By Bill Oakey – March 1, 2017
Even though it is commonly accepted that Austin has a serious affordability problem, there are some who do not believe City officials are taking the matter seriously. A recent newspaper article even used the word “affordability” with quotation marks around it. I believe it is well past time to get very serious about it and permanently remove the quotation marks.
Here is a set of proposals that will make a real difference in the lives of many Austinites:
1. Work With Area Businesses to Raise the Minimum Wage
The City does not have the legal authority to require businesses to raise the minimum wage. But they could certainly call business leaders together and work to make it happen. In January, 19 states raised their minimum wage. Major cities, such as St. Louis, Baltimore and many others have either raised it or are scheduling votes to do so. Many of those plans call for a phased-in approach to reach a certain wage target between now a some future date.
Here in Austin, low-wage workers have struggled for the past several years to stay afloat amidst appalling rent increases and stagnant wages. It is time for somebody to step up to the plate and call for a voluntary agreement to phase in increases to the minimum wage. Downtown business leaders are not going to do this on their own. It will take a major leadership push on the part of City officials and labor advocates, as well as grassroots citizen involvement.
We always hear the same arguments against raising the minimum wage – It will put people out of work, it will cut workers’ hours, etc., etc. And yet, whenever the Federal government has raised the minimum wage in the past, businesses somehow survived and people kept working. What is terribly galling in all this is that businesses will gladly pay for increases in rent, utilities, furniture, supplies and everything else you can think of…except the very people who keep their businesses running and serve their customers.
2. Set Priorities On Austin’s $8.3 Billion Set of Costly, Ambitious Plans
Last year on this blog, I asked several time for a complete listing of all of the plans across the City’s entire spectrum of departments. Finally, during last summer’s budget discussions, Council Member Ellen Troxclair asked for a list of plans and the costs for each one of them.
Here is the list of plans. If you put these plans and costs into a spreadsheet and total them up, the price tag comes to a staggering $8.3 Billion! And keep in mind that several of these items only show annual costs, without saying how many years it will take to complete them. So, the real total is considerably higher than $8 billion. And the plans keep coming. Another one was probably started while you were reading this!
The City needs to publish a complete list of plans in a single printed volume and also post them on their website. We need to have a major public discussion on prioritizing these plans. There is no way we could afford to pay upfront or borrow anything close to $8 billion dollars anytime soon. It would be irresponsible for the City to continue writing and developing any more plans until they can come up with an affordable timeline to pay for the ones we already have.
3. Allow People 65 and Over to Opt Out of the New Composting Fee
Sometime during the past year, some person or persons on the City staff woke up one morning with a brilliant idea…Let’s start charging every utility customer a brand new $5.00 composting fee! Hey, why not? It’s only money, and it would sure make Austin look green, cool, and hip! Well, in case you haven’t noticed the “add-on fees” that are tacked onto our monthly utility bills are growing faster than the annual increases in property taxes. You can look up the annual budgets online and see this disturbing trend. The new composting fee is scheduled to be phased in, and there is currently no opt-out provision. Seniors are already overburdened with skyrocketing taxes year and year and many of us are living on fixed incomes. An opt-out for seniors on the composting fee is a very reasonable request.
4. Establish a Two-Year Freeze On Utility Bill “Add-On Fees”
For almost 150 years, the City of Austin paid for all of its service from property taxes, sales taxes and transfers from the Austin Energy and the Water Utility to the General Fund. Then, a creeping trend began to evolve. Some bureaucrats decided to add things like a drainage fee, transportation fee and “clean community service” fee to our utility bills. These fees are rarely discussed in detail during budget season, but they have been rising at an alarming rate in recent years. The City Council should order a freeze on increases to these fees for two years and direct the staff to come up with efficiency plans to control the spiraling costs.
5. Set Policies to Protect Austin’s Remaining Affordable Neighborhoods
Austin is far from being the first city to face an affordability crisis. San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and other cities have faced the same issues of gentrification and displacement that we have. It is time for our City officials to reach out to these other cities and collaborate with them to determine what policies can be put into place to save some of our older neighborhoods before it is too late. We have heard lots of talk about traffic impacts and neighborhood preservation. But where are the proactive strategies to ensure that we don’t continue to lose every square inch of Austin land to luxury retail and extremely dense residential development?
We already have plans and reports that claim to include these protections. And yet we watch as communities in East Austin and along South Congress and other areas fall prey to the greedy whims of outside profiteers. To them, Austin is just another page in their ledger book. If our economy collapses under the weight of wage stagnation and economic inequality, then it’s no problem for the profiteers. They can just move on to wherever the next “It City” happens to be. And Austerities will be stuck with the massive debt hangover that comes with another boom and bust cycle.
If the City wants to get serious about affordability, our leaders will approach the problems of wage stagnation, displacement of older residents and enforceable standards for neighborhood traffic and land use compatibility. There should be plenty of examples to follow from other cities that have stumbled along the same treacherous path that we find ourselves on today. We should all call upon our City Council to take the quotation marks off “affordability” and get to work on some serious, meaningful solutions.