Author Archives: Bill Oakey

About Bill Oakey

I am retired from the State of Texas as an accountant. I am now an artist in Austin, doing photographic art. I'm also a lifelong music fan and a computer geek.

Toll Lanes On I-35 Are The Wrong Solution

Commentary: Why toll lanes for I-35 are the wrong solution

By Bill Oakey – Special to the American-Statesman

Posted: 6:12 a.m. Saturday, December 02, 2017

What part of “no” do some public officials not understand? Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick put the kibosh on more toll lanes for several Texas Department of Transportation projects, including Interstate 35. Almost immediately, state Sen. Kirk Watson and other area politicians cried foul. They insist that state money simply isn’t available to build all the free highway lanes needed in major urban areas.
I believe that an all-or-nothing position in favor of managed toll lanes is a recipe for disaster. On I-35, here’s what would happen with four new managed toll lanes and no increase in the current number of free lanes:

• Traffic will back up far worse than it is today, with four lanes restricted by managed tolls. The population projections for the Central Texas region are huge. The demand for more car lane capacity will increase exponentially.

• Trying to pretend that the demand is not there by discouraging travel with managed toll lanes will result in a water-torture type disaster. Over time, the peak toll rates on I-35 will climb to $14 per one-way trip, as they have in Florida and elsewhere — on roads with more free lanes and fewer NAFTA trucks than I-35. Increasing peak tolls here to $14 and beyond would be absurd. Raise it to, say, $20 per trip, and you will reduce the traffic in those lanes for sure — but you’d magnify the congestion on the free lanes until it becomes unsustainable.

• Dallas and Houston have more than six to eight free lanes on their busiest highways. What makes Austin officials think we can get by with only that many on I-35? Especially with the large number of trucks for the NAFTA trade.

• The demand simply is what it is. Keep recruiting more people to come here, and the traffic congestion on I-35 will eventually become unsustainable. Enforced capacity caps with managed tolls are the wrong solution.

• We hear the argument that if you build more free lanes, they will quickly fill up. Well, duh, that’s because people need to travel. The managed toll philosophy is that people only think they need to go somewhere. Heck, let them stay home or pay through the nose for high tolls. But, what happens when all of that “unnecessary” travel gets factored out, and future demand for needed travel exceeds the road capacity? High tolls will not fix that problem.

• Rapid buses would help to a certain extent, but enough people may not be willing to give up the freedom of their cars to make a difference. Park-and-ride facilities are a great idea. But, it would take a seismic shift in Central Texas lifestyle habits to make a meaningful impact. It would be wonderful if it worked — and maybe it is possible. But who knows for sure? What if the big managed toll gamble backfires?

• Show me where we can find $15 to $20 billion for a citywide urban rail system, then we can discuss that pipe dream.

• Given the high poverty rate in Austin, how are people here supposed to pay monthly bills on a huge network of “gotcha” toll roads? Just try doing the math on peak daily toll charges for commuting 21 workdays per month. Then try it for two sets of tolls for each day. Then three! Even “middle-class” families won’t be able to afford it, as population-driven demand continually forces up the managed toll rates.

• Is everybody ready for years of construction nightmares, only to end up with the same number of free lanes on I-35 that we had 30 years ago?

Abbott and Patrick made the right call on this one. So, where is the state going to get the money to pay for all those “free” traffic lanes? How about a few business taxes to take the load off residential property taxpayers? How about funding education at the state level to reduce property taxes? If that sounds like another pipe dream, we may all get to ponder it together — while we sit stuck in traffic for the rest of our lives.

Oakey is a retired accountant and writes the blog, AustinAffordability.com

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Should the City Allow A Soccer Stadium On Butler Shores Without An Election?

By Bill Oakey, December 2, 2017

Nope!

The Austin American-Statesman has published a stunning headline story, daring to suggest that the MLS soccer stadium might be plopped right into downtown! Well over 80 readers spoke out loudly against it in the comments section, in no time at all. The scariest part is that some insiders are proposing that the Butler Shores site be approved without the City Charter mandate for a public election.

The City Charter provision requiring a public vote on parkland use was set in motion by Mayor Bill Drake and the Austin City Council on December 9, 1952. On that date, the number one song in the country was “Why Don’t You Believe Me?” by Joni James. All these years later, we must still ask that same question. When lawyers successfully sue the City, the taxpayers get to pay their hourly fees plus court costs. To the big dreamers who want to build the soccer stadium on Butler Shores without an election, we can offer this. The number one song on January 31, 1953 when voters approved the Charter Amendment by 61% was “Don’t Let the Stars Get In Your Eyes” by Perry Como.

Read the history of the City and State laws protecting parks in the two blog postings below:

https://austinaffordability.com/2017/11/09/soccer-stadium-on-city-parkland-would-require-public-vote/

https://austinaffordability.com/2017/11/13/lets-clear-the-air-on-soccer-stadium-election-requirement-issue/

The Big AISD Question That Nobody Is Asking

By Bill Oakey – November 30, 2017

The question seemed so obvious that I never imagined it wouldn’t be asked. AISD just approved the sale of 8 district properties for a grand total of  $64.8 million. And they approved the purchase of a new site for their headquarters for $28.4 million. That leaves the school district with a cool $36.4 million in extra cash.

I read about this in several news articles, waiting anxiously for the answer to the obvious question. The one that for some odd reason was never asked…

What Are They Going to Do With All That Money??

Austin voters just passed a whopping $1.1 billion AISD bond proposition, by far the largest in history. The mailers in the bond campaign never mentioned the price tag. But they prominently featured a highly misleading statement – “AISD will not raise  the tax rate if the bonds are approved.”

Most citizens are painfully aware that the tax rate has to DECREASE each year to offset skyrocketing home appraisals. So, a carefully crafted promise not to raise the rate leaves plenty of wiggle room for higher taxes on everybody. This lack of disclosure must be a loophole in the 1987 Truth In Taxation law that I proposed and successfully got passed in the Texas Legislative.

I realize that my concerns beg the question of whether AISD needs more money to repair and replace dilapidated facilities. Of course they do. And the root of the problem is the Robin Hood funding formulas that force AISD to send more money back to the State than any other school district in Texas.

To me, that is all the more reason that AISD should handle their finances responsibly. Back in the 1980’s I humorously referred to their board as the Board of Mistrustees of the Austin Inefficient School District. Back then, they consistently had the highest per student costs in 8 out of 11 categories among the largest districts in the state.

While I was standing in line to vote in the recent billion dollar bond election, I heard a disturbing comment from an AISD employee. These were his exact words:

”You wouldn’t believe how much money the administrators spend traveling to all kinds of conferences! That would be enough money to give the teachers a pay raise.” That sounds like a great tip for one of the TV stations to use for an investigation. (Hi there, KXAN…). In any case, we certainly need some immediate disclosure on how the AISD board plans to use that nice chunk of change from the land sales. What is their process for determining such a thing? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Pass the savings on, directly to property taxpayers. (Not likely).

2. Evaluate options based on best practices used by other school districts across the country.

3. Research methods to refinance existing debt.

4. Increase reserves to raise their bond rating and earn the resulting benefits.

We might be able to assume that they are doing some of those things, or possibly something even better. But whatever they decide, they should let the taxpayers know about it as soon as possible…Oh gosh…My apologies for not mentioning the most likely option for AISD to consider. There must be a perfect conference in Brazil or on the French Riviera that would address all of these unanswered questions!

While composing this blog piece, I sat in the Magnolia Cafe on Lake Austin Blvd., surrounded by young AISD students enjoying a nice breakfast. Today is some kind of teacher training day. It was fun to observe the little poignant love scenes in some of the booths. It was like something straight out of “Grease,” “The Breakfast Club,” or “American Graffiti.” These kids will grow up in a very uncertain world. We should wish them all the best of good fortune and happiness.

Update – Response From Melissa Taboada, Austin American-Statesman

Melissa Taboada’s latest article about the land sales can be viewed here. She was kind enough to email me some additional details she has learned about this topic. But many questions still remain. She wrote:

Hi Bill,

The district needs to make the Southfield building compatible to its needs. At Monday night’s board meeting, the district outlined the new central office building could cost $37-$50 million with those changes. In the story, I mentioned that remaining funds from the CAC would go toward the new administration building. The bond projects also total $1.3 billion and to bring the cost down to the $1.1 billion, the district said it will use bond contingency funds, as well as $40 million in land sales.

Hope this information helps,

Melissa Taboada

My Analysis of These Additional Details

Melissa is well-versed on many details, having attended all of the AISD board meetings. However, let’s take a close look at these numbers…

$64.8 Million – Total land sales from 8 properties
$50.0 Million – $28.4 M purchase price + $21.6 M high estimate to refurbish Southfield Bldg.
$14.8 Million – Leftover money from land sales, using high-end building estimate

$64.8 Million – Total land sales from 8 properties
$37.0 Million – $28.4 M purchase price + $8.6 M low estimate to refurbish Southfield Bldg.
$27.8 Million – Leftover money from land sales, using low-end building estimate

These calculations tell us that after fully funding their new headquarters building, AISD will have somewhere between $14.8 and $27.8 million left over for other purposes. These amounts don’t fit very well with AISD’s plan to use bond contingency funds “plus $40 million in land sales” to reduce the cost of the bond projects from $1.3 billion down to the $1.1 billion that appeared on the election ballot. Unless I’m missing some more details, there appears to be a gap of missing money here…

$40 Million – Land sales funds needed to reduce bond projects from $1.3 billion to $1.1 billion
$14.8 Million to $27.8 Million – Land sales available after fully funding Southfield Building
$12.2 Million to $25.2 Million – Apparent funding gap

The gap doesn’t look too bad until you factor in the likelihood of cost overruns for refurbishing the Southfield Building to make it “compatible with AISD’s needs.” Cost overruns tend to spring up on just about everything these days. And the “needs” of AISD’s executives may not be quite the same thing as the taxpayers’ needs. Thanks to all of you readers for bravely wading through the weeds with me on this issue.

Update From Nicole Conley Johnson, AISD Chief Financial Officer

Nicole Conley Johnson

2017/11/30 at 9:21 pm

Good day Bill. I am Nicole Conley Johnson, the CFO of AISD. The subsequent analysis that you’ve done regarding the purchase and rehabilitation of the Southfield site is spot on. There is still a gap to get to the $40 million from land sales. It is anticipated that there could be more properties sold as the bond program is implemented. As it is implemented, several school site could become available for future sales. For example, Rosedale after its rebuilt on the Lucy Read site and/or the proposed school unifications.

Let’s Not Overlook the Elephant(s) In the Room!

Here are two final, very critical questions:

  1. How do the prices on each of the 8 properties that AISD plans to sell, and the purchase price of the Southfield Building compare to the appraised values on TCAD’s official tax rolls?
  2. What are the detailed specifications that AISD has laid out for the refurbishment of the Southfield Building? The cost estimates range from $8.6 million to $21.6 million. Let’s assume that AISD strives to use our tax money just as prudently as Austin families have been forced to do with their own budgets under today’s affordability constraints. Can we get a commitment from AISD’s top brass that they will stick as close as possible to the low-end estimate for their new digs?  And can we get a commitment that they will publish a press release beforehand, telling us exactly what we are getting for that amount of money? (This calls for one new song to be added to the music list below).

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “Such An Easy Question” – Elvis Presley
  2. “96 Tears” – Question Mark and the Mysterians
  3. “Hey Schoolgirl” – Tom and Jerry (before they changed their name to Simon & Garfunkel)
  4. “To Sir With Love” – Lulu
  5. “Wonderful World” – Sam Cooke, or the cover version by Herman’s Hermits
  6. “Commitment” – Leann Rimes

Can The City Council Put The Brakes On Police Pay Raises?

By Bill Oakey – November 28, 2017

Yes.

But that’s not the right question. The question is, do they have the will to do it? At their regular meeting on December 7th, the City Council will face a critical decision that will affect the  General Fund in the annual City Budget for many years to come. This is serious business, and I do not envy the Council members. All 11 of their positions on the dais will become “hot seats” on December 7th.

Staring at affordability projections is really spooky stuff. It’s a lot more comfortable to look the other way. You can kick the can down the road but, by golly, you’ll run headlong into it sooner or later. The other vitally important factor is that we all value the service of our police officers. Austin is one of the safest cities in Texas, if not the country, for its size. So, I would be the last person to suggest that we should short-change them on well-deserved pay.

The fact is that we already have the highest paid police force in Texas. The proposed new contract, approved by the union after negotiations with City staff calls for 9.5% in pay raises over the next five years. With additional stipends included, the total jumps to 12%. The impact on the City’s General Fund was laid out in a public meeting this past May. This was the headline in the Austin Monitor on May 18th: “Mayor Suggests Changes in Public Safety Pay.”

The article starts out with these words:

“Paying for Austin’s public safety needs could add more than $75.9 million to the city’s General Fund budget over the next five years – with more than two-thirds of that funding going to the Austin Police Department, according to the city’s preliminary needs assessment.”

Then, in a later paragraph, this dire warning appears:

“Looking at the projection of public safety needs over the next five years and the city’s projected income, it is clear that even going to the 8 percent rollback rate every year, the City will not be able to meet most of those needs.”

So, public safety salaries could push the General Fund over the edge, and force the City to raise property taxes to the 8% legal maximum every year going forward. And, even if that happens, all of the needed City services covered by the General Fund cannot be met. Fairly simple math will tell you that 8% annual City property tax increases would cause them to double in 9 years and quadruple in 18 years.

During that May City Council Meeting, Mayor Adler suggested that City staff expand their analysis of the public safety costs and other basic needs. And he stated that perhaps some adjustments should be made.

The Big Decision on December 7th Will Not Be Easy

In my current round of affordability meetings with City Council members, one fact has become clear. They cannot predict how the vote on the police contract will turn out. Council Member Ellen Troxclair’s office, often seen as the most conservative, expressed concern over both public safety salaries and the pensions. Council Member Ann Kitchen told me that “It is important to consider all of the cost projections and their implications.”

As an affordability advocate, I have just one piece of advice for each City Council member. Never be afraid to do what you really believe is the right thing. When in doubt about an issue like this, don’t just rely on verbal prowess and the power of persuasion. Sometimes it may be best to remain relatively quiet and…

Just Let the Numbers Do the Talking!

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “Murder By Numbers” – The Police
  2. “One For the Wonder” – Sammy Kaye
  3. “Heartaches By the Number” – Willie Nelson (from 1966)
  4. “Fool Number One” – Brenda Lee
  5. “One” – Three Dog Night

Statesman Covers Soccer Stadium Public Vote Issue

By Bill Oakey, November 25, 2017

Philip Jankowski did a pretty thorough job of covering the issue. (See my blog posting with the legal details). By the way, I would never support a soccer stadium at Butler Park! Maybe at Decker Lake, but only if the neighborhood association supported it.

Austin American-Statesman

Bringing pro soccer team to Austin, building stadium may trigger vote

By Philip Jankowski, November 24, 2017

Using parkland as the new home for a Major League Soccer stadium could require voter approval.

While local soccer enthusiasts might be elated at the news that a Major League Soccer team is serious about making Austin its home, they might have to persuade Austin residents at large to approve bringing the city’s first professional sports franchise.

An election over bringing the Crew SC soccer team — currently based in Columbus, Ohio — to Austin for the 2019 season is becoming a growing possibility as parkland in the core of the city is emerging as a potential location for a stadium that would need to seat at least 20,000 people.

Such a drastic change to parkland would be reminiscent of an effort two years ago to build world-class golf courses in far East Austin, something that the city ultimately said would likely need an election.

While Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt has promised he won’t use taxpayer money to build a facility, the economics would make much more sense if the city were able to provide the land for it free of charge.

To that end, the Austin City Council has ordered the city to research what city-owned land could be used for a MLS stadium, including parkland. Several media reports show that Butler Shores Metropolitan Park has emerged as the most attractive location for Precourt.

The park sits in a choice spot along Lady Bird Lake, just behind the Zach Theatre where Barton Creek empties into the Lady Bird Lake. It also meets Precourt’s goal of having a stadium in the city’s core.

But repurposing the parkland would likely trigger a public election, something Precourt’s lobbyist Richard Suttle said Precourt’s company would prefer to avoid.

Suttle said the company has conducted surveys leading it to believe voters would approve a proposal to bring the team to Austin. But holding an election could threaten Precourt’s desired timeline for a move to Austin for the 2019 MLS season.

Precourt would like to have a site for a stadium picked by Jan. 1 and an agreement with the city in place by the summer. Meetings those deadlines would be difficult if the city held an election in either March or May, and outright impossible if a soccer election were held in November 2018.

“We are not afraid of an election on bringing in MLS to Austin,” Suttle told the American-Statesman. “The only concern I can think of is we have a finite amount of time to take advantage of this opportunity and we would have to evaluate whether an election scenario fits into the scheduling.”

Texas law states that no parkland can be sold at any price without voter approval. Austin’s city charter underlines the law, adding restrictions for leasing parkland as well. A drastic change in purpose for parkland would also trigger an election under state law.

But laws mandating an election are not entirely ironclad. Suttle said a stadium could be considered a parkland use. Concession contracts do permit government land to be used for private business purposes. The city also refused to give a definitive answer to whether an election would be necessary.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, who spearheaded a resolution to search for city-owned land as a possible home for a MLS stadium, said she sees similarities to a previous attempt to build a world-class golf course on parkland in 2015.

Tovo said that when the council was considering building the PGA-level golf courses at Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park, the contract before the council felt like “a way of skirting a vote.”

The plan had firm support from then-City Manager Marc Ott, but stalled after Ott signaled that having an election would likely be the best course of action. In the end, the council opted to request a new master plan for the entire park.

Voters also narrowly defeated a proposal to turn a portion of the park into a hotel and golf courses in 2000.

Tovo told the Statesman the city might be best served by holding an election if the council attempts a license agreement with Precourt for a stadium. She said her resolution asking the city’s staff to identify city-owned properties that could serve as a possible stadium location was a way for the city to get ahead of the likely large amounts of input it would receive if parkland is chosen.

“It was important to me that we approach any consideration of locating a soccer stadium in a way different from the Walter E. Long discussion several years ago,” she said. “I want to make sure that at the outset we discuss whether community benefits outweigh the loss of a public space.”

But Tovo said she wanted to hear what the city attorney’s office thinks about whether an election would be required.

Austin resident Bill Oakey, a retired accountant who blogs about affordability, has researched the laws and said that using parkland for a stadium would “absolutely” require an election. The scale of the project would move it beyond smaller concession contracts, and Oakey said he would support a large-scale, public-private partnership if it brought in revenue for the city’s parks.

“That would be a win-win, but it would have to come with an election,” he said.

And even with indications that voters might support it, Circuit of the Americas Chair Bobby Epstein, who is working to bring a minor league team from the United Soccer League to the track’s land in 2019, said there is always a risk when voters are involved.

“The more hurdles you have to jump over, certainly the more challenging the goal becomes,” Epstein said.

KXAN Investigates Millions in Uncollected City Parking Tickets

Follow on Twitter – @AAffordability

By Bill Oakey, November 21, 2017

More than once I have had to put my socks back on after having them knocked off by a KXAN investigation. This morning I was jolted awake by the voice of top news reporter, Kylie McGivern on the radio. She was talking up the latest KXAN investigation about uncollected City parking tickets. Maybe I was still asleep, but it sounded like she said they add up to over $7 million! If it’s even close to that, let’s hope some of it can be recovered quickly. If they don’t really need the money, why are we having to pay for so much for parking?

To find out all the details, set your DVR’s or just plop down on the couch and tune in to KXAN tonight at 10:00. It’s a riot to watch their reporters look public officials in the eye, and ask what in the heck is going on. Quite often, we learn in the ensuing days or weeks that some important reforms have taken place as a result of a KXAN investigation. Since I don’t personally know anybody bold enough to shake things up like that, I find it quite fascinating to behold. I might just try to meet this Kylie McGivern sometime…

KXAN Investigative Reporter, Kylie McGivern

You can still catch up on some of KXAN’s previous investigations. There’s a lot of smoke left in some of them, including the one on toll road bill collection “customer service.” I plan to delve into that after Thanksgiving. Check out their website for any investigations that you might have missed. Here are just a few really juicy ones:

  1. TxTag Troubles: Nearly $1 Billion Added to TxTag Accounts as Billing Woes Continue
  2. HOA Law Loophole Leaves Some Homeowners Powerless
  3. Your Driver License Information Is Being Sold By the State for a Profit
  4. Risky Rides: Unscrupulous Dealerships Selling Salvage Vehicles to Customers
  5. Visit Austin Spent Thousands of Dollars In Concert Tickets, Alcohol, Jewelry

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:

“Dirty Laundry” – Don Henly

Can Someone Step Forward and Save the Pump Project?

Follow on Twitter – @AAffordability

By Bill Oakey – November 20, 2017

The highly acclaimed East Austin Studio Tour (EAST) got a nasty jolt this past weekend when the large group of artists at the Pump Project were greeted with devastating news. They may have to pack up and leave their coveted studios by sometime in April. A sale of the property is in the works. This comes on the heels of a very expensive remodeling of the facility just a couple of years ago.

This is an opportunity for the City and local business leaders to come together quickly and find a solution, before it’s too late. Does the City have any tools available that can be put into action soon enough to help? Fortunately, I have several affordability meetings, starting tomorrow with the Mayor’s Office and several other Council members. I will be asking that question. One thing I plan to suggest is that they utilize their business contacts to see if a philanthropic art supporter or group could step forward and help. I would also hope that they would reach out to the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. The worst-case scenario would be a domino effect that would threaten the survival of the EAST festival.

Below is the front page notice on the Pump Project’s website:

Pump No More
11/17/2017

DONATE TO OUR RELOCATION FUND

For over a decade, Pump Project Art Complex has been proud to call the bright yellow warehouse on Shady Lane home. This big, old building has been our place for community and creativity for 12 years.

Our plan was to raise money for the needed CODE improvements – but the landlord has now decided against renewing our lease.

While we are still seeking a way in which we might be able to stay in our iconic big bright yellow building, it’s a longshot, so we have decided to refocus our efforts on relocating.

Over the next few months, we will be looking for a new home – we are asking all those who support the artist community here in Austin to donate whatever you can to help Pump Project in this effort.

Donate

WHO WE ARE
We are a group of over 40 artists and craftspeople who call Pump Project Art Complex home. Pump Project Art Complex is a 501(c)3 non-profit, East Austin art space that provides working studios and gallery facilities to emerging and established artists.
Our story began in in 2005 as Shady Tree Studios with a few artists, an old empty warehouse, and a substantial amount of initiative. In the past twelve years Pump Project has become a staple of the Austin art community. We serve the community with year-round art exhibition programming in our 1,000 sq. ft. gallery space. We are also a major stop on the East Austin Studio Tour each year, a testament to the great work of our members and the encouraging culture that Austin has for its artists.
Over the last 12 years, we have provided exhibition facilities and affordable studio space for hundreds of artists in the Austin community, and we are very proud of the work we have done. Your donation, in any amount, will help us in our efforts to relocate and to keep our community going.

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane” – The Ames Brothers, or the Archie Bleyer version
  2. “(I’ll Be There) Before the Next Teardrop Falls” – Freddy Fender
  3. “Help” – The Beatles
  4. “Pictures and Paintings” – Charlie Rich
  5. “Just In Time” – Frank Sinatra
  6. “Wrecking Ball” – Emmylou Harris
  7. “25 Minutes to Go” – Johnny Cash (In honor of Threadgill’s on Riverside for getting a stay of execution from their landlord)