Tag Archives: Austin City Council

City’s Numbers On Homeless Costs Don’t Add Up

By Bill Oakey, June 29, 2022

I took a big gulp when I read the American-Statesman article about the “funding shortfall” of $93 million for housing the homeless. The article says the City has established a mind-bogging $515 million price tag for housing Austin’s homeless over three years. There is a big push to find corporate donors to cough up the $93 million. But, as you will see, their numbers don’t add up.

For starters, you can’t take all of the homeless people off the streets and put them into a home! Too many of them have serious substance abuse and mental health issues. Experience has shown that many (but not all) of these impaired individuals cannot maintain a home properly. Some will even refuse to be placed in a home.

I mention this, not for any lack of compassion, but for the sake of practical reality. The situation simply is what it is. What the City should be doing is raising large sums of money for mental health services and substance abuse rehabilitation. That should be a major component of the homeless solution plans.

Let’s Take a Look at the Math

Regardless of the merits of any of this, the City’s numbers do not add up. The City wants to build 1,300 housing units. The Statesman article suggests that with recent construction cost increases, a typical apartment unit would cost $275,000. So, let’s put a little cushion on that, and bump it to an even $300,000. Here’s how the math comes out:

$515,000,000 Total fundraising goal
    -93,000000 Alleged shortfall
$422,000,000 Available to spend

$300,000,000 Cost per housing unit
           X 1,300 Housing units needed
$390,000,000 Actual amount needed

$422,000,000 Available to spend
 -390,000,000 Actual amount needed
  $32,000,000 Left over, WITHOUT including the $93 million “shortfall”

Now, let’s look at it another way. Suppose they did raise the additional $93 million. Here’s what would happen:

$515,000,000 Available to spend
            / 1,300 Housing units needed
$396,153,846 Cost per unit

The City’s fundraising goal would provide roughly $400,000 per newly built housing unit for the homeless. That is a whopping sum of money for a very risky proposition. It assumes that all 1,300 of these folks could, or would, actually live sustainably in their own homes.

I would expect City officials and homeless advocates to do an artful dance around these numbers. They will probably mention administrative costs. Well, I can’t imagine those adding up to the $32 million left over without the shortfall, or the full $125 million, if you tack on the $93 million.

Perhaps they are allowing for other homeless services besides housing. If that’s the case, then it brings up a huge problem with the City’s lack of transparency to the public. Where in the &@#!!_&$#! are these giant mountains of taxpayer money and private donations for the homeless actually going?? What are the metrics? 

At the very least, we deserve to see answers to these basic questions:

1. How many homeless folks have been settled into housing in the last five years?

2. What is the annual budget for cleaning up homeless camps? Is there an upcoming  budget plan for providing sufficient staff to keep these camps clean and sanitary?

3. What is the annual budget for providing substance abuse rehab and mental health services for the homeless? What are the recent annual metrics for the numbers of people successfully treated with these services?

4. Does the City have a specific policy and the necessary staff to ensure that local businesses and homeowners are sufficiently protected from homeless crime?

5. What are the metrics for resolving issues of homeless crime? How many people have been arrested per recent year? What are the City’s policies for making arrests for homeless crimes? What are the specific metrics for prosecutions, prison time served, probation granted, release without prosecution, etc.? Is there sufficient accountability imposed on homeless folks who commit crimes to discourage these offenders from doing it again?

When all of these questions are satisfactorily answered, I sincerely believe that the public and potential corporate donors will show their compassion, and be much more willing to get on board with an aggressive plan to deal with our homeless dilemma.

What Are the Requirements to Get a Free Home?

This question is not intended to reflect badly on the unfortunate folks who lose their jobs, while facing devastating medical issues they can’t afford, and find themselves out on the street. Certainly, these folks need public services. But a program that offers free homes, valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars could become very tempting. What would prevent a fraudster from storing their belongings with a friend, and pitching a tent to become “homeless?” Or, what if a group of folks facing 30% or 40% rent increases, decided to stay in Austin and try to qualify for free homes? How will the City determine who is legitimately entitled to this grand prize of a benefit?

At first glance, this question might seem preposterous to longtime homeless advocates. If so, that just proves my point about the need for transparency. Will some of the newly constructed homes be intended only for transitional housing? Can we assume that the folks have to either buy the home, rent it or move out, if they get a job and become self-sufficient? Or, are they allowed to keep the free homes for life? Will these free homes come with a Federal tax liability, like the cars that were once given to Oprah Winfrey’s audience? The public needs to know, and we haven’t been told.

There Is a Big Shortfall, But It’s Not Financial

The City’s thinking falls far short of where It ought to be. Austin has a broad range of critical needs. In all of our history, major endeavors costing hundreds of millions of dollars have been debated, discussed and decided with significant public input. Major  projects have often required months, if not years of community involvement before we came together to approve them. On the homeless issue, our City leaders have made huge financial commitments, without large-scale community input. Discussions were held, of course, but not to the extent that we know many details about how the money is being spent. Or whether the public is comfortable with the vast amounts being spent. We haven’t seen any metrics on the progress made to house the homeless, or address the mental health, sanitation and public safety components of the issue.

Austin has a major affordability problem that impacts every neighborhood. We have a lopsided, tech-based economy that has created an income inequality crisis. It threatens our diversity, and is probably not economically sustainable. The Project Connect transit plan is spiraling out of control, with ballooning cost projections. Its odds of actually being completed, with miles of tunnels and a split-level underground fantasy land are slim to none. And we face a climate change challenge that threatens our quality of life, including severe wildfire dangers.

Bottom line – $515 million is a staggering sum to put into a single basket among all of our critical needs. Especially, without transparency and community consensus.

A Parting Thought

If and when the City finally decides to provide some transparency, I would urge them to reinforce their assumptions about the viability of their homeless initiatives. Please show us some examples of other cities that have a prove record of success, using the approaches that our taxpayer dollars will be funding. Let’s hope that the outcome looks better than what we see in San Francisco and L.A.

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “Someone’s Child” – Matthews, Wright & King
  2. “Ain’t Got No Home” – Clarence “Frogman” Henry
  3. “Green Green Grass of Home” – Tom Jones
  4. “Sloop John B” – The Beach Boys
  5. “Detroit City” – Bobby Bare

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.

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

Kathie Tovo For Austin Mayor – Wouldn’t It Be Great!

By Bill Oakey – January 18, 2022

Is your voice being heard at City Hall? If it isn’t, there’s a pretty simple reason. The special interests are the ones with all the connections. While you and your family are busy out working, the Big Money lobbyists and their cronies are always lurking at City Hall. Some are arrogant and some are real friendly. But their concern for you doesn’t add up to diddley.

So, many of us are wishing and hoping that Kathy Tovo will run for Mayor. Word has it that she is very close to a decision. If she doesn’t want it, we really can’t force her…

But if she does, I’m ready to endorse her!

Kathie Tovo

With Kathie Tovo in the Mayor’s chair, we could finally start chip-chipping away at that big thick wall that separates us regular folks from the insiders at City Hall. So, if she decides to run, what would you want her to include in her campaign platform? Let’s start thinking about that, just in case. I would propose some ideas on affordability. Then I would work with her office staff, and urge them to launch a couple of big initiatives right away. All I need is for her campaign to give me the word and start me up!

How Tough Would It Be To Get Her Elected?

This probably wouldn’t be an easy race for us to win. Every square inch of our City that hasn’t been nailed down is up for sale to the highest bidder. It’s too late to bring back the unique hometown ambiance and funky weirdness that helped the marketers lure more people here. The new Austin is still a wonderful place, but it’s fraught with many challenges. Not all of us drive Teslas and toss away $25 to $50 a pop to park at a soccer stadium. Some of us care more about a tasty down home meal than an overpriced joint with a fancy chef from Paris or Milan. Kathie Tovo is our strongest voice at City Hall. Don’t get me wrong, though. She has proven that she can bring all sides together and reach consensus on reasonable solutions to big, contentious issues.

So, if Kathie runs, how can we help her win?

In a nutshell, it’s up to you. We have elected grassroots candidates for Mayor before. But it’s a lot of hard work. You and your friends and their friends would all need to pitch in and help. If Kathy Tovo ran and won, she would be our first woman elected Mayor since the election of 1981. That was 41 years ago! Kathy supports the current development code requirement that neighborhoods must be notified in advance on proposed zoning changes. She can be counted on to work out a plan that allows more density in some areas, but not nearly as threatening to as many existing neighborhoods as what’s in the latest draft of the revised code.

Kathie did not vote to slash the police budget. As part of the City Council majority, she approved streamlining the operations, with much better handling of mental health related cases, and a whole host of other impressive reforms. The lack of officers on the job is largely caused by a backlog of new hires needing to complete the cadet training classes. The revisions to the cadet training program, which led to some delays, will pay off in the long run with much better protocols and safer outcomes during arrests. We need to share that message widely.

Here’s the Final Big Question…

Trustworthy grassroots candidates for Mayor with an amazing staff of experienced, knowledgable and responsive people are hard to come by. We might have to wait a million years for the next opportunity. So, if she runs here’s the big question. Can compassionate Austinites unite to support a proven leader who feels strongly about bringing people together to solve problems, and help heal our economic divide? I believe there’s a song that answers it – Yes, we can…can!

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting

  1. “Wouldn’t it Be Great” – Loretta Lynn, title song from her 2018 album, recorded at age 85
  2. “Wishin’ and Hopin'” – Dusty Springfield, 1964, written by Hal David & Burt Bacharach
  3. “Chip Chip” – Gene McDaniels, 1962
  4. “Start Me Up” – The Rolling Stones, 1981
  5. “It’s Too Late” – Carole King, 1971, from her 13X platinum album, “Tapestry”
  6. “It’s Up to You” – Ricky Nelson, 1962
  7. “I’d Wait a Million Years” – The Grass Roots, 1969
  8. “Yes We Can Can” – The Pointer Sisters, 1973, their first hit single. Listen joyously to the positive, unifying message in the lyrics! It fits so well today that it could have been written yesterday. it was written by the legendary New Orleans pianist, singer, songwriter and producer, Allen Toussaint.

Lyrics – Yes We Can Can

Now’s the time for all good men
To get together with one another.
We got to iron out our problems
And iron out our quarrels
And try to live as brothers.
And try to find peace within
Without stepping on one another.

And do respect the women of the world.
Remember you all have mothers.
We got to make this land a better land
Than the world in which we live.
And we got to help each man be a better man
With the kindness that we give.
I know we can make it.
I know darn well we can work it out.

Oh yes we can, I know we can can
Yes we can can, why can’t we?
If we wanna get together, we can work it out.
And we gotta take care of all the children,
The little children of the world.
‘Cause they’re our strongest hope for the future,
The little bitty boys and girls.

We got to make this land a better land
Than the world in which we live.
And we got to help each man be a better man
With the kindness that we give.
I know we can make it.
I know darn well we can work it out.
Oh yes we can, I know we can can
Yes we can can, why can’t we?
If we wanna, yes we can can.

You Can Help Win The Taxpayer Battle!

By Bill Oakey – April 28, 2021

Let’s cut right to the chase. We now have the facts we need to win a taxpayer victory, with the Federal Rescue Plan funds. The City will have to recognize that an 8% maximum tax increase won’t be necessary in the upcoming budget. They can simply cover the shortfall with the Federal funds. You’re going to be amazed, when you see how obvious the evidence looks:

1. Houston – City Controller Chris Brown says, “A $615 million influx of federal funds will help Houston stave off a potentially disastrous budget season.”

2. New Orleans – Officials said that they hope to stretch the funds to cover what could be years of budget shortfalls from the drop-off in tourism and sales taxes.

3. Grand Rapids, Michigan – Proposed budget shortfalls offset by American Rescue Plan

4. Memphis – This is the clincher! Mayor Strickland: “Federal funds will go to budget shortfalls, the tax rate will go down.”

5. Kansas City, Missouri – Received $195 million, exactly what Austin got! They will use it to restore budget cuts and enhance public services.

Check out my clumsy attempt at poetry, and then hit the single-click link to send an email to the Mayor and all 10 City Council members.

What’s wrong with some of our local officials?
Are they too inept to even write their initials?
All they have to do is look around
The solution is right there, so easily found

From Memphis to Grand Rapids, and towns in between
They’re applying Federal funds to their budgets so lean
In Austin where homes are so hard to afford
They just want to tax us, good gracious, Good Lord!

I research this stuff in the dead of night
And I’m nowhere near ready to give up the fight!
So, City Council members and County Commissioners too
The taxpayers are advancing, you know what to do!

Please use this single-click link to email the Mayor and City Council. Be polite, ask them to do right, and we can win this fight!

Then share this blog piece with everyone you know, and post it on social media.

Musical Accompaniment For This Blog Piece:

1. “Memphis” – Johnny Rivers
2. “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans”– Freddy Cannon
3. “Houston” – Dean Martin
4. “Saginaw, Michigan” – Lefty Frizzell
5. “Kansas City” – Wilbert Harrison
6. “Walkin’ To Missouri” – Sammy Kaye, 1952. First record in my music collection, at age 5

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.

Taxpayer Alert – City Considers 8% Property Tax Hike, Instead Of Using COVID Rescue Funds!

By Bill Oakey – April 26,  2021

Before the ink was barely dry on tens of thousands of shockingly high Austin property tax appraisals, City budget officials crafted a startling and alarming memo to the City Council. First reported by KXAN News last Thursday, the memo describes a purported $23 million shortfall in the upcoming City budget that will be hammered out this summer.

Despite Receiving $195.8 Million in American Rescue Plan Funds, Chief Financial Officer Suggests 8% Tax Increase!

The Texas Legislature has placed a 3.5% revenue cap on City and County tax increases. But, there is an exception to the tax law. I had to rub my eyes and blink twice to believe that I read his words correctly. But this is what Austin CFO, Ed Van Eenoo said to KXAN News:

“Essentially the language says that, you know, if there’s a disaster declaration, the year of that disaster declaration and the subsequent year, cities have the opportunity to go to the 8% increase,” Van Eenoo said. He estimates that change would result in about $15 to $20 million more in revenue for the city.

He Forgot to Mention That Austin Received $195.8 Million In  COVID Rescue Plan Funds!

The City has a special webpage that celebrates the huge Federal windfall. But you won’t find a single word about using it to provide critical property tax relief for homeowners and small businesses. Are they completely out of their minds?! The spending plan includes these categories: Public Health, Economic Recovery Resources, Hotel Occupancy Tax-Funded Services and Contingency. The $39.2 million contingency is for “unanticipated events.”

Well, Guess What…The “Unanticipated Event” Contingency Would Wipe Out the City’s Budget Shortfall

Or, the City could easily adjust some of the other non-health categories. The disturbing memo that the Budget Office sent to the City Council on April 16 echoes the CFO’s bizarre obsession with raising taxes to the 8% legal maximum. Here is the very first “Action Item” in the memo:

“Council must take action to direct that the voter‐approval rate be calculated using the higher, 8% increase factor. This initial action does not require that Council ultimately adopt a property tax rate at this higher level, but this direction must be given in order for Council to retain the option to do so during its budget adoption proceedings in August.”

The memo also lays out a parade of fee increases, stretching over the next five years! And don’t forget this year’s 23% tax increase for the Project Connect boondoggle!

Please Join With Me. Let’s Unite Behind a Much Better Property Tax Increase Amount:

Use This Single-Click Link to Email the Mayor and All 10 City Council Members

Tell them you support zero property tax increase and zero fee increases in the upcoming City Budget. Be sure to ask for a zero increase in the “effective tax rate.” That would actually lower the rate that goes on your tax bill, and help offset the huge tax appraisal increases. It’s a no-brainer to use a portion of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to bring tax relief to struggling Austin homeowners and small businesses.

Keep in mind that 6 City Council seats are up for election next year! Share this blog link with all of your friends, and post it to social media.

The Brookings Institution Recommends That Cities Use ARP Funds to Cover Budget Shortfalls

You may hear excuses for why tax relief can’t be done, or why it isn’t a good idea. That is poppycock! Here is what the Brookings Institution says about it:

“Based on our on-the-ground work in Northeast Ohio and Birmingham, Ala., we believe that elected officials—and the networks of civic, business, philanthropic, and community stakeholders that surround them—should take a three-pronged approach to using their ARP funding: stabilize, strategize, and organize. Stabilize – ARP provides state and local governments with the resources to stabilize their operating budgets.”

Raising Taxes As High As Possible Is Embedded In the City’s Bureaucratic Culture

Starting the budget process with the highest possible tax increase is like giving a teenager a $100 bill to go to the movies, and hoping he will bring back $86. The City’s motto seems to be “Raise taxes first, and ask questions later.” It is time for every homeowner and small business owner to rise up and stop that nonsense dead in its tracks!

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

1. “Rescue Me” – Fontella Bass, original version, 1965
2. “Love Minus Zero / No Limit” – Joan Baez, written by Bob Dylan
3. “Zero Zero” – Bent Fabric
4. “Emotional Rescue” – The Rolling Stones
5. “Rescue Me” – Linda Ronstadt, 1972

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

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