Category Archives: General Affordability Updates

Let’s Bring AISD Into the CodeNext Process – To Avoid An “Affordability Perfect Storm”

By Bill Oakey, January 22, 2018

The following is an email that I sent this morning to Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and City Council Member Alison Alter:

Hello Mayor Pro Tem Tovo & CM Alter:

At a meeting about affordability issues at AISD last week, I offered to try to help bring AISD and City officials closer together on CodeNext. So, let me introduce all of you in this email to Beth Wilson, AISD’s Director of Planning Services. I am also sending this email to Nicole Conley Johnson, Chief Financial Officer for AISD and her Executive Assistant, Amanda Ortiz.

It is my understanding that AISD would like to have much greater access to the CodeNext revision process, and to have their concerns addressed fully before the final draft is completed.

As an affordability and taxpayer advocate, I believe that CodeNext should be structured in a way that would allow families with children to remain in their homes. And new development in many existing neighborhoods should be affordable for families with children. In recent years, too many families have been forced to leave AISD because of high property taxes and gentrification.

We can see the devastating results reflected in AISD’s annual student enrollment drops. To add insult to injury, AISD is projected to send $2.6 billion in local tax revenue back to the State over the next five years, under the “Robin Hood” school finance system. This toxic combination of factors could result in an “affordability perfect storm” for AISD and Central Texas taxpayers.

Therefore, I strongly recommend that the City work closely with AISD to ensure that the CodeNext process not only includes full participation by AISD, but also implements code policies that reflect their concerns.

Thank you for any help you can provide to facilitate the engagement between the City and AISD. Below is an American-Statesman editorial that focuses on the importance of this collaboration:
Viewpoints: City should not overlook Austin ISD in CodeNext talks
 
By Editorial Board
Posted: 10:07 a.m. Friday, November 24, 2017
 

“We need a seat at the table.”

That is the message the Austin Independent School District is sending to the city of Austin with a proposed resolution regarding CodeNext that trustees are expected to approve Monday.

A firm statement outlining the district’s position on CodeNext is needed because city officials thus far have overlooked – if not ignored — Austin ISD’s input and concerns, though the district has a huge stake in the rewrite of city zoning and land-use rules, said Kendall Pace, president of the school board.

Consider that Austin ISD is one of the city’s largest property owners with 145 facilities. Its boundaries encompass 230 square miles, said chief financial officer Nicole Conley Johnson. That’s about three-fourths the size of New York City, about 305 square miles. With 11,500 employees, the district also is one of the region’s largest employers.

Austin ISD’s interests, however, go beyond property and employment issues. They include families. At this point, the district is losing families and students because of massive redevelopment in core neighborhoods — mostly in East Austin — that is displacing lower-income families with kids to make way for higher-income families with fewer or no children.

Even as Austin’s population is growing, the district’s enrollment, now at 82,000, is declining. Austin ISD administrators and trustees worry that without key changes to CodeNext, those trends will accelerate.

“Displacement of families living in those core Austin neighborhoods – and not competition from charter or private schools – is the primary driver for our enrollment declines,” Conley Johnson said.

Pace, Conley and others said they’ve tried to get a coordinated planning effort going with the city, but have been ping-ponged around different offices without progress.

That back-and-forth bureaucracy prompted Austin ISD officials to take a more public, forceful approach with something in writing they aim to back with a vote in hopes of grabbing the city’s attention: a resolution that mostly is centered around stabilizing enrollment declines by holding on to and creating more affordable housing.

Specifically, the resolution emphasizes the need for CodeNext to create more duplexes, townhomes, apartments and additional dwelling units that are affordable for families earning 60 percent or less of Austin’s median family income and housing for teachers and staff.

It also calls for limits on up-zoning that doesn’t help lower-income families, especially in areas affected by gentrification, such as East Austin.

Another request encourages the preservation of older-market, affordable, single-family detached homes, duplexes and multi-unit apartments by not increasing entitlements on existing properties without a clear affordability requirement.

The resolution calls for an expansion of incentives, such as density bonuses that permit developers to build taller or with greater density in exchange for benefits, such as affordable housing. But they should be combined with other incentives or funding to create permanently affordable housing instead of studio or one-bedroom apartments.

It’s worth noting that more than half Austin ISD students are economically disadvantaged. Their families depend on “deeply affordable” or subsidized housing. The resolution points out that most new housing units that are being built are small, expensive apartments and condos that aren’t family friendly. It notes that just 46 children were enrolled in Austin ISD in 6,895 new units that were sampled.

The district’s resolution also objects to CodeNext’s reductions for onsite parking in residential and commercial areas near schools, which they say could create safety problems for students and hinder access to school grounds.

In our view, those are legitimate concerns that should be addressed by the city sooner rather than later. The city’s lack of response so far only gives credence to critics who complain that the CodeNext rewrite is too heavily dominated by a narrow group of city staffers and paid consultants.

With so many unanswered questions regarding CodeNext, which would determine the city’s physical and economic makeup for decades to come, we recently called for a pause so the city could answer residents’ concerns. Following that, the city announced it would slow down the release of a third draft of CodeNext and perhaps push back its April deadline for approval.

That is progress. But the city must do more in ensuring that Austin residents understand how CodeNext – contained in more than 1,300 pages — would impact their communities, then seek their input on revising proposals that don’t address Austin’s affordability crisis, economic segregation and the displacement of families leaving Austin ISD because they no longer can afford the rent, mortgage or property taxes.

They should answer concerns of others, who point out that Austin needs more so-called missing-middle housing for the thousands of people flocking to Austin each year. Questions linger about how CodeNext would address Austin’s growing traffic congestion. Over the next decade, the city will need about 130,000 homes to fill Austin’s housing needs, city officials have said.

We understand that density, which allows more to be built on less land, is a way to address such challenges. But up-zoning for the sake of generating more housing — without an eye on whether that would worsen the housing crisis for working and low-income families, further segregate the city, or accelerate enrollment declines in public schools — could prove disastrous.

“We need a seat at the table,” Pace told us in explaining the need for the resolution. “We want input.”

The city should waste no time in making room for Austin ISD at the CodeNext discussion.

New Blog Launches To Help Support Austin’s Music Industry

By Bill Oakey – January 18, 2018

Anyone who has lived in Austin for a while knows that we are very proud of our nationally recognized creative industries. This includes music and all of the arts. But affordability issues have cut deeply into the well-being of many musicians, artists and venue owners. High rents caused by high property taxes and gentrification are the main sources of this problem.

So, today I am launching a new blog called, KeepAustinMusicAlive.com. This blog will feature occasional updates on efforts by local music and arts advocates to find solutions to some of the affordability issues. You will also find some entertaining surprises on the blog, beginning today. So, go ahead and click on it now and consider following KeepAustinMusicAlive.com.

The Scary Future For America’s Middle Class

The following commentary was published in The Conversation. Steven Pressman is a professor of economics at Colorado State University.

GOP tax plan doubles down on policies that are crushing the middle class

By Steven Pressman, December 20, 2017

The U.S. middle class has always had a special mystique.

It is the heart of the American dream. A decent income and home, doing better than one’s parents, and retiring in comfort are all hallmarks of a middle-class lifestyle.

Contrary to what some may think, however, the U.S. has not always had a large middle class. Only after World War II was being middle class the national norm. Then, starting in the 1980s, it began to decline.

President Donald Trump has portrayed the tax plan Congress is wrapping up as a boon for the middle class. The sad reality, however, is that it is more likely to be its final death knell.

To understand why, you need look no further than the history of the rise and decline of the American middle class, a group that I’ve been studying through the lens of inequality for decades.

The middle class rises

The middle class, which Pew defines as two-thirds to two times the national median income for a given household size, began to grow after World War II due to a surge in economic growth and because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal gave workers more power. Before that, most Americans were poor or nearly so.

For example, legislation such as the Wagner Act established rights for workers, most critically for collective bargaining. The government also began new programs, such as Social Security and unemployment insurance, that helped older Americans avoid dying in poverty and supported families with children through tough times. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, set up in 1933, helped middle-class homeowners pay their mortgages and remain in their homes.

Together, these new policies helped fuel a strong postwar economic boom and ensured the gains were shared by a broad cross-section of society. This greatly expanded the U.S. middle class, which reached a peak of nearly 60 percent of the population in the late ‘70s. Americans’ increased optimism about their economic future prompted businesses to invest more, creating a virtuous cycle of growth.

Government spending programs were paid for largely with individual income tax rates of 70 percent (and more) on wealthy individuals and high taxes on corporate profits. Companies paid more than one-quarter of all federal government tax revenues in the 1950s (when the top corporate tax was 52 percent). Today they contribute just 5 percent of government tax revenues.

Despite high taxes on the rich and on corporations, median family income (after accounting for inflation) more than doubled in the three decades after World War II, rising from $27,255 in 1945 to nearly $60,000 in the late 1970s.

The fall begins

That’s when things started to change.

Rather than supporting workers – and balancing the interests of large corporations and the interests of average Americans – the federal government began taking the side of business over workers by lowering taxes on corporations and the rich, reducing regulations and allowing firms to grow through mergers and acquisitions.

Since the late 1980s, median household incomes (different from family incomes because members of a household live together but do not need to be related to each other) have increased very little – from $54,000 to $59,039 in 2016 – while inequality has risen sharply. As a result, the size of the middle class has shrunk significantly to 50 percent from nearly 60 percent.

One important reason for this is that starting in the 1980s the role of government changed. A key event in this process was when President Ronald Reagan fired striking air-traffic control workers. It marked the beginning of a war against unions.

The share of the labor force that is organized has fallen from 35 percent in the mid-1950s to 10.7 percent today, with the largest drop taking place in the 1980s. It is not a coincidence that the share of income going to earners in the middle fell at the same time.

In addition, Reagan cut taxes multiple times during his time in office, which led to less spending to support and sustain the poor and middle class, while deregulation allowed businesses to cut their wage costs at the expense of workers. This change is one reason workers have received only a small fraction of their greater productivity in the form of higher wages since the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the real buying power of the minimum wage has been allowed to erode since the 1980s due to inflation.

While the middle class got squeezed, the very rich have done very well. They have received nearly all income gains since the 1980s.

In contrast, household median income in 2016 was only slightly above its level just before the Great Repression began in 2008. But according to new unpublished research I conducted with Monmouth University economist Robert Scott, the actual living standard for the median household fell as much as 7 percent due to greater interest payments on past debt and the fact that households are larger, so the same income does not go as far.

As a result, the middle class is actually closer to 45 percent of U.S. households. This is in stark contrast to other developed countries such as France and Norway, where the middle class approaches nearly 70 percent of households and has held steady over several decades.

The Republican tax plan

So how will the tax plan change the picture?

France, Norway and other European countries have maintained policies, such as progressive taxes and generous government spending programs, that help the middle class. The Republican tax package doubles down on the policies that have caused its decline in the U.S.

Specifically, the plan will significantly reduce taxes on the wealthy and large companies, which will have to be paid for with large spending cuts in everything from children’s health and education to unemployment insurance and Social Security. Tax cuts will require the government to borrow more money, which will push up interest rates and require middle-income households to pay more in interest on their credit cards or to buy a car or home.

The benefits of the Republican tax bill go primarily to the very wealthy, who will get 83 percent of the gains by 2027, according to the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank.

Meanwhile, more than half of poor and middle-income households will see their taxes rise over the next 10 years; the rest will receive only a small fraction of the total tax benefits.

From virtuous to vicious

While Republicans justify their tax plan by claiming corporations will invest more and hire more workers, thereby raising wages, companies have already indicated that they will mainly use their savings to buy back stock and pay more dividends, benefiting the wealthy owners of corporate stock.

So with most of the gains of the $1.5 trillion in net tax cuts going to the rich, the end result, in my view, is that most Americans will face falling living standards as government spending goes down, borrowing costs go up, and their tax bill rises.

This will lead to less economic growth and a declining middle class. And unlike the virtuous circle the U.S. experienced in the ‘50s and ’60s, Americans can expect a vicious cycle of decline instead.

Huge Enrollment Drop Coming To AISD

By Bill Oakey, January 12, 2018, Updated January 15, 2018

Two years ago, KXAN’s Kylie McGivern reported that AISD was projected to lose 6,140 students over the next decade. Since then, the school district has struggled to try to slow down this trend. Last year they implemented a new policy to allow out-of-district students to transfer free to AISD. That effort yielded some positive results, but not enough to change the fact that significant enrollment declines will continue. In an upcoming blog piece, I will delve into the latest numbers and discuss the demographics and housing aspects. Why is all of this happening? Most of it comes down to one word:

Affordability!

Austin’s precarious real estate boom is bringing lots of young hipsters and couples without children to town, who are living in multi-unit housing complexes. Families with children, living in single-family homes, are being taxed out of their homes in alarming numbers. See the KXAN news story for some perspective on what one of those families is going through. They do not want to leave Austin, and it’s a crying shame that so many are being forced out.

To add insult to injury, the second highest cost impact on family budgets, next to housing, is transportation. Most of the new roads being built for commuters are planned as toll roads. And nearly all of those will have so-called “managed lanes.” Those are the ones where the toll rates rise as the traffic increases. Longtime residents who have paid their taxes and contributed to their community for most of their lives will be forced to pay high monthly toll bills. Or else, they’ll be confined to the slow lanes, as they watch the wealthy zip by them in the express lanes. The deck is stacked against the very people who worked to make Austin the prime destination that it has become.

What Are the Implications for Taxpayers and AISD?

The financial impact of the big enrollment drop on AISD will be devastating. We need only to look to Portland to see what that trend looks like. Portland saw a massive school enrollment drop in the 1980’s, as they transitioned into a wealthy enclave. The big difference is that today Portland has a very efficient public transportation system that includes rail.

It is highly unlikely that Austin will ever be able to afford a citywide rail system. That’s because the City already has a daunting list of over $8 billion worth of plans. Rail is not on that list. Voters have already approved bond packages totaling $1.7 billion in City and AISD bonds in the last two years. And hundreds of millions in additional bond projects are in the pipeline. The City is on a scary path toward raising property taxes to the legal maximum of 8% every year. Where is all that money supposed to come from?  Do they think we all have sacks full of money just lying around? How much debt can the City handle? And most importantly, is this kind of cost spiral even sustainable. I think not!

As for AISD, they are most likely headed for an “affordability perfect storm.” The State’s Robin Hood school finance system, known as “recapture,” diverts hundreds of millions of dollars of our local tax money into other school districts across Texas. Consider this quote from AISD’s website:

“Austin ISD is the single largest payer of recapture in the state. Our payment alone comprises 13 percent of all state collections. During the next five years—between fiscal years 2016 and 2020—Austin ISD is projected to pay almost $2.6 billion in recapture payments to the state. By 2019, more than half of every tax dollar collected in Austin will go to the state.”

AISD’s projected student enrollment drop only exacerbates the problem. Fewer students generate less State revenue. AISD receives $7,390 annually for each student enrolled. It’s easy to see that declines of several hundred students per year translate into millions of dollars lost.

Whenever district officials recommend consolidating or closing under-enrolled schools, parents complain and slow down the inevitable transition. The delays lead to costly expenses to operate and maintain those schools. Meanwhile, as home property appraisals, school operating costs and bond payments escalate, taxpayers get slammed with a cost spiral that forces them to leave Austin. That generates further enrollment declines. The only way out of this vicious cycle would be school finance reform at the State Legislature. We need much more public focus on that issue, along with a coordinated effort by City, County and AISD officials to push for reform. Failure to achieve that goal could imperil Austin’s hopes for continued economic success.

A “Crazy” Letter to the Editor

Austin American-Statesman, january 5, 2018

Re: Dec. 30 article, “Austin Will Appeal Its Most Recent Court Loss Involving the Texas Open Meetings Act.”

I applaud City Council Member Alison Alter for asking city staff to study and recommend legally required agenda-posting procedures. However, it’s shameful that it took two court rulings in the people’s favor to prompt this action. The city of Austin was founded in 1839. It shouldn’t have taken them 178 years to learn how to properly prepare their meeting notices — 179 before the study is completed.

We can at least be thankful for one thing. The City Council meetings have never failed to keep us entertained, befuddled and amused. In the words of Paul Simon, the folks at City Hall are “still crazy after all these years.”

BILL OAKEY, AUSTIN

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “Still Crazy After All These Years” – Paul Simon
  2. “That Song Is Driving Me Crazy” – Tom T. Hall
  3. “Crazy” – Written and recorded by Willie Nelson, 1962
  4. “Crazy” – Patsy Cline version
  5. “Crazy ‘Bout Ya Baby” – The Crew Cuts
  6. “Crazy Arms” – Willie Nelson & Ray Price
  7. “Crazy Baby” – Doug Sahm
  8. “Crazy Talk” – Brenda Lee
  9. “She’s Crazy for Leaving” – Guy Clark
  10. “Crazy Man, Crazy” – Bill Haley & His Comets

Save Money Under The New Tax Bill – Pay Your 2017 Property Taxes By December 31st

By Bill Oakey – December 27, 2017, Updated December 28, 2017

Please note: Your 2017 property tax bill is not due until January 31, 2018. This blog piece offers a suggestion to pay it by December 31st, to take advantage of changes to itemized deductions in the new Federal income tax law. But, you cannot claim a 2017 Federal tax deduction by prepaying your 2018 property taxes. The 2018 property tax bills will not be generated until the fall of next year.

If you itemize your income tax deductions, you could save money by paying your 2017 property taxes by December 31st, this Sunday. The new Federal tax bill puts a $10,000 cap on state and local taxes that you can deduct. This change takes effect in 2018. So, if your property tax bill is higher than $10,000, paying it by December 31st could give you a one-time cost savings. You might want to consult with a tax accountant to evaluate your best option.

Your 2017 tax bill was mailed to you several weeks ago. You can also look it up on the Travis County Tax Office website. If you want to pay it by mail by December 31st, follow these guidelines from the Travis County Tax Office. Payments made with a U.S. Postal Service postmark on the due date are considered timely. Commercial postal meter imprints are not considered postmarks for the purpose of determining timely payments.

As to why those property taxes are so high, and what can be done about that, here’s a parting thought. Go ahead and enjoy the parties on New Year’s Eve. Then, check back with this blog in the New Year. There will be plenty of adventures ahead in the battle for affordability!

Keep Austin Music Alive!

By Bill Oakey – December 19, 2017

As 2017 draws to a close, Austin residents and tourists alike need to be very concerned about the future of our live music scene. Popular music venues have been forced to close because of high rents and land sales. Saving our art and music venues is one of those “action items” that we can’t afford to leave sitting on a shelf in a City report.

I Have a Photo to Match the Message

I entered this photo into Mozart’s and the Hula Hut’s “All About Texas Christmas Lights”  photo contest. If it suits your fancy, please go to this link. Click anywhere in the photo. Then click the blue “Like” button below the photo, to vote for it in the Audience Choice Award. Midnight Thursday is the deadline. Thanks!

“Keep Austin Music Alive!” – Photo by Bill Oakey

Are You Ready To Pay $44 For One-Way Tolls?

By Bill Oakey – December 18, 2017

The Washington Post reported on Friday that the peak toll rate on I-66 leading from Northern Virginia into Washington D.C. hit $44 on Thursday morning. Just looking at the sign is enough to make you gasp. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. But look out for the Grinch! Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne told the newspaper earlier this month that the tolls are higher than many anticipated. But, he said, “There is nothing unfair about the new system. It is working as intended.” However, this past Thursday, one angry driver tweeted the photo shown below, with the hashtag #HighwayRobbery:

Central Texas Officials Should Learn a Lesson From Virginia

Just like Texas, Virginia has a town called Fredericksburg. Drivers there have been seething mad about high tolls on “managed lanes” for quite a while now. Their local newspaper even has a transportation column called, “Getting There,” just like the Ben Wear series in the Austin American-Statesman. Check out this fascinating quote from a “recovering I-95 commuter” who quit using the Fredericksburg, Virginia toll road:

“This column recently ran figures tallied by a Stafford County resident who gave up commuting because of the costs. His calculation came out to $26.30 to travel to work and $35.55 to travel back home, or $526 monthly to get to work and $711 to get home, totaling $1,237 monthly. The recovering commuter found that if he hadn’t gotten off the toll wagon, his commute would run him about $15,000 a year.”

You can read my recent op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman on the foolhardiness of tearing the guts out of I-35 over several years to put in four “managed toll lanes.” Last week the Texas Transportation Commission reaffirmed Gov. Greg Abbott’s and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s mandate to kill the I-35 toll lane proposal, at least for now. The managed-lane mania that is sweeping Central Texas cannot be allowed to continue!

Santa Claus Enters the Texas Toll Road Debate

Back in November, the Dallas Morning News reported on a new group of highway industry interests who have launched an effort to promote toll roads. They are calling themselves “Texans for Traffic Relief.” Group spokesman David White had this to say in the press announcement. “Raising taxes is off the table, so if we aren’t going to take advantage of innovative opportunities to fund our roads, then I guess we can just ask Santa Claus to pick up the tab.”

But Poor Ol’ Santa Is Facing Problems Of His Own!

Let’s take a whimsical look at what might happen to The Man With the Beard and the Sleigh just a few years from now. At a future Texas Transportation Commission meeting, here’s what will probably unfold:

“Mr. Chairman and Commissioners, I represent the CTRMA, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. Our toll collections on North MoPac and South MoPac have far exceeded our expectations. We are so delighted with the huge, expanding revenue stream that we would like to be first in Texas to propose a bold new initiative.”

“Today we are announcing a project called “Sky Lanes Texas,” which will be the nation’s first venture into managed toll lanes in the sky. We believe that innovation is the key to solving 21st century transportation challenges. The rapid proliferation of driverless sky taxis, Amazon delivery drones and other new technologies calls for us to come forward with a safe and effective system for relieving traffic congestion in the sky.”

“Since we are approaching the Christmas holiday season, let me address a persistent issue regarding a Mr. Kris Kringle, sometimes known as Jolly Old Saint Nick, or Santa Claus. CTRMA has been asked to clarify whether this gentlemen will be permitted to access the Texas Sky Lanes without paying any tolls. Our Board of Directors has accepted the recommendations of both consultants that we hired. Mr. Claus and his reindeer will be placed into the same category as wounded and disabled U.S. veterans. While we appreciate his service to Texas children, we will not be offering him free Sky Lane access at this time. But I would like to take this opportunity to wish all the good citizens of the Great State of Texas a very happy holiday season, and…especially…a very prosperous New Year!”

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “Are You Ready” – Abraham Mateo
  2. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” – Frank Sinatra
  3. “Here Comes Santa Claus” – Gene Autry
  4. “Little Saint Nick” – The Beach Boys
  5. “Up On the House Top” – Unknown Children’s Choir
  6. “Santa Baby” – Eartha Kitt

City Needs Vigorous Protections For Whistleblowers

By Bill Oakey, December 12, 2017

If anybody out there does not agree with the need to protect whistleblowers, they should keep reading and seriously rethink that position. Thanks to an excellent article by American-Statesman reporter, Elizabeth Findell, we learned late Friday that the City’s Ethics Review Commission has subpoenaed statements provided to the City Auditor’s office by a whistleblower, alleging wrongdoing by another City employee. The ethics panel’s new subpoena powers were just approved by the City Council six months ago. They felt it was necessary because of previous occasions where people whose ethics were under review either refused to cooperate with the commission, or pulled a no-show. (Can you say Don Zimmerman…)?

Now the pot is boiling at City Hall. The case at hand alleges that former police monitor, Margo Frasier, used her City computer to conduct some private consulting business. The City Auditor’s Office provides investigative support for all alleged cases of wrongdoing, from financial fraud to discrimination and harassment. Last month, the Ethics Review Commission voted 6-2 to subpoena the investigative auditor’s notes and records pertaining to the Frasier case. The Auditor’s Office turned their investigative records over to the commission. But so far, the whistleblower’s identity and direct statements have not been publicly revealed. This Thursday the City Council will revisit their decision to grant unlimited subpoena powers to the Ethics Review Commission.

Three Cheers for Kathie Tovo and Leslie Pool!

The Mayor Pro Tem and Council member told the Statesman that they feel strongly about the need to protect whistleblowers. Who would want to come forward if their names and faces will be flashed on the side of a building at the Next Big Festival? Who would want to risk retaliation by a supervisor or threats from the alleged wrongdoer, or both?

Hey Guys, the Taxpayers Have a Stake In This Deal

Waste, fraud and abuse can add up to a lot of our money. The distractions caused by inappropriate behavior and activities can ripple throughout an office and hamper the productivity of everyone there. So, I recommend that the City take whistleblower protection one step further. Not only should they be granted confidentiality, but he City needs to proactively encourage confidential reporting of misdeeds. I completely agree with City Auditor, Corrie Stokes. She told the Statesman that allowing the Ethics Review Commission to publicly disclose the names of whistleblowers would have a chilling affect on their willingness to come forward. Nathan Wiebe, Chief of Investigations for the City Auditor, gave me this quote for the blog: “If me don’t protect whistleblowers, then we put the entire system at risk.”

The City Council Should Consider Taking the Following Actions on Thursday

  1. Amend the ordinance granting subpoena powers to the Ethics Review Commission. Exclude whistleblowers and their attorneys, and redact their names from all notes and documents turned over to the Ethics Review Commission by the Auditor’s Office.
  2. Adopt a policy that all employees be required to receive training on how to recognize activities and behaviors that are prohibited under various governmental laws and City rules.
  3. Provide written assurance to all employees that they can freely report misconduct to the City Auditor’s office, and be granted full confidentiality throughout any investigations or proceedings by any City department or citizen panel empowered by the City.
  4. Establish a guiding principle throughout the City organization that employees have a duty to protect the public and their tax dollars by discouraging improper activities and behaviors, and encouraging the reporting of such, with full faith that the employees’ identities will not be disclosed.
  5. Adopt policies and procedures to identify false reporting of misdeeds, and establish penalties for those responsible.

The City Attorney could advise the City Council on various strategies and best practices that have worked successfully in The World Outside of Austin (my favorite place to look when doing blog research).

I contacted the City Auditor’s office to learn more about their interactions with the Ethics Review Commission. Their office routinely sends staff to attend commission meetings to speak and answer questions. When needed, the audit staff can communicate further between commission meetings. This arrangement gives the commission sufficient information to determine whether to assess penalties or recommend prosecution. And it keeps any whistleblowers at the proper arm’s-length distance from public view.

Let’s Not Forget One Other Thing

Thursday is also the delayed final date for the Big Decision that I blogged about recently. The City Council…lucky them…will get to decide whether to protect the City Budget’s General Fund and stay within the legal maximum property tax increases for years to come. I’m talking about the huge pay raises in the unaffordable police contract.

Update: The City Has Changed the Date and Time of the Police Contract Agenda Item to 3:00 Today

The Council may have to lean on each other for support, in order to do the right thing. That would be to send the parties back to the negotiating table. I won’t be brave enough to watch the dramatic vote live on TV. Any of the Stephen King movies saved on my DVR would be less scary to watch!

Musical and Poetic Accompaniment for This Blog Piece

The auditing profession received a serious black eye in 2002 when some of the firm, Arthur Andersen’s auditors were found guilty of criminal charges in the notorious Enron scandal. There should have been a song written about it. But since there wasn’t, I took that chore upon myself and composed a satire of the Bobby Darin hit, “If I Were a Carpenter.”

If I Were an Auditor, By Bill Oakey

If I were an auditor
And you were a lady
Would you marry me anyway
Would you have my baby

If accounting were my trade
Would you still find me
Covering the tracks I made
Following behind me

Save your love through loneliness
Save your love for sorrow
Baby help me get out of this place
Help me face tomorrow

If I dipped my hands in fraud
Would you still love me
Answer me babe, yes I would
I’d place you above me

If I were a CEO
With a big jet flying
Would you run my shredder for me
While I’m testifying

Save your love through loneliness
Save your love for sorrow
Now it’s time for me for me to leave this world
I can’t face tomorrow

If I were an auditor
And you were a lady
Would you bury me anyway
And take care of my baby (!)

Would You Vote For $600 Million In City Bond Projects – Every Year For Five Years In A Row?

By Bill Oakey, December 6, 2017

Think of our city as one big extended family. That family has to look out for each of its members. Now, put that into context with your own family. The holiday shopping season is now underway. Your inbox overflows with tempting cyber-this and hyper-that offers. All you have to do is type in your credit card number and click…

But somewhere in the pit of your stomach, you know it’s not quite that simple. Your family has to stay within a budget. You and your spouse, the kids, and the other folks on your shopping list  can only have what your family can afford. Unless, that is, you are reckless enough to pile on the debt and t refuse to take it seriously.

In 2014, Austin voters faced a billion dollar bond election for one sliver of a citywide urban rail system. We were told then that it would double the City’s outstanding debt. We voted against those bonds for several reasons, even though many of us support rail in a general transportation plan. So, here we are three years later. The City’s Bond Election Review Task Force really is considering $3 billion in bond-funded projects over the next five years.

Look at the big picture here. Where does that leave Travis County? What about AISD, ACC and Central Health? And where does it keave us as taxpayers? The City Budget is so tight that its share of our property taxes are in danger of doubling in nine years. And with new debt on top of that, it could be even worse.

I was a little rough on AISD in a recent blog posting. When their CFO reached out to me, I softened just a little, and requested a meeting to talk things over. Wish me luck as I try to convince AISD to stay very close to their low estimate on the cost to refurbish their new headquarters building.

Let’s try to end this on a brighter note. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt gets it. In fact, here’s how she painted the picture when we discussed the long list of “needs” that our local governments think they have to have. She said this, “If you load too many ornaments on the Christmas tree, it will topple over.” Then she graciously accepted the challenge to work with the City, starting early next year on a “Go Big” on affordability initiative. I have since received some positive signals from City Council members.

Enjoy the holidays with your family. But don’t click too many of those online offers without remembering your wallet!

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece

1. “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” – Elmo & Patsy
2. “Christmas In Jail” – Asleep at the Wheel
3. “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” – Gayla Peevey
4. “Nuttin’ for Christmas” – Barry Gordon
5. “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas” – Allan Sherman
6. “Monster Holiday” – Lon Chaney
7. “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” – Spike Jones
8. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” – Jimmy Boyd