Tag Archives: Austin affordability

Austin Energy Projected $19 Million Revenue Surplus For 2021

By Bill Oakey, August 29, 2022

On August 27, 2020 Austin Energy sent a memo to the City Council, announcing the results of a routine rate review. This statement appears in the memo, “The cost‐of‐service study indicates that Austin Energy’s current base rates produce an approximately $19 million revenue surplus.” (See Page 2, 3rd paragraph). The surplus could come in fiscal year 2021. But future uncertainties led them to question the surplus. Among those were the impact of the pandemic and the planned 2022 exit from the coal-burning Fayette Power Plant. However, Austin Energy has been unable to reach an agreement with LCRA to relinquish our share of that plant.

Here is the strange irony of the projected $19 million 2021 surplus. Austin Energy presented its current rate review to the City Council this past April. At that time, the utility suddenly decided that their financial picture was much worse. Indeed, there were revenue shortfalls in 2020 and 2021, because of the pandemic and the winter storm. But Austin Energy’s charts in the April presentation describe an alleged trend that does not yet exist.

The chart below shows costs outpacing revenues in 2020 and 2021. They attribute that to falling kWh sales of electricity. And they depict this as a proven trend that will hurt their revenues going forward. That reasoning is clearly faulty. Their own projections indicate the opposite trend, as shown in the same chart. You can see that from 2014 to 2019, there were revenue surpluses. Had it not been for the pandemic and the other anomalies, their projected surpluses would likely have continued into 2021.

We have every reason to believe that Austin Energy is seeing a historic revenue windfall this summer, because of the heatwave. San Antonio has already publicized their $75 million surplus. You can add to that the accounting errors discovered by the City’s Independent Consumer Advocate. And a boatload of other solid recommendations, produced from the hard work and sweat of the other rate case participants. (Thank you Paul Robbins, Lanetta Cooper, Cyrus Reed, Clarence Johnson and many other good folks)!

This blog will soon show even more examples of cost-saving opportunities and needed reforms at Austin Energy, for the City Council to consider. When the Hearings Examiner announces his recommendation early next month, I will repeat a better suggestion to the City Council. Study all of the good ideas from the rate case. Then, gather up all of the papers that recommended a rate increase, and gleefully toss them into the recycle bin.


San Antonio Vindicates Plan to Halt Austin Energy’s Rate Increase

By Bill Oakey, August 14, 2022

On July 22nd on the KXAN-TV News, I made a public call for the City to ditch Austin Energy’s rate increase. At that time, my idea faced long odds of succeeding. But as a retired accountant and former member of Austin’s citizen Electric Utility Commission, I vowed to stay in the battle until we can raise the flag of victory.

News From San Antonio Sparks an Exciting Ray of Hope!

Late last week, financial officials in San Antonio announced a huge, $75 million budget surplus, thanks to windfall revenues from soaring summer electric bills. Just as I figured, Austin now has a wonderful opportunity to quell the anxieties of our ratepayers. In San Antonio, one option being considered is to offer one-time refunds, in the form of credits to customers’ October bills. Here in Austin, we should be able to call off or postpone the entire rate increase.

The City’s Independent Consumer Advocate Personally Agrees

While clarifying this as a personal opinion, rather than an official statement from his team’s rate filing brief, Clarence Johnson gave me permission to share this quote from an email to me: “I agree with your position that the rate increase could be postponed until post test year actual data becomes available.  My reasoning is simply this: ICA’s review indicated that the proposed rate increase should have been $6 M, which is much smaller than the (Austin Energy’s) original request or rebuttal request.”

It’s All About the Rate Design, With Winners and Losers

Above all else, we must oppose Austin Energy’s radical rate design change. What I did not know until recently is that the out-of-city ratepayers would walk away with the big grand prize. The vast majority of those customers live in large to very large, expensive homes. The current rate design keeps those customers paying into the highest rate tiers on the five-tier scale. This provides a conservation incentive. On average, outside city customers use 86% more electricity than inside city customers. (See pg. 43). Under Austin Energy’s new plan, those people would see generous discounts on their bills. (See pp. 42-44). All while struggling Austin apartment renters and low to moderate income folks would bear the brunt of the rate increase. So much for affordability and narrowing the economic divide!

Past history shows us another, somewhat political motive for gifting the non-city ratepayers with lower bills. Even though they enjoy Austin’s amenities, these folks don’t pay City taxes. And whenever they object to our electric rates, they appeal them to the Texas Public Utility Commission, or even to the Legislature. Austin Energy’s new rate design might just keep them quiet and happy. What a sad situation!

Austin Energy Versus “Too Much Customer Efficiency”

The new rate plan would create a seismic shift in Austin Energy’s pricing structure. Raising the monthly residential customer charge from $10.00 to $25.00 would reset annual base revenues unrelated to electricity sales to over $140 million. ($25.00 X 467,291 customers X 12 months). This shift would be a short-sighted, self-defeating approach – to address sales declines that are due to solar panels and other efficiency options that homeowners and businesses are adopting at a rapidly accelerating pace.

The utility’s future plans call for enlarging that shift, in addition to reducing solar buyback credits. (See “Looming Penalties for Solar Users” here). That’s a pretty bleak picture. Especially in light of the big climate and energy bill that the President will sign this week. And AISD’s upcoming bond election, that would provide solar rooftops and other energy efficiency upgrades for the schools.

My previous blog piece and radio interview address the climate change / electric utility dilemma that also threatens other cities and states across the country.

Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

Here are four major factors that support postponing or canceling Austin’s rate increase:

1. The Independent Consumer Advocate (ICA) in the rate case reviewed Austin Energy’s books, and found two accounting errors, totaling $12.5 million. Austin Energy accepted those reductions, bringing the revenue deficiency down, from $48.2 million to $35.7 million. (See pp. 1-2).

2. The ICA cites several instances where Austin Energy used future cost assumptions. Some of those do not meet the requirement for being known and measurable. And using future costs, combined with past test year revenues violates the matching rule in standard rate-making procedures. After adjusting out those costs and the accounting errors, the  ICA concluded that the revenue deficiency should be only $6.5 million. (See pp. 5-8).

3. The City should raise more utility revenue by increasing the Contributions in Aid of Construction (CIAC) fees, charged to developers for connecting new customers. It should be revised to the same standards used for Austin Water’s capital recovery fees. (See pg. 9).

4. The City Council should follow San Antonio’s example. A comparison of budgeted to actual base rate revenues from October 2021 through this summer will reveal a large surplus. That, in combination with the other factors shown above, should send the rate increase to the scrap heap. (Oops…to the recycle bin)!

See my full list of 10 recommendations for the Austin City Council at the bottom of my previous blog piece.

I would encourage the City to bring in outside experts and consult with all the participants in the rate case. Austin Energy needs a fresh new start, with full transparency and lots of public engagement. We, the people are its owners. Our elected City Council is the board of directors. Let’s remake this valuable asset into a utility that always honors equity and fairness. And one that is innovative and forward-looking, with respect to the changing customer-efficiency landscape.

Heartfelt thanks to my good friends and the Independent Consumer Advocate, who traveled the long and winding road to their final filing briefs in the rate case!

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

1. “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” – Harry Connick Jr., from “When Harry Met Sally”
2. “Sad Situation” – Tracy Nelson & Mother Earth
3. “San Antonio Rose” – Asleep at the Wheel
4. “Home In San Antone” – Willie Nelson
5. “Across The Alley From The Alamo” – Bob Wills
6. “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose” – Dottsy
7. “The Long And Winding Road” – The Beatles

The Big Electric Utility And Climate Change Dilemma – And How To Solve It

By Bill Oakey, August 1, 2022

Electric Utilities Can’t Make a Profit

It’s simple economics. If homes and businesses get too energy efficient, the utilities can’t sell enough electricity. And yet, most offer home weatherization programs, and credits for rooftop solar panels. These utilities have whole divisions that do nothing but promote energy conservation, and they directly help customers achieve energy efficiency.

But now, many utilities find themselves facing a potential death spiral. Here in Austin, rapid growth requires expanding the utility services. City regulations do not require enough developer fees to cover all the costs associated with adding new customers. In addition, homes and businesses have become more energy efficient. As a result, Austin Energy has been losing money. They are not selling enough electricity throughout the year. Their solution is a hefty base rate increase. Austin Energy’s revenue bonds were downgraded to AA- in June. They told the Fitch bond rating service that additional rate increases, beyond this one, may be necessary.

The Utility Death Spiral Is Easily Explained

Austin Energy faces a daunting dilemma that they share with other utilities across the country. Rate increases as an ongoing business strategy will almost certainly backfire. They will push builders, homeowners and businesses to implement energy efficiency solutions at an accelerating pace. Businesses that sell solar panels have already stepped up their advertising. It’s easy to see that a whole series of rate increases, each followed by similar market responses, would drive the utility into a death spiral.

Within the next ten years, Austin residents and businesses will have a significantly lower demand for purchased power than they have today. We will always need electric utilities. As connected customers, we are assured of reliable service, assuming that the power grid holds up. But, future declines in electricity sales are inevitable. So, it is imperative for Austin Energy to find a new direction, and change their business model. Their very survival depends on it. If they don’t get it right, the City will face an additional, ominous revenue shortfall. Austin Energy’s transfer to the General Fund will have to be reduced.

If Utilities Try to Wage a Battle Against Technology, They Will Lose. And the Country’s Climate Change Efforts Will Suffer

I recently wrote a blog piece about an incredibly exciting climate change opportunity. CNN did a major study on the potential benefits of large-scale rooftop solar installations at big-box retail stores. Read that piece to get all the details.

But, the big dilemma comes back to bite us again. What if every Walmart, Home Depot, Lowes, big warehouse and distribution center across the country put solar panels on their rooftops? What if Austin put one on their massively expanding convention center? Austin Energy and the other utilities would sell a lot less electricity. And yet, we’d be addressing climate change. Severe drought, intense hurricanes, wildfires, epic flooding and West Coast water shortages might finally begin to subside. Further mitigation will become possible, once battery storage technology gets more efficient and affordable.

Some Utilities Are Pushing Back Against Solar Panel Credits

The seriousness of the utility profit / climate change dilemma is laid out in a disturbing article from NBC News, published in May. Utilities in some states are reducing their solar energy buyback rates. Austin Energy’s solar buyback program could be weakened, as part of their new rate proposal. The Sierra Club and Public Citizen are intervening in the case, to protect solar-use customers. In Mississippi and other places, utilities are telling their State regulators that maximum buyback benefits are no longer economically viable for them. The most stunning example is California, where drought and wildfires are prevalent. A battle over huge reductions in solar buyback rates has been raging there since January. Governor Gavin Newsom should step in and defend solar credits.

Utilities Need to Embrace Declining Electricity Sales

The pushback by utilities against technologies that help their customers is a major threat to national climate change efforts. The outdated utility business models are as dangerous to the environment and the planet as fossil fuels and carbon emissions. To put it quite simply, gradually selling less electricity over time must become one of the utilities’ primary goals. How to make that happen, while keeping the utilities in stable financial condition is the challenge.

Maybe the U.S. Congress Can Help

Congress is poised to pass a historic climate change bill this week. Funding will be available for energy efficiency programs and infrastructure improvements on a large scale. I have requested an appointment with Congressman Lloyd Doggett, during the August recess. One of the topics I would like to discuss is the daunting dilemma that is described here. Maybe Congress could    facilitate a series of discussions among climate scientists, utility company executives, State regulators and business strategy experts. They could task them with studying the dilemma and finding ways to resolve it. Our utilities need to counteract the death spiral, before it’s too late.

A First Step Toward the Solution

We only need to look at the frightening condition of the Colorado River to “get it” about climate change. A recent Washington Post report highlights the West Coast lakes that are drying up. The Austin City Council should stop Austin Energy’s rate increase proposal dead in in its tracks. And they should insist on maximum solar panel credits. The revenue windfall from the historic summer heatwave will buy some valuable time. With innovative planning and a fresh new approach, our city could shine a light on the rest of the nation. We should turn the daunting dilemma into an exciting opportunity for positive change.

A note about the author of this blog: I am a longtime affordability activist, with nearly 40 years of experience observing and participating in electronic utility rate cases.

Call To Action – Let’s STRIP Austin’s Electric Rate Increase Proposal!

By Bill Oakey – July 25, 2022

On Friday July 22nd, KXAN-TV News aired a story about our oppressively high summer electric bills. The historic triple-digit heat has led to these burdensome bills, that are straining family budgets at a time of record high inflation. But, as I pointed out in the news segment, Austin Energy has a nasty surprise for us, lurking around the corner. They want to pile on a new base rate increase!

In the news interview, I explained that Austin Energy will be sweeping up the highest peak season profits in their history, from May through September. This will pour tens of millions of extra dollars into their coffers, well above their current year’s budget. The City Council will have every reason to nip the rate increase in the bud, as well they should.

But my jaw dropped to the floor, as I listened to Austin Energy’s response to that suggestion on KXAN. Here are their misleading and faulty arguments:

1. We don’t make any profits. The extra revenue is returned to the City.

2. We will earn extra revenue, but we also have additional expenses, with “the high cost of energy.”

The full costs of fuel and ERCOT power purchases are passed through to us, the customers. That charge appears on the Power Supply Adjustment line on our electric bills. The summer demand surge will undoubtedly push the charge higher. The fixed monthly amount is modified each year in November.

It’s true that Austin Energy’s revenue transfers to the general fund are not the same as a private business profit. But, here we’re talking about a revenue surplus – a windfall. In a recession or a time of high inflation, the revenue surplus can be used to keep customer rates stable. (Hint for the City Council)!

Imagine this historic seasonal windfall, with a new base rate increase stacked on top of it! That would generate even more tens of millions of extra revenue – every year. There are suspicions that the City wants to dodge the Legislative property tax cap with higher general fund transfers.

Here’s The Rub – Get Ready for a Snub!

The rate increase proposal would shift some base rate costs away from big businesses, onto residential ratepayers. And it would upend the residential rate tiers, pushing higher costs onto low and middle-income folks. We simply can’t let that happen! It’s a slap in the face in a city with extreme income inequality and an affordability crisis, plus high inflation.

It’s Time For a Call to Action!

S-T-R-I-P: Stop The Rate Increase Proposal

Nip It, Skip It, STRIP It!

My plan is to meet with neighborhood groups and civic organizations across the City, to explain what’s going on here. This is my fifth decade of affordability activism. I served on the City Electric Utility Commission from 1985-1990. This time around, we may have a victory in the palm of our hands. There are four City Council seats and the Mayor’s race on the ballot in November. Even if the current City Council adopts the lopsidedly unfair rate proposal, the new Council could scale it back or STRIP it completely. It’s up to you and me and our friends and neighbors, to elect a consumer-friendly Mayor and City Council. We can do it! Any future rate increase must not penalize small users, and it must protect residential and small business ratepayers!

Here’s What You Can Do to Help

1. Contact every City Council member and the Mayor. Ask them to STRIP (Ooooh!…They can do some of it behind closed doors, subject to the open meetings law limitations).

2. Ask the City Council to put senior discounts on the fixed customer charges for every category on our utility bills. It’s high time for the City to help our longtime residents.

3. Alert your friends, family, neighbors and co-workers. Send them the link to this blog piece.

4. Subscribe to this blog to stay up to date on our path to victory. A convenient STRIP Guide will soon be made available. It will tell it like it is in plain, simple language. The veil of special interest subterfuge will be peeled away and clearly exposed. We will wrestle our publicity-owned utility away from the special interests, and give it back to the people!

Use These One-Click Links to Send Emails to the City Council:

Mayor Steve Adler steve.adler@austintexas.gov
1. District 1 – Natasha Harper-Madison natasha.madison@austintexas.gov
2. District 2 – Vanessa Fuentes vanessa.fuentes@austintexas.gov
3. District 3 – Sabino “Pio” Renteria sabino.renteria@austintexas.gov
4, District 4 – Jose “Chio” Vela jose.vela@austintexas.gov
5. District 5 – Ann Kitchen ann.kitchen@austintexas.gov
6. District 6 – Mackenzie Kelly mackenzie.kelly@austintexas.gov
7. District 7 – Leslie Pool leslie.pool@austintexas.gov
8. District 8 – Paige Ellis paige.ellis@austintexas.gov
9. District 9 – Kathie Tovo kathie.tovo@austintexas.gov
10. District 10 – Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter alison.alter@austintexas.gov

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:

1. “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” – Harry Connick Jr., from “When Harry Met Sally”
2. “The Stripper” – David Rose, 1962 #1 song
3. “Behind Closed Doors” – Charlie Rich
4. “The Streak” – Ray Stevens
5. “Heat Wave” – Martha & the Vandellas
6. “Windfall” – Rick Nelson
7. “77 Sunset Strip” – Don Ralke
8. “Tell It Like It Is” – Aaron Neville
9. “The High Cost Of Living” – Wood’s Tea Company
10. “When The Lights Go On Again” – Mary Duff

City Should Establish Lots of Senior Discounts

By Bill Oakey – May 22, 2022

Austin’s affordability disaster has reached every neighborhood in the city. Few people were surprised by the latest round of obnoxiously high tax appraisals. Our City leaders created this problem by marketing the city relentlessly, until the growth spiraled out of control. No other city  in Texas has seen the steep rise in housing costs on the scale that exists here.

Our long term residents should not be shoved aside, just to make room for more luxury housing units. Instead, the City should look for ways to keep the older folks here. After all, we are the ones who worked, volunteered and paid our taxes, to create the lively atmosphere and high quality of life that makes Austin special.

It’s Time for the City to Implement a Full Range of Senior Discounts

I am making the following recommendations to the City Council to consider for senior discounts:

1. All fixed customer charges on utility bills – for electric, water, wastewater, trash collection

2. Admission tickets, services charges and parking fees for all events, both public and private, that are held at City-owned facilities or on City-owned land. This includes music festivals, wine tastings and the multitude of other events at Zilker Park, Botanical Gardens, Auditorium Shores, etc.The City’s contracts with private entities that use City parks and facilities should be modified to require senior discounts.

3. General admission and parking for City parks and City facilities at all times, even when no special events are happening. State and national parks already provide senior discounts.

4. Fees for all parking meters, parking lots and parking garages throughout the city. This includes libraries, City Hall and all other City facilities.

The City should roll out this initiative with a major public relations campaign. They should encourage all private businesses to partner with them and offer similar senior discounts. We are starting to see far too many luxury events with sky-high prices. And it can cost an arm and a leg just to park, before going in to these events. That’s fine for the folks who can shrug it off with a few taps on their phones. But, it’s high time for our City officials to recognize that Austin still has some of the local people who cannot light a cigar with a $100 bill.

If They Build It, Will We Come? – A Partial Solution to the Small Business Challenge

By Bill Oakey – May 6, 2020

The grand reopening of Austin’s economy scares the hell out of some people. And it is gleefully celebrated by others. Is there some kind of midpoint between staying home and shopping online, versus going out to restaurants and retail stores? Well, maybe there is, if local businesses could pool their resources and develop a new concept. I’ve been pondering this idea with some of the many hours of free time lately.

Try to imagine a giant food court with 50 or so restaurants and food vendors. Instead of being inside a mall, it would be set up in an outdoor area that people could drive to. It would be sort of like the restaurants at the airport, except you would drive up to your favorite one and get your food.

it would be an interesting challenge to design such a layout. It would need to accommodate a large number of cars, without requiring people to spend a long time waiting. There could actually be several concurrent lines of cars – one to enter the overall facility, and other sub-entrances inside the facility for each of the vendors. Architects might be able to come up with a few design options that would work. These would be dependent on the size of the facility. And of course, if the concept is successful, there could be several facilities of different sizes around Austin. These would need to be located away from the dense, core areas of the city.

Options for financing this type of venture could include the participation of large real estate or other companies that could develop the facilities and lease the spaces to the small businesses. One possibility might be to tap some undeveloped land and utilize it on a temporary basis.

It might be fun to have such places where people could go and feel safe. To complement our “Keep Austin Weird” motif, there might be all sorts of creative ways to liven up the atmosphere at these outdoor dining havens. Perhaps we could think of it as a Trail of Bites instead of a Trail of Lights. Video screens and speakers could be installed to provide some entertainment. This could include performances by local musicians.

The businesses could raise extra revenue by including some (but not too much) advertising on the video screens. Corporate sponsors could also participate in various ways with signs and art installations. Some vendors could have a speedy drive-through for people who want to just grab their meals and go. But they could also maintain a separate, more relaxed area for people to come and enjoy the entertainment while they’re eating or while they’re waiting for their food.

If the restaurant concept is deemed to be workable, then perhaps other retailers could set up drive-through stores in a similar type of outdoor layout. The technology setup for both the food and the miscellaneous other retail could be developed and enhanced over time. We could be stuck with the virus for many months, especially if it comes back in the fall and piggy-backs with the seasonal flu.

I can envision a portable device app that customers could use to do pre-orders before they arrive at the facility. The app would specify the lead time required for each type of purchase. For restaurants, there would be simple menus where you could tap on which items to order, along with daily specials that could be changed by the restaurant at will. The non-food retailers could have listings of products to choose from, along with coupons to tap on. A single app could be developed collaboratively and shared by all of the participating retailers. This would make things easier and more efficient for both the businesses and the customers

Some retailers could opt to have separate parking areas, in addition to a drive-through. In the parking areas, customers could request that an item be brought to a safe distance from their car, so they can take a closer look before deciding whether to buy.

This whole idea may seem like a lot of trouble for retailers who wold much rather have their customers come into the stores and browse and buy as they normally do. But these are not normal times. If the grand reopening of Texas leads to a big second wave of the virus, then large numbers of potential customers may choose to stay home. Having a new kind of onsite shopping option available for local businesses might be beneficial. This is especially true for businesses that are too small to maintain a major presence on the Internet, similar to Amazon.

The balancing act between preserving safety and boosting the economy is a tough nut to crack. But Austin should be a good place for people with the right technical skills and business expertise to explore new ways to defeat the silent enemy.

Vote Against Proposition A, But For Props J And K

By Bill Oakey, November 1, 2018

It has been a long while since I updated this blog. But I wanted to get the word out about the propositions on the ballot. There is one day left for early voting, and if you miss that, be sure to vote on Tuesday.

Vote Against A Quarter Billion Dollars For Affordable Housing!

The City Council really went over the edge on this one. Remember when affordable housing bonds were in the $50 to $75 million range? Or at the most, not much over $100 million? If this quarter-billion bonanza passes, you can be sure that it will become the new standard. If it doesn’t, then it would be going even higher! We simply cannot afford to allow that kind of precedent to get started.

I don’t even know what the City Council was thinking! We had a $720 million mobility bond election in 2016. Then, just last year AISD hit us over the head with $1 billion in bonds. And they did that during a period of rapid declines in enrollment. It’s as if our local officials have decided that money is no longer an issue for taxpayers. We all have so much money, that we hardly know what to do with it. If that’s the case, I wish somebody would show me what rock to look under to find my extra pile of cash.

Here’s the problem with spending a quarter-billion on affordable housing. The City has tried for years to set up “density bonus” programs and so-called Smart Housing initiatives. But none of them have ever been very successful. So, now it appears that they have simply thrown in the towel. Just let the taxpayers pay for it. We need to encourage all of our family and friends to reject that notion with an exuberant, resounding NO vote on Proposition A.

Vote Yes on Prop J – Let the Public Decide on Our Next Major Building Code

The whole CodeNext debacle was a developer-led effort to turn Austin into San Francisco or Portland. It stands as one of the most colossal boondoggles in the City’s history. Across the city, various groups of citizens spent weeks, months and years hovered over maps and charts as they worked with City officials to develop their individual neighborhood plans. The developers made no secret of the fact that they wanted CodeNext to completely obliterate those neighbored plans.

The hodgepodge of a report that finally emerged from CodeNext was so confusing and marred by lack of trust, that the City Council abandoned it in time to keep it from ruining some of their re-election plans. This was unquestionably the fact with our mayor. There is also little doubt that whatever the City Staff does with CodeNext, it will probably come back to the Council as merely an attempt to dress up what the consultants tried to foist upon us to begin with.

Our best solution is to vote for Prop J, to require voter approval of all major updates to the Land Development Code. This would ensure that the City Council recognizes that it isn’t just the real estate industry and the developers who matter when it comes to such a major change. It is the well-being of current residents in their cherished neighborhoods that matters most.

Don’t Listen to the Fear-Mongers – Vote For Prop K!

Think real hard when you ask yourself this question. When has efficiency ever caused calamity in a City? Who has ever been chased down and attacked by a menacing creature, threatening to make the City most efficient and cheaper for the taxpayers? You have heard the fear-mongers wail about “dark money” and raise the evil specter of the Koch Brothers. I seriously doubt is those guys have ever heard of Prop K. And even if they have, it doesn’t matter. The independent efficiency audit will be completely under the control of the City Council. They get to decide who gets hired to run the audit. They get to decide what elements of the recommendations get adopted. And all of us will get a chance to provide our input throughout the entire process.

There are both prominent liberals and conservatives backing Prop K, including David King and Ed English. Should there be better transparency with regard to contributions to these PAC’s? Absolutely! If dark money was used and somebody wants to tighten the transparency requirements, or even challenge the lack of disclosure in this case, we should be all for that. But it has nothing to do with the validity of the audit.

Citywide efficiency audits are not carried out by internal audit staff. They do not have the time or the specialized skills. That’s why numerous cities and states across the country have had positive results from these types of audits. The usual crowd of go-along-to-get-along naysayers are opposing Prop K. They are using whatever fear tactics they can conjure up. Of course the City employee unions are scared to death of it. They are worried about layoffs. It may well be that Austin needs to do some serious streamlining of operations. But that doesn’t mean that employees couldn’t be transferred. And positions could be eliminated by attrition rather than layoffs. And the cost of the audit? It would be made up probably ten times over by the good efficiency recommendations.

Don’t be scared of efficiency. There is no evil monster hiding in the closet! Bogeymen do not lurk in the shadows for the pursuit of saving money for taxpayers. Lon Chaney would never have even considered it.

 

The School Property Tax Double Whammy – Please Spread The Word On This!

By Bill Oakey – February 21, 2018

I have said this before, and I’ll say it again. AISD’s property taxes are the single biggest threat to Austin affordability. Nothing else even comes close. But if you thought the Robin Hood funding disparity was the only issue, guess what…That is only half of the problem. Each half of the problem is pretty scary, but taken together it’s a disaster. So, as soon as you finish reading this, please share it with as many people as you can. Our only hope in surviving the disaster is if enough people get motivated to speak out against it.

The State of Texas Is Double-Dipping on Your School Property Taxes…Here’s How It Works

Several years ago, the total State share of public school funding was 50%. The rest came from local property tax dollars. And as you know, big cities like Austin have to send back hundreds of millions of dollars each year in Robin Hood “recapture” payments. ($533 million this year). Those funds go to “property poor” school districts.

Every year for the past several years, our property appraisals have been going up. This is happening in all of the big cities that contribute to the Robin Hood system. That has caused school property taxes to skyrocket. And that’s where the double whammy comes in. The State is siphoning off this windfall of extra revenue, and spending it for non-educational items in the budget.

Here’s how it works. Technically, all of the Robin Hood revenue does flow to the property-poor school districts. But each year, as the pot of recapture money increases, the State decreases its share of public school funding. The “leftover money” from reducing public school funding gets spent on other items in the budget. This is a backdoor method of enacting a full-blown statewide property tax! That type of tax is unconstitutional, and it was ruled unconstitutional by the lower court. Then, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that it is constitutional, but “badly flawed.”

Let’s Take a Look At the Seismic Shift In State School Funding

State Representative Donna Howard’s office prepared this graphic that illustrates the problem. Here are the highlights:

  1. The State contribution to public school funding sinks from 45.3% to 31.7% from 2011 to the projection for 2019.
  2. The local property tax share shoots up from 54.7% to a projected 68.3% in the same period
  3. School property taxes make up 54% of your property tax bill.

Here’s how that looks in actual dollars for the same 8-year period:

  1. Local property tax share increases by $7 billion
  2. State share decreases by $3 billion

If you think all over those numbers look scary, just consider this – Every single one of them will get worse every single year unless we organize and mobilize to push for reforms!

Is the Robin Hood System Bad, Or Is It REALLY Bad?

These figures come from the AISD website. And remember, Robin Hood is only half of the double whammy…

  1. AISD is projected to send nearly $2.6 billion in recapture payments to the State between 2016 and 2020.
  2. By 2019, more than half of AISD’s local school property tax dollars will be sent back to the State

How Does Texas Public School Funding Compare With Other States?

On a national basis, Texas looks pitiful. You would think that business leaders would be the first to demand better educated candidates to fill critical jobs. But in Texas, “business-friendly” means lower taxes and less regulation. I would encourage these folks to take a hard, sobering look at some of these numbers. The U.S. Census Bureau’s latest report shows these rankings for per-student public school spending in fiscal year 2015. (Imagine how bad it must be now!)

  1. State funding per student: Texas ranked #47, with $4,189
  2. Local property tax funding per student: Texas ranked #19, with $5,716

What Are Our State Politicians Doing About This?

Some would like to spend more money on charter schools and less on public schools. And some want to restore the State share of public school funding to at least 50%. That’s where it was before the real estate boom caused the annual explosion of our property appraisals. But there is a cruel irony in all of this.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick are blaming your high property taxes on cities and counties. They are running their reelection campaigns on a promise to put a cap on the revenue that cities and counties can raise through property taxes.  This is a slick political trick that takes the growing public frustration over high property taxes and spins it upside down and backwards.

The State school financing system is the problem! And if it continues on its current path, Austin taxpayers will indeed face a true disaster. I contend that it is simply not sustainable. Unless enough wealthy people move here to completely displace nearly everyone who has lived in Austin for more than ten years or so. And after a while, even those newcomers would start to fume over the property taxes. The projected numbers are staggering.

Here’s What You Can Do to Help

  1. If you get a flier in the mail from anybody running for office that promises property tax reform by blaming it on city or county taxes, stick it right here:
  2. Send this blog post to every pertinent organization that you belong to. Encourage them to distribute it to all of their members. If they have regular meetings, ask them to put it on their upcoming agenda for discussion. Invite good speakers to make a presentation.
  3. Make sure that you and your family and friends vote for candidates that recognize and admit the true cause of high property taxes!

Finally, Here Are Two Things That We Need to Fight For

  1. The Robin Hood recapture system needs to be reformed to make it fairer for Austin and the other big cities. Austin has a huge number of students living in poverty.
  2. The State needs to stop double-dipping on our local school property taxes. They need to increase the State share of funding for public schools back to at least 50%, if not more.

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

By Bill Oakey, January 22, 2018

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

Hello Mayor Pro Tem Tovo & CM Alter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We need a seat at the table.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Blog Launches To Help Support Austin’s Music Industry

By Bill Oakey – January 18, 2018

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

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