Category Archives: General Affordability Updates

How Austin Can Lead The Way On Climate Change

 By Bill Oakey – May 10, 2022

CNN recently published an article that provides a climate change and affordability solution that is perfect for Austin. Big-box stores are starting to install solar panels on their rooftops and portions of their giant parking lots. IKEA has already taken an early lead in this endeavor, with 54 solar installations, covering 90% of their stores nationwide. The cost savings and climate change benefits that could be achieved if more stores did this are enormous. Check out these points, summarizing CNN’s findings:

1. From September to December 2020, IKEA cut its energy purchases by 84% and slashed its energy costs by 57% at their Baltimore store. Meanwhile, the cars in their parking lot stayed cooler in the shade provided by the solar panels.

2. A report from the nonprofit Environment America estimates that solar panels could cut the electricity needed by big-box stores and shopping centers by 50%.

3. The same report found that if big-box stores nationwide installed solar panels, it would generate enough electricity to power 8 million average homes. The climate change impact would be equivalent to pulling 11.3 million gas-powered cars off the road.

4. The average Walmart has 180,000 square feet of rooftop. That’s equal to 3 football fields of space. It’s enough for solar panels to generate the electricity needed to power 200 homes.

Three Words Come to Mind for Austin – Let’s Do It!

 This initiative will require a coordinated effort from both public and private sector officials. There are some hurdles and strategic planning efforts that will come into play. In Austin, we may have permitting and other regulatory requirements. These could be reviewed and possibly adjusted to encourage the installations. The CNN study found that some big box stores have roofs that may need repairs or modifications to accommodate solar panels. The City Council should consider appointing a task force to engage the stakeholders, evaluate the situation and make recommendations on how best to move forward.

IKEA installed solar panels at its Round Rock store in 2012. Just imagine how much the technology has improved since then. What are we waiting for?

Austin Energy Would Need to Rethink Its Future Plans

A sudden large-scale shift to solar panels would impact Austin Energy’s ability to sell enough electricity to keep their operations financially viable. But, more solar installations are coming online already, some of which include entire residential subdivisions. Some serious discussions need to be held, regardless of this proposal. Part of Austin Energy’s reason for their pending rate increase is related to lower sales to customers in new, energy-efficient homes.

Here Are Some Things That Our City Officials Can Do

1. Explore whether Austin Energy can legally sell power directly to other utilities, and / or offer it for sale on the Texas power grid.

2. Do a detailed study on the impact of scaling up rooftop solar installations, and chart a path to gradually accommodate it. This can include reducing power generation from other sources, and rethinking Austin Energy’s future power generation plans. Another critical aspect would be evaluating the optimal mix of base load vs. peaking power capacity. This will ensure that we always have enough power to meet the demand during periods without a lot of sunshine.

3. Reach out to other major cities and large utilities, to determine best practices for a smooth transition toward large-scale solar installations.

4. Explore options to use available Federal funds for expanding solar infrastructure. Contact members of our Congressional delegation to seek assistance under both existing and potential new legislation.

5. This opportunity is hiding in plain sight – Put a solar installation on the roof of our massively expanded Austin Convention Center (!)

Let’s Not Forget About Rapidly Evolving Battery Storage Technology

This is the icing on the cake. Elon Musk and others are already manufacturing and selling new models of home and industrial battery installations to store solar power. These are following the path of solar panels, in rapidly becoming more affordable and of higher quality. City, State and Federal officials should review the excellent 2018 U.T. Honors Program thesis by my good friend, Maddie Bratcher. The title is “Gridlock on the Power Grid: How Battery Storage Technology Reveals Challenges to the Lone Star State.”

The future is now for both large-scale solar and battery storage. To quote an old fashioned saying, the train is roaring down the track. Austin needs to either hop on that train, or get out of the way. My advice is to move to the front of the train and lead the way!

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece

1. “Up On the Roof” – The Drifters
2. “Walk Right In” – The Rooftop Singers
3. “Bring Me Sunshine” – Willie Nelson
4. “Here Comes the Sun” – The Beatles
5. “Walking In the Sunshine” – Roger Miller

Guaranteed Income Plan Is Illegal In Texas – Here’s How To Do It Right

By Bill Oakey – April 20, 2022, Updated April 22, 2022

The City Council wants to start free money giveaways to families, to the tune of $1,000 per month???

I clearly remember an issue that came up back in the late 1980’s. The City wanted to place an item on the ballot to approve bonds for energy conservation programs. Families who qualified would get a “home energy audit.” Then a contractor would fix up their home to make it more energy efficient.

The City Council was all set to put this initiative on the ballot, along with other bonds to be considered. But it ran into a legal roadblock. Then Attorney General Jim Maddox issued an opinion that State law does not allow cities to give away money or “things of value.” Programs such as this can be funded with voluntary payments that customers add to their utility bills, or with State or Federal funds. But local taxpayer money cannot legally be used.

Here is the relevant citation in The Texas Constitution, Article III, Sec. 52:

Sec. 52. COUNTIES, CITIES, TOWNS OR OTHER POLITICAL CORPORATIONS OR SUBDIVISIONS; LENDING CREDIT; GRANTS. (a) Except as otherwise provided by this section, the Legislature shall have no power to authorize any county, city, town or other political corporation or subdivision of the State to lend its credit or to grant public money or thing of value in aid of, or to any individual, association or corporation whatsoever, or to become a stockholder in such corpora- tion, association or company.

If providing free energy efficiency upgrades to homes is not allowed under State law, then surely giving away bundles of taxpayers’ cash could not be legal! 

I can just imagine people going wild in the streets, as a parade of official City of Austin vehicles with “Free Money” logos on them depart City Hall. This extravaganza would follow a rousing send off speech by Mayor Steve Adler. Or better yet, why not turn the program over to Capital Metro and Project Connect? They could call it the Gravy Train, and operate it along the Green Line. Maybe they could dig tunnels under people’s homes, and deliver the free money right to their bedsides or their kitchen tables!

The concept of a guaranteed income program is upside down and backwards. On its face, it acknowledges that our economic system is out of whack. Workers should be paid a living wage on the front end of the process. Asking taxpayers to fix a broken system by applying a bandaid to the back end only makes the problem worse. It adds layers of administrative cost to the government. And it saps resources from other essential programs.

Here’s How to Fix the Problem

Austin has maintained a culture of low wages, dating back to at least the 1970’s, when we were a smaller college town. Our biggest employers then were U.T. and State government agencies. Because Austin was such a desirable place to live, private employers got by with paying pitifully low wages. That embedded culture still persists to this day for many jobs on the lower rungs of the pay scale.

It is high time for the City Council, the local chambers of commerce and the independent business associations to come together and address the problem. Start by researching how Austin wages compare with other cities. Find out what, if any, legitimate barriers exist that prevent Austin employers from paying better wages. Then fix those problems. Break down those barriers.

But don’t risk costly litigation, or swift action by Ken Paxton and other State Republicans to block the guaranteed income program. Please, City Council – Step up to the plate and do it right!

Crazy Requirements From the Contractor The City Wants To Partner With!

If the City Council approves the guaranteed income pilot program, they will contract it out to UpTogether, a non-profit that has done it in several other cities. Wait till you see the crazy requirements that San Antonio families are hit with if they want to apply! Here are just two eye-popping examples:

1. Link all of your bank and financial accounts to UpTogether, so they can spy on every dollar that you spend.

2. Form a group of between 4 and 8 people in order to join. This ensures that UpTogether can expand exponentially, and lasso an ever-increasing stream of taxpayer dollars, flowing into their organization.

You can read the full details of the San Antonio program here.

A Closing Poem

Just as we’re being taxed out of our socks
Here comes the opening of Pandora’s Box
The City’s new plan to come after your money
Isn’t even legal, and you won’t like it, honey!

They call it guaranteed annual income
It’s crazy, wacky, screwball and then some
Austin should raise the minimum wage
And do it voluntarily, in more than one stage

Too often our leaders don’t think things through
When fixing a problem isn’t easy to do
But surely the City can find a better option
Than rushing a bad plan to final adoption

Giving away money with no strings attached
Is like expecting all eggs to be successfully hatched
The guaranteed income sounds simple on the surface
But it must serve a legal community purpose

Even if the City could find such a loophole
This is Pandora’s Box and a budgetary sinkhole
The non-profit partner the City picked to administer
Has creepy requirements that look downright sinister

Here’s hoping the City will come to their senses
Before taxpayers rise up and mount their defenses
Remember one thing, dear sirs and my dear
This is a City Council election year!

Yikes! The New Property Tax Appraisals Are Out!

By Bill Oakey – April 15, 2022

The City of Austin’s relentless march to obliterate all long term residents and replace us with the ultra-rich took another giant leap this morning. The Travis Central Appraisal District (TCAD) has posted the new property tax appraisals on their website. If you just placed an order for a new Tesla, and you registered for the VIP presale tickets for the Zilker Botanical Gardens Ion Art Night at $400 per couple, plus fees, plus taxes, then you can skip this blog piece. But if you have lived in Austin most of your life, and you are responsible for helping to create our high quality of life, then keep reading. You still matter to tens of thousands of your neighbors and friends. You still have a right to belong in the city that you helped build, and you supported with your taxes.

To look up your new tax appraisal, go to this link, and enter you name or your property address. Scroll down to the bottom, and click on “Values.” The line labeled “Market” is your total appraisal. The “Net Appraisal” is the adjusted amount, after any homestead exemptions and the 10% annual appraisal cap. Keep in mind that if your total appraisal is reduced by the annual cap, then that higher amount will stay in your account, and you’ll get 10% increases every year until you reach the total.

Check out the helpful, but frightening news story from KXAN below. Investors around the world are salivating over the easy money they can make by gouging Austin renters, and toppling all of our neighborhoods. But we have a tough spirit, and we vote in large numbers. Enjoy this nice spring day, while you still can!

Travis Co. Appraisal District says its market values have been ‘too low.’ What does that mean for your notice?

Updated:

TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — The Travis Central Appraisal District (TCAD) said appraisal notices for the year are on their way to homeowners. Spoiler alert: Values are up. Way up.

TCAD said according to this year’s values, the 2022 median market value for a residential property in Travis County is $632,208.

KXAN has previously reported

According to TCAD, the median home value was $413,403 in 2021 and $354,622 in 2020.

“In some areas, we’re looking at increases in market value of almost 40 to 50%. In some places, it may even be higher,” said Marya Crigler, Travis Central Appraisal District chief appraiser.

It’s what worries Dave W. Lofton III, who’s seen his value increase, especially over the last few years.

“My house, it hasn’t changed, it’s been the same,” he said. “They done built all these houses all around me, okay, they value my house on these houses that’s around me.”

In a press release on Thursday, the agency also said its market values “in recent years have been too low, particularly in areas of western Travis County.” That’s according to a review by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, which is done every two years, said TCAD.

The comptroller’s office told KXAN its study takes a look at a sample of property values within school districts. It sends that data back to the Texas Education Agency to help determine school funding.

While it said the study doesn’t have a direct impact on TCAD’s home market values, TCAD said it shows it “failed” to value properties at 100% of the market rate, as required by law, according to TCAD spokesperson Cynthia Martinez.

Martinez said it’s part of the reason why property owners’ increases might be higher than they expected, because TCAD has been too low the last couple years.

“The test that we had the last two years indicated that we were probably not being as aggressive in increasing the values as we should have been,” Crigler said.

She said the discrepancy comes from the data they have access to.

“We do have some limitations in the information that is available to the appraisal district. The state will have some different resources that will lead — lend their analysis to be slightly different than ours,” Crigler said.

But she said the biggest driving factor in increased market values is supply and demand. 

“There’s a lot of demand for housing, but we have had a shortage of supply of housing,” she said.

Crigler also posted a message to homeowners, stating:

“These increases may seem intimidating. But it is important for property owners to understand that the appraisal district does not set local budgets or tax rates. Your city, county, and school district are among the taxing entities that determine how much money needs to be brought in every year by property taxes. Your taxable value helps determine what portion of that total you have to pay compared to your neighbors.”

But TCAD’s market values are what those taxing entities use in setting those rates, and the majority of folks will see property taxes go up, as we’ve seen in previous years.

Even with a homestead exemption, which caps his property tax increase at 10%, Lofton is worried he’ll be taxed out of his neighborhood of more than 40 years.

To see the full KXAN News story, click here.

Final Note: If you really want to go to the Zilker Gardens Ion Art Night, you can register here, non-VIP, for $80 per couple, plus fees, plus taxes. But read the fine print. If the event is canceled for any reason beyond their control, there are NO REFUNDS! Your money will be kept as a donation to support “their mission.”

You can thank our friendly Parks and Recreation Dept. for these high priced, glitzy events and outlandish policies. What about those wonderful free spring Zilker Garden Festivals that we enjoyed for so many years? The ones where local organizations were in charge, and plants were sold to benefit non-profit groups? Those days at Zilker Gardens are gone forever, unless we can elect City Council members who care about all of our communities, and the diverse income groups who live in those communities.

Don’t Forget to Vote – Here’s A Quick Guide

By Bill Oakey – February 22, 2022

Early voting is still underway
So get prepared before the last day
The first thing to do once your pen is handy
Remind yourself to vote for Brandy

Brandy Mueller deserves our support
For the 403rd District Court
Her Project Engage is such a wonderful success
That we should settle for nothing less

Now that that one’s out of the way
Let’s move on to Brigid Shea
Why send Brigid into retirement
When she’s done so much to protect the environment?
To challenge Brigid seems really strange
Look at her record on climate change

Don’t let me forget that other strong gal
Of course, I’m referring to my good friend, Chantal
Chantal Eldridge should be our selection
For District 331 Court re-election
I’ve seen all those papers spread out on her table
Her experience and compassion prove that she’s able

Now for the matter of Lloyd Doggett for Congress
I cannot imagine who better could serve us
To lose him now would be a doggone pity
We need him on the Appropriations Committee

His challenger is young, feisty and hardy
She is the future of the Democratic Party
But there is no need to fill a void
So I recommend that we stick with Lloyd

You are welcome to share this advice with your friends
We need to keep working till the voting ends!

A Big Shock Is Coming When The Soccer Stadium Opens!

By Bill Oakey – May 10, 2021

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

Where In the World Are People Supposed to Park?

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

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

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

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

Just Imagine the Scene at the Opening Home Game!

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

A Closing Poem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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