Category Archives: General Affordability Updates

Price-Gouging For Soccer Stadium Parking Casts Shame Upon Austin

IBy Bill Oakey – June 16, 2021

If you think you have seen eliteism and utter disdain for “regular Austinites” of modest means, wait till you hear about this! The sorry, stuck-up snobs who crammed a soccer stadium into a North Austin neighborhood, with poor road access and only 835 on-site parking spaces, have another treat in store for you. I won’t ask you to take my word for it. Just look at these parking prices for the “Semi Final” (misspelled) game on July 29th. (Click to enlarge photos):

I have to wonder what type of person would pay $50 to park anywhere to do anything. If they have that little regard for money, why not just crumple all of the bills in their wallet into a sweaty ball and toss it onto the ground? Let somebody have it who can really do something useful with it. I might consider paying $50 parking to witness the first landing of visitors from another planet, if they were guaranteed to be friendly.

For a more down-to-earth parking arrangement and pricing for MLS soccer, check out the convenient, on-site parking for $10.00 at Toyota Stadium for the Dallas FC. You might have noticed that the $50 parking slots for the big game here on July 29th are not sold out. Nor are the $25 shuttle reservations, for which you get to hike 8/10th of a mile in the scorching heat, to the open-air Q2 Stadium. Once the fans get settled into their seats, it will be hot enough to fry an egg on the concrete. For the half-billion dollars that the team owners spent, you would think they could have built a covered, climate-controlled stadium.

The North Austin neighbors living next to the stadium wonder what their lives will be like, once the hordes of vehicles descend upon their streets and intersections for various upcoming events. To hear Capital Metro tell it, there will be rows upon rows of buses running up and down dozens of streets across town, taking giddy fans to the stadium. But the reality is that most Austinites have never set foot on a city bus. The low income folks who relied on Capital Metro for years to get to work, saw their neighborhood bus routes taken away a few years ago. The lucky ones who still have bus service have to transfer two or three times to get anywhere.

So, that leaves only one remaining hope for soccer fans who don’t want to pay exorbitant parking prices. They can take Uber or Lyft. At least their surge pricing doesn’t usually kick in until the return trip. But this sets up quite an interesting spectacle. Just close your eyes and try to imagine – 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 or 15,000 rideshare vehicles, inching along toward an uncertain destiny, in the greatest series of epic traffic Jams in the history of Texas!

Now, that’s something that I might pay a premium to see – in a comfortable, air conditioned helicopter ride.

A Big Shock Is Coming When The Soccer Stadium Opens!

By Bill Oakey – May 10, 2021

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

Where In the World Are People Supposed to Park?

The grand new stadium will open with just 2,000 on-site parking spaces. It comes with a seating capacity of 20,000. Well, surely our City officials, team owners and master planners figured out how to resolve that little nagging problem many months ago. Right? In a word, that would more accurately be put, Nope! Not a chance.

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

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

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

Just Imagine the Scene at the Opening Home Game!

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

A Closing Poem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Bill Oakey – May 5, 2021

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

My First Encounter With the City Budget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Name Is Bill And I Would Like To Lower Yours

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

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

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

The last line became my slogan.

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

In 1983, Austin Was Scared About Its Future

By Bill Oakey – May 2, 2021

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

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

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

BOOMING AUSTIN FEARS IT WILL LOSE ITS CHARMS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Austin Can Apply COVID Rescue Funds To Tax Relief

By Bill Oakey – April 27, 2021

Winning a battle to help the taxpayers is not an easy task. It’s like climbing up a hill backwards during a snowstorm in the dark. But it can be done, and this time it really must be done!

Get Ready To Go Down Into The Weeds!

This is what I have learned so far in researching the Federal American Rescue Plan Act. I am sharing this information with the Austin City Council:

1. Drill down on the American Rescue Plan details. Here is a good summary.

Take note of Item 2. on Page 17, under “Allandale Use of Funds”:

2. for the provision of government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue (i.e. online, property or income tax) due to the public health emergency.

This provision nails it. Austin has lost sales tax, property tax and various fee revenues since the pandemic began. These revenue losses can be covered with American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds. Some or all of the City’s projected budget shortfall can be covered with these funds. Here’s how to determine the exact amount:

This information is from the bottom of Page 2, in this Texas Municipal League document.

Eligible uses of ARP funds include:

– Responding to the public health emergency with respect to Covid-19 or its negative economic impacts, including assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits, or aid to impacted industries such as tourism, travel, and hospitality.

– Responding to workers performing essential work during the pandemic by providing premium pay to eligible workers performing services inside recipients’ territories, or to eligible employers that have eligible workers who perform essential work.

– Providing government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue of such recipient due to the pandemic relative to revenues collected in the most recent full fiscal year of the recipient prior to the pandemic.

– Necessary investment in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.

The third bullet applies to our City Budget. Our most recent full fiscal year prior to the pandemic was FY 2019. It appears that pandemic-related revenue losses in the FY 2020 Budget are covered by the Rescue Plan funds, to the extent that the added revenues will bring the total up to the FY 2019 level, for each type of revenue. This provision does not make clear whether any FY 2021 revenue losses can be replenished with Rescue Plan funds. Please address this question to the Texas Municipal League or the U.S. Treasury. If I find out, I will let you know. You have until December 31, 2024 to spend the Rescue Plan funds. So, you could easily apply them to next year’s Budget, and provide relief on taxes and fees.

2. The Rescue Plan funds can be used for various health initiatives and social services. Many of these programs are funded annually in the City Budget. It seems to me that you should be able to apply the Rescue Plan funds directly to those eligible services, in lieu of property taxes. That would be in addition to the revenue shortfalls that you are allowed to cover.

Here’s the Bottom Line

You folks on the City Council have a unique opportunity to bring tax relief to homeowners and small businesses during this stressful period of the pandemic. This should be an easy win-win for everyone concerned. Think about these words from the recent KXAN News story:

Patrick Brown, a former Travis County chief appraiser, said with people already strained, an increase in the property tax calculation cap may put too much of a tax burden on Austinites. 

“It’s definitely going to affect all the commercial properties and land, and rental properties and the landlords, particularly ones that have acquired a mortgage loan in the last two or three years,” Brown said. 

That, in turn, he said will affect rental rates. 

“And that could push a number of residents out into the periphery and make Austin even less affordable than it is already,” he said.

Stay Tuned and We Shall See What Happens…

The next step is to ask the Travis County Commissioners to use part of their $247.1 million in Rescue Plan Funds for property tax relief. This news article makes no mention of their planning to do any such thing.

Welcome To Austin’s Newest Mass Transit Bureaucracy

By Bill Oakey, April 20, 2021

First of all, the pandemic has upended the old historic model of mass transit. But, does the City Council and Capital Metro recognize that? Have they modified the plans for Project Connect the way other major cities are doing? Ridership has decreased dramatically, peak times have shifted and routes have been altered. See these two extraordinary articles:

2. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Austin taxpayers face a bleak future of spiraling property tax increases for a new bureaucratic morass that may not even succeed in their mission. Unless we have strong oversight and rigid accountability standards, the high cost will displace many thousands of longtime Austin residents.

1. The City of Austin’s property tax increase this year for the Project Connect plan  is 8.75 cents per $100 valuation. That is almost as high as the 11 cent tax for Central Health, and even closer to Austin Community College’s 10.6 cent tax!

2. The City and Capital Metro created a whole new bureaucracy for implementing Project Connect’s $7.1 billion plan. It is called the Austin Transit Partnership. I have tried several online searches for “Austin Transit Partnership budget,” and cannot find one that is published anywhere. So, who can tell us how this year’s 23%, 8.75 cent City property tax increase, that is almost as high as ACC and Central Heath is being spent?

3. The $7.1 billion transit plan was sold to the voters as an “initial investment.” The final cost for a citywide plan would easily be 3 to 4 times that amount in local funding.  In 2016, Seattle voters approved a $54 billion plan to expand their existing rail system. By 2019 it was already over budget!

4. I am proposing to the City Council an annual public review process for the Austin Transit Partnership budget. It would closely follow the City’s budget process, with a proposed budget released a few months ahead of final adoption. This would be followed by 2 or 3 public hearings, with City Council members present. The final budget would have to be approved by our elected City Council. I am also asking for this year’s budget for our 23% property tax increase (8.75 cents) to be published and posted online.

5. The new Austin Transportation Partnership is busy recruiting coordinators, facilitators, liaisons and all manner of other bureaucrats to begin the process of studying and evaluating the approach to formulating the implementation of Project Connect’s $7.1 billion plan (!) Check out this colorfully worded job posting for “Manager, Board Relations:” The very first sentence has a typo with repeated words:
Manager, Board Relations
“The Manager Board Relations reports directly to the reports directly to the General Counsel and Chief Administrative Officer.“

Here is one of my favorite bullet points in the job posting:

“Develop and maintain viable systems and procedures to implement board policy providing knowledgeable input to the Board in their decision-making process.”

6. There are serious questions as to whether the proposed downtown tunnel is even feasible. The fault that runs north and south through underground Austin poses major engineering challenges. And our downtown streets were elevated several feet in the late 1800’s, because of severe flooding. In the 1980’s, an amateur explorer crawled through a narrow tunnel and discovered what remains of the old downtown streets. He showed a film to the City Council. This evidence of a previous downtown, and why it was buried still lies beneath us today, shrouded in mystery.

Musical Accompaniment For This Blog Piece:

1. “Ambrose (Part 5)” – Linda Laurie, 1958
2. “To Tell the Truth TV Show” – featuring Linda Laurie

San Francisco Is Worried That Austin Is Becoming Like San Francisco!

By Bill Oakey – April 19, 2021

My cousin pointed me to a Bloomberg Business article that clearly shows how out of whack things are getting here. People from the Silicon Valley have been coming here for years because  they liked Austin. That’s the Austin that had a thriving live music scene, a funky “keep it weird” vibe and lots of other things that the locals created. For many of us, it’s been fun meeting the new people at various festivals and other events.

But, what happens when the very factors that drove people out of California start happening right here? Well, we don’t have to wait long to find out. I will provide a link to the “San Francisco Is Worried” story. But first, here are a few things they need to think about before and after they get here. Maybe one of their high tech think tanks could discuss these, and then sit down with the folks on our City Council. Here’s what they need to know…

To The Good People Of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley:

Our transportation system will get much worse before it gets better!

Last year, Austin voters were promised a dazzling crosstown rail system, with a downtown tunnel, and two lines crossing Lady Bird Lake. One of those will extend to the airport. The grand plan, which was easily approved by voters, is riddled with problems. For starters, the “initial investment” of $7.1 billion won’t go very far. In 2016, Seattle approved a $54 billion expansion of their existing rail system, and it is already over budget. Our new system, even if it could be built on a wing and a prayer, will leave several of Austin’s busiest roadways with only one car lane in each direction.

I requested detailed feasibility and engineering studies, prior to the bond election. Why were they not provided to me? Because they don’t exist. Studies were set to begin many months after voters bought the plan and started paying taxes for it. The plans call for two crossings over the lake, but doesn’t specify where, how, or even whether enough land is available or could be acquired near either crossing. Nobody has been able to figure that one out yet.

The downtown tunnel is a dead-on-arrival pipe dream. A fault runs under part of downtown, causing occasional leaks into basements in buildings. There are numerous utility fixtures under the downtown streets. The rock in the ground is so hard that utility contractors have a difficult time even drilling a small space for a maintenance vehicle to squeeze through. Project Connect’s fairy tale image of people sipping cocktails across from an underground rail station, while grooving to a live band are positively hilarious!

Wait Till Austinites See Their Property Tax Bills Later This Year!

The $7.1 billion “initial investment” by taxpayers is only a drop in the bucket for the expected final cost. Any modern citywide rail and expanded bus system would easily cost 3 to 4 times that much in local funding. This year’s 8.75 cent property tax for the sure-to-fail-rail is almost as high as the 11 cent annual tax for our entire Central Health System. And it’s even closer to our 10.6 cent tax for Austin Community College. In my next blog piece, I will introduce you to the boondoggle bureaucracy that will “enhance, engage and facilitate” the implementation of the big fairy tale plan.

Perhaps I’ve Said Enough for One Tough Swallow!

I wouldn’t want to spoil anyone’s lovely welcome from San Francisco, before they even get their moving boxes off the truck. So, I won’t bemoan the fact that I-35 will be torn apart for 10 or 15 years with new construction, at the very same time that rail construction rips up the streets across the city. And I’ll say no more about the hapless diggers who will try to bore their way under our downtown streets. Oh, and I almost forgot to say this to our kind and gentle friends from San Francisco…Welcome to Austin!

And Now For That Entertaining Story…Click the Headline:

Silicon Valley Is Flooding Into a Reluctant Austin

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

1. “San Francisco “ – Scott McKenzi
2. “San Franciscan Nights” – Eric Burdon & The Animals
3. “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” – Tony Bennett
4. “Fairytale” – The Pointer Sisters

KXAN Forecasts Historic Wave Of Property Tax Protests

By Bill Oakey – April 16, 2021

Just as Austinites began enjoying the marvelous joys of spring weather, amid hopeful signs of finally escaping the pandemic, a thunderous roar could be heard reverberating across the city. On Thursday afternoon, the initial sounds were much quieter – little mouse clicks and computer keystrokes. And the nearly silent taps and swipes across phones and tablets. Then came the sweeping surge of audible gasps, quickly followed by various combinations of howls, shrieks and screams. Many people exclaimed out loud, “How could this even be possible!!??” The Travis Central Appraisal District’s website went live with this year’s stunning property tax appraisals.

On the evening local news, KXAN became the first to report on the story. Click here for the video, or read about it below:

Tax Experts Anticipate More Home Appraisal Protests Than Ever

By Kevin Clark, April 15, 2021

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the local housing market changes dramatically, hundreds of thousands in Travis County are getting their home appraisals from the Travis Central Appraisal District for this year. The numbers are important because they’re used to calculate property taxes. But tax experts tell KXAN they expect more homeowners than ever to fight back.Last year, TCAD says there were 127,000 protests. This year, even more are expected.

“We’ve already had folks calling us and asking us to help them, anticipating that ‘hard hit’ in those values,” said Debra Bawcom, CEO of Texas ProTax, which helps represent homeowners who want to protest the values set by the appraisal district. (Link provided by this blog).

As it does around this time every year, TCAD has begun sending out appraisal notices. But as housing demand continues to skyrocket, the appraisal district is reporting higher median home values. In 2020, Travis County’s median home value was $354,622. This year, TCAD says it has reached $413,403. The only year this number didn’t go up from the previous year was last year — that’s when the appraisal district froze appraisals because of a data dispute.

“I think it’s going to really shock the property owner how much that value is going to increase because the appraisal district is going to have to play catch up now for two years,” Bawcom said.

Bill Oakey is just one homeowner feeling the effect. He owns one-third of a triplex in West Austin. According to the appraisal notice Oakey received, its value went up 55% from last year.“The first thing that occurred to me was that the alarm was going to go off, I’m going to wake up and tell everyone about the bad dream I just had,” he told us.

Property owners have until May 17 to protest their appraisals. From there, homeowners can try and reach a settlement with TCAD informally or have a formal hearing in front of the Appraisal Review Board. More details on the process and timelines can be found here. Texas law caps increases of tax-assessed value to 10% per year for those with homestead exemptions. Anything above that is ripe for a protest, which is exactly what Oakey plans.

“I’m going to try to become an example of how you can win,” he said.

If You Thought It Couldn’t Get Any Crazier, Think Again!

By Bill Oakey – March 28, 2021

The U.S. Congress took up their investigation of the Texas power blackout last week. And the bumbling, bungling shenanigans of Texas officialdom went on full display. When you read the editorial below, ask yourself this question – If you owned a large Texas business, would you hire any of the numbskulls from ERCOT, or the political hacks that interact with or pretend to oversee them? The gang that couldn’t shoot straight was called upon the carpet in Washington. Here’s what happened…

Editorial – The Houston Chronicle

By the Editorial Board, March 28, 2021

Texas leaders, get tough on grid security

Human mistakes shut off the electricity. Now the humans in charge must do their jobs.

It wasn’t the wind turbines. It wasn’t natural gas. It wasn’t coal that was to blame in the blackout that killed 111 people across Texas.

The truth is all those power sources went offline at some point during last month’s winter storm, not because they were “renewable” or “base load” or “liberal” or “conservative” fuels but because generators and pipeline owners chose not to weatherize their equipment for a predictable winter storm. Some gas operators chose not to fill out a simple two-page form to exempt their operations from losing power during rolling blackouts and other shortages.

They chose not to do these things because nobody in Texas government required them to.

Let’s stop wasting time, as U.S. House members did in a hearing last week, bickering over which political party’s preferred natural resource saved the day and which caused death and destruction.

The culprit was not vegetable or mineral. It was human.

It was the people in Texas government who had the duty to secure Texas’ power grid and refused. The people who had the power to protect millions of Texans from an accident waiting to happen and opted to just let it happen. The people who chose not to require that companies delivering life-sustaining energy do so responsibly, opting instead to make basic emergency planning optional.

It is elected officials, political appointees, and well-compensated executives who, more than a month after the catastrophic failure of Texas’ power grid, refuse to take true responsibility or move with urgency to fix the problems.

The shameful show of finger-pointing and shallow concern hit the national stage Wednesday as several Texas officials testified before Congress on the impact and causes of February’s storm.

One moment served as a glaring allegory of Texas deflection: Railroad Commission Chairman Christi Craddick was asked whether she, as the state’s top oil and gas regulator, would start requiring operators to fill out a short form that keeps their power from being shut off during outages.

The question by U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey should have been a no-brainer. Craddick herself had testified that in the middle of the blackouts, crews returning to gas fields found they couldn’t restart production because they’d lost power for their equipment.

“Frozen roadways prevented crews from going out, but the No. 1 problem was a lack of power at the production sites,” she said.

That problem, as Houston Chronicle reporters Jay Root, Eric Dexheimer and Jeremy Blackman reported this month, was the result of gas production plant owners not filling out simple paperwork to become designated as “critical facilities,” making them exempt as hospitals are from having their power cut so they can keep supplying fuel to power plants.

Even so, Craddick wouldn’t commit to requiring the form, only saying that her agency had sent letters to all operators “suggesting” that they file it. She also insisted that she hadn’t “realized this form existed” before the winter storm and that power grid operator ERCOT should have done a better job getting the word out about the exemptions. Never mind that her name was on the letterhead of a 2013 Railroad Commission memo explaining the exemptions and urging natural gas facilities to apply.

“But do you don’t think it should be required?” Veasey pushed back.

Craddick continued to dodge the question, pivoting again to her favorite punching bag. She blamed ERCOT for not prioritizing oil fields for such exemptions, and tried to claim they only were available to processing plants anyway. While the 2013 letter uses the term “facilities,” it also states clearly that “high volume gas wells are examples of such facilities.”

Letting industry police itself is a basic tenant in Texas’ laissez-faire approach to oversight. But while expense may be behind Craddick’s previous refusal to require winterization of natural gas wellheads, it’s unclear what kind of burden she thinks filling out a free form that takes about two minutes to complete would impose on companies.

Veasey wasn’t having Craddick’s excuses.

“Republicans just want this problem to go away,” he said. “They don’t want to deal with this, they don’t want to require anybody to do anything, which means we’re going to be sitting in the cold again and that is the problem. They are running out the clock.”

Coming from a Democrat, that may sound like partisan rhetoric — except for the fact that the complacency and political cowardice he describes has all happened before. It set the stage for February’s disaster. And it will lead to another tragedy unless lawmakers resolve to finally act this session.

Just as Gov. Greg Abbott and lawmakers knew Texas’ grid was vulnerable in winter without proper weatherization, Texas oil and gas regulators knew that gas suppliers had their power cut during the state’s last major freeze in 2011. A federal after-incident report had warned that communication gaps between gas and electric companies should be fixed to prevent it from happening again.

A state report in 2012 said the same thing, with regulators at the Texas Public Utility Commission and Railroad Commission concluding that “cascading” grid failures could happen if companies that provide fuel for power generation lost power themselves. That’s exactly what happened in February.

The former PUC regulator who oversaw that 2012 report, Jennifer Hubbs, told Chronicle reporters she was shocked to realize during the storm that her simple recommendations hadn’t been followed.

“I’m on Twitter and I see a photo of downtown Houston lit up like a freakin’ Christmas tree and all the houses around it dark. It hit me like a physical blow,” she told the Chronicle. “You know, we might have avoided rotating outages entirely if we had just approached it with some sense.”

Sense. It’s something as scarce in Austin these days as toilet-flushing water during last month’s storm.

It is not government overreach or far-left sabotage to require energy companies to engage in basic emergency planning. It’s the least a government can do to protect its residents from a harsh winter storm or even an attack on our power grid from a foreign adversary such as Russia or China.

Abbott needs to lean on lawmakers to require safeguards, lawmakers need to pass them, and elected leaders such as Craddick need to stop leaving Texans’ health and safety to chance and voluntary compliance.

Why should Texans put up with leaders whose loose regulations leave us vulnerable to everything from random chemical explosions to prolonged blackouts that put our homes, our businesses and our loved ones in harm’s way?

Leaders, do your jobs, not industry’s bidding. Texans don’t deserve to live this way — or die this way, either.

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My Recommendation: The Legislature should make sure that the form is easily accessible. Right now, once an entity submits it, they are permanently registered. If their status changes, or if they are new to the system, they need to submit an updated form. I recommend that the Legislature set an annual fall deadline to submit the form. Failure to do so should be greeted with a stiff fine. Here’s what’s so crazy – It’s in a company’s best interest to submit the form. They’ll sell more gas during the power outage (!) If the right hand is unable to help the left hand, perhaps either Alexa or Siri could help with a friendly reminder..

Get Your Wooden Nickels Ready – Here Comes the Jukebox!

1. “All Right, I’ll Sign the Papers” – Mel Tillis
2. “I’ve Always Been Crazy” – Waylon Jennings
3. “Still Crazy After All These Years” – Paul Simon
4. “No Place But Texas” – Willie Nelson
5. “Texas In My Rear View Mirror” – Mac Davis