keep Austin Weird” bumper stickers.

A Closing Poem

They will comes from places far and near
To enjoy Austin soccer and a belly full of beer
The fans will be joyous, as happy as a lark
Until they discover there is no place to park!

Only two thousand spaces for twenty thousand seats
Expect chaos and bedlam in the neighborhood streets
The brew pubs are ready, they’re chomping at the bit
To them Austin soccer is a sure-fire hit

Think back and remember the early reports
Hurray, Hallelujah, it’s professional sports
It’s coming to Austin and it’s long overdue
But without decent parking, it will be quite a zoo

The chemicals beneath the industrial site
Will long be forgotten by opening night
The stadium they built is magnificent and grand
One of the finest in all the land

The team owners have lots of reasons for cheers
They scored tax abatements that will last fifty years
The fun all begins on a sweltering June night
You can still get your tickets, they are priced just right

A family of four, with such pleasures to derive
Can snag their seats for just $395
But before they rejoice ‘neath the moon and the stars
They will sit for hours in a long line of cars!

An Open Letter To City Hall

By Bill Oakey – May 7, 2021

A Quick Background Summary

I have been a community taxpayer advocate since 1983. I have recently urged the Austin City Council to allocate a significant portion of their $195 million in Federal COVID Rescue Plan Funds to cover the City’s budget shortfall, and reduce or eliminate any property tax increase in the upcoming City Budget. So far, I have run smack into a brick wall. They never even thought of what I’m suggesting, and the City’s CFO has asked the City for authorization to raise taxes all the way to 8%, instead of using the Federal money. Please go to the home page of this blog and scroll down to earlier postings for more details.

Please Send Me Your Hardship Stories…

Use the Comments section of this blog, or email me. If you or someone you know is facing difficulties with this year’s high tax appraisals, send me their stories. Do you know a landlord who cannot afford to keep their property because they can’t raise the rent high enough to cover the taxes? Or someone who could be forced to give up their own home? Or a small business that will have to close if their taxes continue to rise beyond reason? I will compile these stories and submit them to each member of the City Council. It is HIGH TIME that longterm Austin residents and our iconic business owners had their voices heard at City Hall!

Read On, And Let’s Break Through That City Hall Brick Wall!

On Wednesday, I met with a City Council policy advisor. It did not go well. And I’m afraid that many others at City Hall have had their heads dunked into the same sour vat of faulty reasoning. The comments below are addressed to all of them. The last part is a fervent appeal to anyone at City Hall who might be willing to wake up and see what is happening around them.

Hello to Anyone Listening at City Hall,

I don’t know where you are getting your advice from. But they steered you in the completely wrong direction. Their mode of thinking will make our City’s financial condition much worse than it is today. You won’t have to take my word for it. You will see it unfold yourself, and it will not be a pretty picture!

If you and the people who have influenced you cannot see that $195 million in aid from the Federal government can help a City mitigate their financial difficulties, then maybe you and they are beyond help. There are many other cities that saw it several months ago, and they are taking the obvious and correct actions. This is not just about lowering taxes. The Federal money needs to be applied towards shoring up the city’s financial foundation, regardless of where you set the tax rate.

Providing tax relief during a recession and a pandemic is a separate issue. And it’s one that should be considered as well. It could only be done for a year or two, but THAT’S WHAT A RECOVERY IS. It’s a temporary thing. If you don’t want to cut the effective tax rate to zero, then cut it to 1%.

Do not obsess over the limitations placed on the City by the State Legislature. If you are concerned that their limit on raising taxes will hurt the City’s financial condition long term, then get this. That’s all the more reason to shore up the budget now with Federal money. That’s a major reason why Congress passed the American Rescue Plan in the first place!

You have the information on the other cities that are following the correct path. You can choose to ignore it. Or, you can choose to dissect each of those cities’ plans, and conjure up reasons why Austin’s situation is somehow different. But it won’t change the reality. Austin is in financial trouble, for all of the reasons that you pointed out. But refusing to take advantage of a large infusion of money that could provide relief to the citizens makes no sense at all.

Please do not think that what I am telling you is coming from me alone. This is not about one person sitting at home with a blog. A large number of people across the City are involved in this effort – because they care about Austin. All of them can easily see a few simple facts:

1. Austin’s bond rating has already been lowered once. We cannot afford to pass up the opportunity to prevent it from being lowered further.

2. Spending nearly all of the Federal money on the homeless and other social programs would be a very bad idea. There is plenty available to take care of those needs AND shore up the City budget too.

3. In my meeting on Wednesday, I was told 15 or 20 times that the City cannot afford to lower taxes because of Austin’s debt, contracts with City workers and the City’s structural financial weakness. If that is the case, then please tell the community HOW IN THE WORLD we can possibly afford billions in additional debt for Project (Dis)Connect??!!

4. The high tax appraisals and looming tax increases facing homeowners and small businesses are not on the City Council’s radar at all. You can’t address a problem until you make it a top priority. It is long past time for at least one or two City Council members to stand up publicly and finally take notice! Which one or two of our City Council members will it be?

Please use this single-click link to email the Mayor and City Council. Forward this blog piece to your friends, post it on social media, and ask your friends to do the same.

Mayor Steve Adler

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes

Council Member Mackenzie Kelly

Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria

Council Member Paige Ellis

Council Member, Leslie Pool

Council Member Kathie Tovo

Council Member Gregorio “Greg” Casar

Council Member Ann Kitchen

Council Member Alison Alter

Part 1 – The Wild, Crazy Adventures Of A City Hall Watchdog

By Bill Oakey – May 5, 2021

If you have been reading this blog, you may be wondering – Why does this guy think he can beat City Hall? Well, I didn’t ask myself that question, back in1983. That’s when all the crazy adventures started. Stick around for a few wild stories, all of them the honest-to-God truth.

My First Encounter With the City Budget

In 1983, I had never met a City Council member. I don’t think I even knew all of their names. But I did know one thing. The newspaper sitting on the desk in the downtown accounting office where I worked was begging for my attention. So, once my lunch break came, I read the front page article.

It said, “City Council Approves 20% Electric Rate Hike.” I asked myself, how in the world could that be? Who ever heard of a rate increase that high? City Hall was only a few blocks away, so I took off walking over there. I was told that the rate increase was all explained in the City Budget. They gave me a copy, and I took it home that evening.

My newest circle of friends were folks I had met at Austin Neighborhoods Council meetings. Larry Deuser, their president, held some fun, informal gatherings at the Copper Skillet at 3418 North Lamar. I showed up with my nose stuck in the City Budget. That raised a few eyebrows. Who is this guy, they wondered? Is he really one of us? Who lingers over those boring numbers in the City Budget?

Late one night, probably close to midnight, I sat straight up in bed. I stared at one amazing sentence in the introduction to the Budget. I read it twice, just to be sure. To paraphrase, it said, “The 20% electric rate increase is based in large part on successful passage of the lignite coal bonds in the October election.” Well, the Budget was adopted and signed in late September. It took effect on October 1st. The lignite bonds failed by a comfortable margin in the October 22nd election. That was thanks to flower salesman, Max Nofziger’s clean energy campaign. Max was later elected to the City Council.

The next day after the big sentence discovery, I called Council Member Sally Shipman’s office, and asked for an appointment. Her name had been mentioned positively by some of my new friends. I had zero clout at City Hall, but my revelation prompted them to schedule an appointment with Ms. Shipman at the Avenue Restaurant at 908 Congress.

To this day, I wish I had a picture of the look on her face, when I slid the Budget across the table and showed her the “magic sentence.” She gave me the most vociferous apology I had ever heard. She said the City Staff had never called it to their attention. She swore that she would never have voted for a 20% electric rate increase if she had known that information. I took her advice and spoke to the City Electric Utility Commission at their next meeting.

Fast forward a few weeks to a City Council meeting that holds special memories. The Electric Utility Commission gave their monthly report. Included was my recommendation to cut the rate increase in half, to just 10%. The City Council agreed. Then my mom in San Antonio finally quit saying, “You can’t fight City Hall.”

One of Austin’s most colorful characters back then was Peck Young. Among many other things, he served as chairman of the Electric Utility Commission. It’s hard to describe him. He always wore a drooping, white cowboy hat. If he launched into a tirade, just the wind coming from his direction was enough to make people scatter. But I was not easily intimidated.

In my humble opinion, Peck was right on the issues, most of the time. But we came to verbal blows one morning on KLBJ-AM, on the Olin Murrell show. I was trying to get the City Council to pass an ordinance regulating the transfer of Electric Utility profits to the General Fund. I understood its purpose, but the amount had been growing by about 20% per year. Peck argued vigorously against me, but the City Council passed the ordinance that I suggested.

The 1985 City Council election was a moment for triumphant celebration. We elected a progressive slate of candidates, hoping to slow down the developers, protect neighborhoods, and save Barton Springs and the Barton Creek Watershed from pollution. The new Mayor, Frank Cooksey, was joined by George Humphrey, Sally Shipman and Smoot Carl-Mitchell.

I joined a group of friends on election night. In those days, we took our campaign signs to Palmer Auditorium, and stood behind our candidates in the bright glare of the television lights. The whole town was caught up in the excitement, for better or worse. Shortly after I walked into the auditorium, I saw a familiar figure heading towards me. It was the first time I had seen Peck Young since the KLBJ radio encounter. He approached with a broad grin on his face, and stuck out his hand. “How would you like to be on the Electric Utility Commission?” he asked. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted.

On the Commission, we oversaw more than a few heated rate battles, mostly because the big high tech companies always wanted deep cuts, at the expense of residential customers. Peck Young, Merl Moden and Shudde Fath stood squarely on our side. Shudde was, and still is an iconic Austin legend. As a founding member of the Commission, she was my mentor. Shudde turned 105 this past January.

My Name Is Bill And I Would Like To Lower Yours

As the electric rate battles raged in the 1980’s, I often found myself buried in thick reports, laced with arcane terminology and mounds of details. It wasn’t until late in the decade that most people had personal computers. So, I relied on a pocket solar calculator that I had purchased at Foleys for $20.00.  My biggest challenge was trying to reach the public with plain and simple facts. We were up against powerful special interests, who had more clout with the City Council.

I was in several media debates with the chairman of the Federation of Austin Industrial Ratepayers. During that time, I wrote a letter to the editor for the Austin American-Statesman. It went something like this:

Isn’t it interesting how many English words have more than one meaning. Take, for example, the word, “bill.” Birds have bills, entertainers are listed on bills, the Legislature passes bills. But the worst kind of bill is the kind you have to pay – the kind that keeps going up, like an Austin electric bill. Well, I have a very simple message. My name is Bill and I would like to lower yours.

The last line became my slogan.

Coming up in Part 2 – The City spends over $200,000 on a hearings examiner and other trappings for a convoluted rate-setting spectacle. And the strange case of $43 million that disappeared from the Electric Utility accounts.

In 1983, Austin Was Scared About Its Future

By Bill Oakey – May 2, 2021

Today, as we emerge from the pandemic, Austinites look to the future with both hopes and fears. We hope that our fun times will soon return – live music, outdoor festivals, meeting friends at favorite restaurants, and enjoying our city’s special quality of life. Our fears go well beyond what the pandemic did to the economy and our iconic local businesses.

People are scared that their neighborhoods will be transformed into super-dense vertical villages, where you have to look up to see the sky. We worry that the over-hyped promise of a sleek mass transit system will be bogged down with huge cost overruns, and a downturn tunnel system that nosedives tens of millions into debt, before going bust. And we are scared that our tax appraisals will soar to San Francisco levels, while retired folks and middle income workers struggle to get by. We actually wonder whether City leaders are serving us at all, or just the people they are recruiting to replace us. We even face the twisted notion that trying to preserve our neighborhoods is somehow divisive and racist.

Now, let’s turn the clock back 38 years, and read what the New York Times wrote about our fears back in 1983:

BOOMING AUSTIN FEARS IT WILL LOSE ITS CHARMS

By Robert Reinhold, The New York Times – October 8, 1983

This appealing college town set in the lovely Texas hill country is rapidly becoming a major city with a high-technology economy, and many an Austinite is wondering if that will spoil a good thing.

As a growing number of computer, aerospace and other high-technology companies like Motorola, I.B.M. and Lockheed discover Austin’s charms, many here are asking whether the city will become ”another Houston.” That grim catchword symbolizes for Austinites the worst of Texas’s unbridled urban development: clogged freeways, sprawl, pollution and garish commercial strips.

Widely regarded as the most ”livable” of Texas cities, Austin long got along on just two economic legs: the University of Texas and the state government, a mix that made it a politically liberal and socially tolerant pocket in a conservative state. Now it is becoming a formidable industrial center, too.

Last May, Austin was selected over 57 other places as the site for the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, or M.C.C., a joint research venture of 11 major American computer makers to compete with the Japanese in building the next generation of information technology.

The Chamber of Commerce predicted that the ”multiplier” effect of M.C.C. could turn Austin into the country’s foremost high-technology center. It is a vision that has not been greeted with uniform enthusiasm by Austinites, many of whom remain uneasy about its consequences. But few believe growth can be halted.

”They’ve gotten away from the notion it is possible to stop growth, so now the question is how to manage it,” said Michael Levy, publisher of Texas Monthly magazine, headquartered here. ”What motivates people is fear of becoming another Houston. Every other household has a growth-management expert in it.”

Robert Lane, president of the InterFirst Bank, the largest here, said the city’s ”paranoia” about growth had led it to neglect roads and services. He believes the city must devise a long- range ”road map” to see beyond the weekly battles over zoning and development that consume the City Council.

”Austin really has the last good chance to manage its growth to maintain the quality of life we have,” he said.

Whether Austin can rein in the powerful economic and social forces at work is problematical. For better or worse, there are already signs that it has outgrown its small-town charms. On Congress Street downtown, a half dozen major office buildings are going up, including One American Center, a 32-story complex that has stirred outrage among many because it will block the view of the State Capitol from many neighborhoods. On the outskirts, commercial strips along Highway 183 and Ben White Boulevard are as garish and congested as anywhere.

Barton Springs, a spring-fed swimming hole longer than two football fields that many Austinites consider the town’s greatest natural treasure, is often closed because of bacterial pollution after heavy rains. The closures started after development began in its watershed.

Meanwhile, despite a city ”master plan” that discourages it, developers are inexorably carving up the limestone hills to the west of town to accommodate growing demands for housing there, raising fears about pollution of the Edwards aquifer below ground that supplies the city’s waters.

For years the city tried to limit its growth by denying water and sewer services to developers and by refusing to annex surrounding land; the voters repeatedly turned down bond issues. But this approach backfired because developers got water from the Lower Colorado River Authority, meaning development was occurring anyway and Austin was losing control of it.

As a consequence, the no-growth battle has been given up. Roger Duncan, the strongest environmental voice on the City Council, said: ”We’ve lost that battle. We have not been successful in controlling development in environmentally sensitive areas by utility controls. Now we are trying other things.”

He said he was now in favor of extending utility services to developers in exchange for stiffer landscaping, environmental and zoning standards.

By the same token, the pro-growth forces have begun to compromise politically with the environmental forces. The newly elected Mayor, Ron Mullen, an insurance broker, was a voice of business for years as a Council member. He has since changed his views, he said, and now believes development should proceed in ways that do not damage the aquifer and Austin’s natural beauty.

”I am much more concerned than I was about keeping that quality of life as good or better than it is,” he said, praising his erstwhile environmental foes as ”good consciences for the community.”

An example of the city’s new approach to ”managed” growth is Gary L. Bradley’s plans to develop the old Circle C Ranch, 3,600 acres of cedars and live oaks southwest of the city that is in the aquifer area and outside Austin’s ”preferred” growth corridor. Mr. Bradley, a 34-year-old West Texas native who has been in Austin since 1968, is negotiating with the city to provide him water and sewer lines by approving a municipal utility district with authority to issue bonds for his project, which would ultimately have 7,000 homes and apartments.

In exchange, Mr. Bradley has offered to build special retention dams to reduce runoff pollution and to limit paving and density.

”The city does not have to extend utilities to me,” he said. ”But they want to because they do not want me to buy water from the river authority.” Moreover, he said, he is cognizant of what he affectionately calls the ”granola army,” environmentalists who ”can beat you without money.”

”We’ve got a town with a conscience,” he said. ”We will not have another Houston. We have too many safeguards.”

Others are less hoepful. ”I don’t see any way of avoiding the fate that awaits us,” said Kenneth Manning, a 38-year-old lawyer and environmental leader who used to work for Mr. Bradley. He said the city was unable to take a strong hand in channeling development because ”it is extremely difficult to get the City Council to tell a developer ‘no’ once in a while.” All six Council members and the new Mayor ran with contributions from developers in April’s elections. The Best of All Worlds

Austin in a way has the best of all worlds: the fine restaurants, theaters and good bookstores of urban life, yet a small-city layout with lots of parks that lets you get home from work in 15 minutes. Many of its residents are Texans who came to study at the university and stayed, many of them professionals who have sacrificed more lucrative careers elsewhere. Many artists, writers, poets and artisans have also gravitated here.

It is just these things that have brought high-technology businesses seeking refuge from the high costs and congestion in California’s high-technology area and wanting an agreeable setting to help recruit staff. Austin’s population swelled from 254,000 in 1970 to 345,000 in 1980. The chamber estimates its has since grown to more than 367,000, and some estimates say the metropolitan area will exceed a million by the year 2000. Over the last decade, the number of passengers using the municipal airport has grown from 600,000 to more than 2 million yearly. The growth is accelerating. Since 1979 2.6 million square feet of office space has been built; 2.3 million more is now under construction.

Frank W. McBee, a native Austinite who heads the pioneer technology firm here, Tracor Inc., welcomes all this. ”If I want to come into Austin I could put my plant in Elgin, Buda or Georgetown and not pay the city any taxes,” he said, referring to nearby towns. ”The city needs to embrace growth, manage it and benefit from it.”

Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, U.S.N., retired, head of the new M.C.C. venture who is a former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, agreed, saying, ”I think the fears are greatly overstated.”

In 1979 the City Council adopted a master plan to encourge growth along a north-south axis on the theory that new development would be most efficient where there are aleady utilities and transportation lines. But people prefer to live on the hills to the west, and nothing has been able to stop them.

The Council is devising new, more stringent zoning and building codes, and pressure is mounting for strict new rules to limit density in the ecologically fragile Lake Austin watershed to the west. Many, too, are urging the city to annex aggresively lest nearby towns hem it in, even though annexation means that the city must supply services. Over the next few months voters will be asked to approve more than $1 billion in bonds for water, sewer and electric service.

The watchword is low density, but that means high cost. Austin’s population is about 20 percent Mexican- American and 10 percent black, and Councilman John Trevino, son of a Mexican laborer, has his doubts about managed growth.

”Low density development eliminates most minorities,” Mr. Trevino said. ”Are we building an elitist community? Yes, we want to enjoy the environment. But none of my folks will be able to move in.”