Category Archives: Coronavirus Pandemic

23% City Tax Increase Baked In Before November Election!

By Bill Oakey – August 18, 2020

As the pandemic drags on and threatens to be compounded by the winter flu season, Austin taxpayers face another daunting challenge. Last week the City Council adopted their new budget that includes a 23% property tax increase. This increase is for Project Connect’s “initial investment” of $7.1 billion for a horribly flawed mass transit plan. Voters will decide whether to approve the tax increase in the November 3rd election.

But by the time the election gets underway, the Travis County Tax Office may have already processed our new property tax bills with the City’s 23% increase baked in. This link shows that last year, the Travis County Tax Office submitted electronic bills to taxpayers on November 1st. It remains to be seen whether it is possible or feasible for the County to wait until after the election to prepare this year’s tax bills.

What Happens If Tax Bills Get Processed Before The Election, And Voters Reject The Unconscionable Tax Increase?

The Texas Municipal League has published a helpful guide to implementing Senate Bill 2, which contains the State legislation related to this topic. At the bottom of Page 9, it states:

”If property owners pay their taxes using the originally adopted tax rate and the voters ultimately reject that rate at an election in November, the city must refund the difference between the amount of taxes paid and the amount of taxes due under the voter-approval tax rate.”

As you can easily imagine, we could be headed for a confusing and chaotic whale of a mess! Long before the November election, scores of businesses, landlords and homeowners struggling with mortgage payments during the pandemic will confront a harsh reality. They may be delinquent or completely unable to pay their property tax bills. On top of that, the City of Austin may have to calculate and process tax refunds for a few hundred thousand taxpayers.

And If That Isn’t Enough, Another City Tax Increase Is Looming!

In their infinite wisdom, the City Council chose this unfortunate time to put a whopping $460 million bond issue on the November ballot. Proposition B is a grab bag of projects including bike lanes, urban trails and transportation improvements. Some of these are well thought out and necessary. But voters should reject it this year, because it is loaded down with far too many expensive goodies that we can’t afford during a hundred year health crisis and recession. (For crying out loud)!

The absurd Project Connect item is Prop A on the November ballot. The nearly half-billion dollar goody bag is Prop B. So, here is a slogan that we can share with friends all the way to the November election:

Vote Nay On Prop A, and No Sirree On Prop B!

The Ugly Truth About The Project Connect Ballot Proposition To Raise Property Taxes 23%

By Bill Oakey – August 13, 2020

Does Austin need some kind of improved mass transit system? Absolutely. Do we need a good plan to relieve traffic congestion? Absolutely. So, does the City Council’s November ballot initiative to raise your property taxes by 23% address those needs and solve the traffic problems?

Absolutely not! And there are plenty of reasons why.

Are You Ready for Just One Car Lane In Each Direction On Major Sections of Guadalupe, North  Lamar and South Congress?

if you go to the Project Connect website, you will see a fairyland artist’s rendering of a beautifully landscaped, massively wide boulevard. There are two lanes in the center for the rail line. Then there are two car lanes on each side of the rail line, with drivers cruising along blissfully. But this little slice of paradise is about as real as the yellow brick road that leads to Emerald City in the Land of Oz.

All you have to do is take a little trip from North Austin along North Lamar and Guadalupe through U.T. and then across the river and down South Congress. Look out the window and count the number of car lanes. Unless you see six wide lanes all along the route, you will be witnessing a big heap of trouble for the Project Connect Pie-In-The-Sky transit plan. Just do a Google search for “Project Connect” “car lanes,” with the quotes exactly as shown. You will find plenty of community concerns about this critical issue. What is Capital Metro’s response? Oh, well, we could always dig some more tunnels or do some elevated sections. Bottom line – There is no firm plan to address the problem. It’s all couched in several layers of ambiguous speculation. A “yes” vote in November will guarantee clogged turn lanes and exponentially worse traffic congestion.

But Isn’t It About Time We Got People Out of Their Cars?

If you dare to raise serious questions about the murky state of this transit plan, you will hear that familiar refrain. Well, of course in an ideal world, most people would abandon their cars and step into a sleek rail car that will whisk them away to their destination  There are cities like Portland and Vancouver that have excellent transit systems. But most of the good ones were started at least 30 years ago, when the costs were much cheaper. In today’s Austin, we have a large suburban population that uses the roads. There won’t be a rail line to serve most of them for decades. But they still need to come into the City and use the roads every day when they go to work. Project Connect’s grand plan is simply a companion piece to the high density land development scheme that threatens to disrupt and displace existing residents of Central Austin neighborhoods. It is designed to carry young hipsters back and forth to the bars and festivals, and of course to their high tech jobs.

The Ugly Truth About the Real Cost of a Citywide Transit System

You don’t have to look far into the Project Connect webpages to come across a key phrase that no one should overlook – “Initial Investment.” Yes, the glossy pages and slick ads will try to convince you that we can have a huge north-south Orange Line, a Blue Line all the way to the airport, a series of downtown tunnels, and a slew of new rapid and regular bus routes – all for the $7.1 billion from raising your property taxes and imagined Federal support. But remember that the November vote is only the “initial investment.”

The Real Cost Is at Least 8 Times Higher than $7.1 Billion!

All you have to do is look at the rail initiative approved by Seattle voters in 2016. It calls for a $54 billion expansion of their rail system. You read that right – $54 billion! And not for the entire citywide system, but just for an expansion of their existing system. This is why Project Connect refers to the November vote to raise your property taxes as an “initial investment.”

But hold on, it gets worse. In case you were wondering whether there would be cost overruns in Project Connect’s cost estimates,, take a look at this article that hit our fellow taxpayers in Seattle: “Seattle Light Rail, Transportation Plan Busting $54 Billion Budget.” They are barely getting started and the costs are already spiraling upwards. Project Connect’s plan calls for Austin’s entire downtown section to be built in underground tunnels. Just close your eyes and try to imagine the staggering, ever-escalating costs piling up over time to accomplish that.

Hey Wait! Aren’t We In the Middle of a Pandemic??

The first question anyone should have asked with regard to Project Connect is whether this year is the right time to ask voters to raise their property taxes. We have no firm estimates on how many businesses will fail completely between now and the end of the year. Even the ones that survive the downturn will be strapped for cash. How in the world will they be able to pay their property taxes in full and on time in January. Is anyone at the City or Travis County even looking into this question? Have they surveyed the many types of struggling businesses to gauge the situation? Have they calculated the potential loss of sales tax revenue combined with a steep loss of property tax revenue? What about all the unemployed workers? And the hundreds, if not thousands of landlords who haven’t been able to collect their rent payments?

Update: 6:00 PM, August 13

Today the City Council made it official. They voted unanimously to put the Project Connect measure on the November 3rd ballot. The referendum calls for an 8.75 cent hike per $100 home valuation. This would mean a property tax increase of 23%!! It would cost the owner of a median-valued home of $326,368 an additional $332 per year. The ill-conceived timing and the exorbitant cost makes this the most foolhardy and irresponsible action of any City Council in our lifetime!

Please send an email link to this page to all of your contacts, and share it widely on social media.

Your Stimulus Payment Might Arrive As A Visa Debit Card

By Bill Oakey – May 27, 2020

Remember those news reports that your stimulus check will have Donald Trump’s signature on it? If you didn’t file your income tax with a direct deposit listed for your refund, you would have two options – Put the check in your bank account, or frame it so you can admire your Presidential autograph.

Now, millions of Americans are finding instead that Visa debit cards are being sent to their mailboxes…What?? How did that happen? Why were’t we told about this in advance? As it turns out, many people who got these Visa cards over the weekend, quickly tossed them into the trash. The envelopes look like any other piece of junk mail, with a credit card solicitation. Many people threw them away while sorting their mail, thinking it was some sort of scam.

So, what happens if you did throw away your long-awaited stimulus payment? Can you get it replaced? Well, good luck with that. Check out this article about a watchdog in Iowa who got nowhere trying to help citizens answer that question.

Then, as KXAN here in Austin reported, there are all kinds of fees attached, depending on how you use these cards. But I have a few additional questions. How much taxpayer money did Visa walk away with in this deal? What happened to all those government checks with Trump’s signature on them? Did a bunch of those get shredded? If so, how much did that cost the taxpayers?

We have heard that the home confinement has put a lot of stress on marriages. Imagine husbands and wives arguing and fighting over who’s to blame for throwing away $2,400? Even cohabitating couples must be asking a lot of questions right about now. Sorry folks, the buck no longer stops at the President’s desk. It stops in a big dark hole somewhere in space and time.

Musical Stimulation

1. I Threw It All Away – Bob Dylan

2. A Lover’s Question – Clyde McPhatter

Dancing Is “Discouraged” – Texans “Should” Remember That We’re In A Pandemic

By Bill Oakey – May 20, 2020

“Dancing is discouraged.“ Those three words tumbled out of the radio and jolted me awake this morning. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has announced his official guidelines for the reopening of bars under Phase 2 of his back-to-business pandemic initiative. But like most of the language found in Trump’s Federal response papers, it’s all about “should,” and…gosh…”Ya might want to consider.” There’s nary a trace of “You must” or “Thou shalt not.”

After all, to Republicans there is nothing worse than a dreaded government regulation. Even ones that could save millions of lives. I have to wonder, though, if the Republicans ever stop to think how ridiculous this stuff looks. In the published protocols on the Governor’s website, the word “should” appears 16 times. “Dancing Is Discouraged” would look absolutely hilarious on a big sign at the front entrance to Billy Bob’s Texas. It would also be perfect as a historical meme to represent Trumpism during the 2020 pandemic.

Some of the big Texas dance halls are not ready to open yet. When they do, the tables are supposed to be well separated, and only 6 people will be allowed per table. Employees are considering wearing masks. It seems like club owners, employees and customers would all be better served if they had clear and firm rules. But it’s pretty easy to guess why all the “shoulds” are in there instead of “musts” – lawyers. Trump, Abbott and the rest of the Republicans want to make sure that no business faces a liability lawsuit. So, it’s up to you to protect yourself.

Many bar and nightclub owners have been busy trying to prepare for their reopenings. These are hard working folks who deservedly want to get the revenue flowing again. But their challenge is a little bit different from, say, a bookstore or a dry cleaners. Alcohol and good behavior have been known to diverge, at least once in a while.

One of the biggest dangers in a Texas honky-tonk is simply temptation. With beer and whiskey, things can get risky. If they didn’t, a lot of country songwriters would find themselves out of work. If dancing went away, how easy would it be to steal somebody’s wife away. With social distancing, it would be harder to approach the woman you might want to commiserate with over a broken heart.

Using good old fashioned songs as an example, Tanya Tucker could not sing, “Shuffle with me Houston stranger, it’s a cowboy loving night.“ And the character in the George Strait song couldn’t walk right up to a gal with a beckoning smile and say, “Pardon me, you left your tears on the jukebox. Let’s fall to pieces together. Why should we both fall apart?”

We are all tired of staying cooped up at home. Yet, there are no enforceable, common-sense protections to keep us safe while going out. Most business owners are left largely to police themselves. Masks are one of the most basic means of preventing spread. But those are often regarded as optional. There are no standards or certifications for consumer-grade masks. Any old “face covering” will do, even if it’s made of thin, porous material. If the economy does not rebound quickly, it will be because too many well-informed, reasonable people will not subject themselves to risky, flimsy and ridiculously absurd “protocols,” issued by politicians without the good sense that God gave a garden grasshopper.

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece

1. “Cowboy Loving Night” – Tanya Tucker
2. “Let’s Fall to Pieces Together” – George Strait
3. “I Won’t Dance” – Frank Sinatra
4. “Your Mama Don’t Dance” – Loggins & Messina
5. “I Should Have Known Better” – The Beatles

A Novel Message – The Coronavirus Speaks Out

By Bill Oakey – May 7, 2020

I just overheard a private conversation that I wasn’t supposed to hear. But since I did, you need to hear it too. And share it. This virus is not really a silent enemy. The little spikey things communicate with each other. We’re not supposed to hear it, but somehow I caught this conversation:

“If the latest news reports are true, we can beat these humans. They’re not very smart.”

“Well, what makes you so sure?”

“OK, Let’s start from the beginning. They have no idea where we really came from or when we infected the first person.”

“Do they still think we started in a Chinese lab?”

“Most of them don’t, but that doesn’t really matter. Our biggest advantage is how easily we traveled around this planet in the beginning. And, get this! They’re not taking serious measures to prevent the easy traveling environment that helped us spread in the first place.”

“You’re so right! We got to America by plane. If we inhabit the body of just one passenger, we get the freedom to spread in a closed cabin for up to 4 or 5 hours on a single flight. But planes are mostly empty now. Won’t they have tough regulations when the passengers come back?”

“Not hardly. There was talk of keeping the middle seats empty and requiring masks. But there are no mandated government regulations. Only phrases like “recommended,” “You might want to consider,” etc. It’s a joke! And, lucky for us, the aisle seats are a lot closer than 6 feet from the window seats anyway.”

“Wow, so we’ll get to spread almost as easily as we did last winter. Some of the masks might help them, but those aren’t regulated either. They can be made out of any old hokey thin cloth, decorated with flowers.”

“Well, I have one other airline question. What about those older humans? And the ones with vulnerable medical conditions. Won’t they be isolated in a separate, protected area of the plane?”

“I’ve read a lot of their news stories, and nobody’s mentioned it. They might ask people if they’ve been sick or even take some of their temperatures. But we can spread from someone who doesn’t even know they’re infected.”

“About the masks. Don’t they have companies mass-producing millions of masks that are certified for the best possible protection, at affordable prices for the general public?”

“Nope. There are no standards at all for consumer-grade masks, and many states have decalared wearing masks optional. And only a portion of the medical supplies are purchased in bulk at the Federal level. The states have to bid against each other for tons of it.

“What about this reopening of restaurants, hair salons, beaches and all the rest?”

“The humans should have read their own history. They could just Google ‘San Francisco 1918 pandemic.’ After their world war ended, San Francisco held a big celebration in the streets. They took off their masks and threw them in the air, and danced like crazy. They opened their businesses way too soon. The flu came back with a huge spike and killed a lot of people. I heard that San Francisco’s current mayor is not going to let us get that same advantage. But plenty of other cities are willing to let us start spreading again.”

“Well, hey, I think we should terminate this conversation immediately.”

“Why is that?”

“We forgot to activate our communication suppressors. One of those humans might be listening.”

“OK. Are you and I still on for this afternoon?”

“Sure thing, buddy. See you at the beach!”

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. From a Distance – By Nanci Griffith, 1987, original version. Or Bette Midler, 1990
  2. Don’t Stand So Close to Me – The Police, 1980
  3. Behind the Mask – Fleetwood Mac, 1990
  4. A Year’s Worth of Distance – Kenny Loggins, 2007
  5. Keep Away From Me – Graham Nash, 1986
  6. Drop the Mask – Diana Ross, 1999
  7. Keeping My Distance – Martina McBride, 1997
  8. Mask Upon My Face – Jeff Bridges, 2000
  9. Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home – Joe South, 1969
  10. All By Myself – Nancy Sinatra

Lyrics to “Behind the Mask” by Fleetwood Mac – Written By Christine McVie

Don’t you come too close to me
You’re dangerous, can’t you see?
You can make the darkness mean more
Than it ever did, ever did before
(It’s a Devil’s disguise)
Angel in black
And I recognize the face behind the mask
(It’s a Devil’s disguise)
Angel in black
I don’t know if I want you back
You’re the cool nights of the desert
And the hot kisses of the sun
Why is it that I don’t believe you
When you say I’m the only one?
I know I’m the lonely one
(It’s a Devil’s disguise)
Angel in black
And I recognize the shadows from your past
(It’s a Devil’s disguise)
Angel in black
Don’t you know it’ll never last
The face behind the mask
There will never be a second chance for you
Oh no, not for you
(It’s a Devil’s disguise)
Angel in black and I recognize
The face behind the mask
(It’s a Devil’s disguise)
Angel in black
Don’t you know it’ll never last
The face behind the mask
(It’s a Devil’s disguise)
Angel in black and I recognize
The shadows from your past
(It’s a Devil’s disguise)
Angel in black
I don’t know if I want you back
I don’t know if I want you back
Don’t you know it’ll never last
The face behind the mask

If They Build It, Will We Come? – A Partial Solution to the Small Business Challenge

By Bill Oakey – May 6, 2020

The grand reopening of Austin’s economy scares the hell out of some people. And it is gleefully celebrated by others. Is there some kind of midpoint between staying home and shopping online, versus going out to restaurants and retail stores? Well, maybe there is, if local businesses could pool their resources and develop a new concept. I’ve been pondering this idea with some of the many hours of free time lately.

Try to imagine a giant food court with 50 or so restaurants and food vendors. Instead of being inside a mall, it would be set up in an outdoor area that people could drive to. It would be sort of like the restaurants at the airport, except you would drive up to your favorite one and get your food.

it would be an interesting challenge to design such a layout. It would need to accommodate a large number of cars, without requiring people to spend a long time waiting. There could actually be several concurrent lines of cars – one to enter the overall facility, and other sub-entrances inside the facility for each of the vendors. Architects might be able to come up with a few design options that would work. These would be dependent on the size of the facility. And of course, if the concept is successful, there could be several facilities of different sizes around Austin. These would need to be located away from the dense, core areas of the city.

Options for financing this type of venture could include the participation of large real estate or other companies that could develop the facilities and lease the spaces to the small businesses. One possibility might be to tap some undeveloped land and utilize it on a temporary basis.

It might be fun to have such places where people could go and feel safe. To complement our “Keep Austin Weird” motif, there might be all sorts of creative ways to liven up the atmosphere at these outdoor dining havens. Perhaps we could think of it as a Trail of Bites instead of a Trail of Lights. Video screens and speakers could be installed to provide some entertainment. This could include performances by local musicians.

The businesses could raise extra revenue by including some (but not too much) advertising on the video screens. Corporate sponsors could also participate in various ways with signs and art installations. Some vendors could have a speedy drive-through for people who want to just grab their meals and go. But they could also maintain a separate, more relaxed area for people to come and enjoy the entertainment while they’re eating or while they’re waiting for their food.

If the restaurant concept is deemed to be workable, then perhaps other retailers could set up drive-through stores in a similar type of outdoor layout. The technology setup for both the food and the miscellaneous other retail could be developed and enhanced over time. We could be stuck with the virus for many months, especially if it comes back in the fall and piggy-backs with the seasonal flu.

I can envision a portable device app that customers could use to do pre-orders before they arrive at the facility. The app would specify the lead time required for each type of purchase. For restaurants, there would be simple menus where you could tap on which items to order, along with daily specials that could be changed by the restaurant at will. The non-food retailers could have listings of products to choose from, along with coupons to tap on. A single app could be developed collaboratively and shared by all of the participating retailers. This would make things easier and more efficient for both the businesses and the customers

Some retailers could opt to have separate parking areas, in addition to a drive-through. In the parking areas, customers could request that an item be brought to a safe distance from their car, so they can take a closer look before deciding whether to buy.

This whole idea may seem like a lot of trouble for retailers who wold much rather have their customers come into the stores and browse and buy as they normally do. But these are not normal times. If the grand reopening of Texas leads to a big second wave of the virus, then large numbers of potential customers may choose to stay home. Having a new kind of onsite shopping option available for local businesses might be beneficial. This is especially true for businesses that are too small to maintain a major presence on the Internet, similar to Amazon.

The balancing act between preserving safety and boosting the economy is a tough nut to crack. But Austin should be a good place for people with the right technical skills and business expertise to explore new ways to defeat the silent enemy.