A “Crazy” Letter to the Editor

Austin American-Statesman, january 5, 2018

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

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

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

BILL OAKEY, AUSTIN

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Austin Music Alive!

By Bill Oakey – December 19, 2017

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

I Have a Photo to Match the Message

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

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

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

By Bill Oakey – December 18, 2017

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

Central Texas Officials Should Learn a Lesson From Virginia

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

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

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

Santa Claus Enters the Texas Toll Road Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

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

City Council Rejects Police Contract – But Will They Trim The Cost?

By Bill Oakey – December 14, 2017

The late-night vote to send the contract back to negotiations was unanimous. And unprecedented. It came after seven hours of heated public testimony from both sides in the debate. This is the first time a City Council has ever rejected a police contract. Here’s the bottom line…

We Have Until March 22 to Implore the City Council Not to Let the New Contract Double Our Property Taxes Every 9 Years!

This issue is also about improved public oversight of the police. But for hundreds of thousands of taxpayers who are struggling with the taxes we already pay, we face a very real danger. The police negotiators will continue to demand higher pay in exchange for the reforms in citizen oversight.

What Is Wrong With This Picture?

I ask everyone reading this to please grab a pen and write down eight critical words – How do they do it in other cities? Put that scrap of paper in your wallet or purse. Then, every time you meet a City Council member, pull out that note and read the critical question out loud – How do they do it in other cities? What’s wrong with the picture in the police contract discussions is this:

1. Austin already has the highest police salaries in the State of Texas.

2. Our standards for public oversight of police are among the lowest in the country.

What Were the Scariest Moments in Last Night’s Meeting?

Over and over again, I kept hearing the same line of talk. Look at these variations on a single theme, straight from the Council dais and from the lips of the speakers:

1. “If we add X number of officers over the next five years, how much money will be left in the General fund for other programs?”

2. “If these new benefits are kept in the contract, will we end up with more or less money to spend in the General Fund than we were able to spend this year?”

Every time I heard a question like that, I knew something scary that is fundamental for every taxpayer to know…

City Officials Are Assuming That Raising Property Taxes to the 8% Legal Maximum Is the New Normal!

When Council members asked, “Can we afford this in the police contract, or can we afford that,” here’s what they meant by “afford.” They wanted to know if the “leftover money” after the contract was paid would be enough to cover the other services that the City normally provides. Plus all the new spending items from goals that the Council has set. All of this assumes the same chilling fact. The City expects to hit the maximum allowed 8% property tax rate every year going forward. And if that happens, your City taxes will double every 9 years.

How Can We As Taxpayers Stop This Cost Spiral?

1. Email and call City Council members. Ask them to reduce the unaffordable pay raises in the police contract.

2. Ask them to establish more reasonable boundaries for the pay raises.

3. Ask them to communicate those boundaries to the police and the City negotiating staff BEFORE the negotiations even begin.

4. Above all, ask the City Council to let the negotiators know that bringing our police accountability standards up to the nationally accepted level DOES NOT require granting unaffordable pay raises!

5. Don’t ask the City Counci…Tell them…That there is no such thing as “leftover money” in the City Budget. They need to overhaul their thinking and adopt a whole new set of goals. Doubling our property taxes every 9 years MUST NOT be an option. Would everyone please pause and take a look at the subtitle of my blog at the top of this page. It says this…

Let’s Put the Public’s Ability to Pay Into Austin’s Planning Process

Every City Council member should ask themselves one little question before they tuck themselves into bed tonight…When was the last time period that most of their constituents got annual pay raises, year after year, equal to what they as taxpayers are giving to City employees? Then, let them drift peacefully off to sleep and have pleasant dreams.

City Needs Vigorous Protections For Whistleblowers

By Bill Oakey, December 12, 2017

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

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

Three Cheers for Kathie Tovo and Leslie Pool!

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

Hey Guys, the Taxpayers Have a Stake In This Deal

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

The City Council Should Consider Taking the Following Actions on Thursday

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

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

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

Let’s Not Forget One Other Thing

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

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

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

Musical and Poetic Accompaniment for This Blog Piece

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

If I Were an Auditor, By Bill Oakey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Bill Oakey, December 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece

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