By Bill Oakey – July 6, 2014
If you don’t read another post on this blog, you should consider this one.
Does our city have a purpose, and if so, what is it?
We all have a critical stake in addressing that question. Failure to do so adequately, and to base our future strategies around it, could doom our economy and the ability of existing residents to remain in the city that we love. It’s that serious.
A Tale of Two Cities
Although Austin residents are traveling down many diverse paths, two of those paths have collided in the past and they threaten to do so again. Only this time, the collision could result in a meltdown. The reality show that we find ourselves in could be called “A Tale of Two Cities.” One of them finds people on fire with giddy anticipation for more of the success and financial gain that they enjoy. These are the developers and big business folks who bounce out of bed every morning, eagerly awaiting the next downtown announcement about a big growth opportunity.
The others are the terribly worried homeowners who fear that they may not make it through another round of property tax appraisals. Joining them are the renters, who can hardly believe their eyes when they open envelopes containing new leases that will increase anywhere from $100 to $400 or even $500 per month. Arguments that these conditions reflect a simple matter of supply and demand ignore the relentless hyping of Austin, much of which is funded with taxpayer money.
The frightening housing scenarios are playing out all over town, in painful disharmony with the joyful mood of downtown tourists at the various festivals. And the F1 visitors who indulge in $150 breakfasts and $300 massages at downtown hotels. The job announcements from the high tech companies moving to Austin make good headlines, and they do represent positive economic gains for those who benefit from them.
But how do we position ourselves to keep the colliding paths from fracturing the whole balloon and causing it to burst? Therein lies the toughest challenge that Austin has ever faced. Any boom and bust cycle that we experienced in the past would pale in comparison to what could happen this time, unless we seek some workable solutions and persevere to follow through with them.
Does Austin Have A Realistic Vision, or Even a Mission?
Is Austin’s sole purpose to expand in a way that creates a large income gap? If that is indeed our mission, where is it written down? If we have a more compassionate mission, to balance the gains of the wealthy with everyone else, where are the concrete plans to forge a consensus that will ensure sustainability? How do local leaders intend to protect the interests of seniors, low-income residents, and middle class people earning stagnant wages? Empty words in the Imagine Austin plan simply won’t cut it.
The Big Question That Public Officials Have Never Asked
Would Amazon.com or Amy’s Ice Cream develop an expansion plan that fans out in all directions without regard to any limitations? Would they draw up growth projections without considering the cost risks and the appropriate pace and timing? Or would they just haul off and build like crazy and hope for the best? You already know the answer. So, why should planning the future of our city be any different?
Gentrification Needs to Be Addressed Head-On
1. Both government leadership and business leadership needs to decide what to do about the large population that faces affordability challenges. Then they need to make a decision. Are all of these people expendable? Is it OK to just displace them? I am not kidding when I suggest that Austin leaders really need to address that question.
2. What kind of community would we have if we allowed untold numbers of people to be priced out? Who would replace them? Is that model even feasible, considering the stagnation of wages for huge numbers of jobs? Proceeding on a path that ignores these questions is risky in both humanitarian and economic terms.
3. Can we afford to send AISD on a perilous downhill slide of annual enrollment drops? If families with children are priced out of dozens of neighborhoods, who’s going to bail out AISD?
How Can the City Expect a 33.6% Increase In Property Tax Revenues Over the Next Five Years?
Some of that would be absorbed by new residents, but we would have to pay the lion’s share of it. And that’s only one chunk of the stampede of tax and utility increases coming down the pike. Just looking at the numbers is pretty shocking. Here is the chart from the City’s Five Year Financial Forecast.
A Healthy Dose of Prudent Planning, Better Transparency, And Listening to the People
1. Affordability is no longer just a catchphrase. Leaders from the City, County, AISD, Capital Metro, ACC and Central Health should schedule some serious joint discussions and set an agenda to address the problems. Ideas proposed on this blog and in numerous other resources should be prioritized and acted upon.
2. An honest attempt should be made to chart all of the ambitious, expensive plans that the City, the County, Project Connect and the other entities want to implement, and determine how many of them are financially feasible. What sort of available household income would it take to pay for these plans? This study should be combined with a cumulative analysis of the taxpayer impact of local budgets. Expenses should be matched with the public’s ability to pay. Diligent economic forecasting might buy the city the time it needs to determine a realistic approach to sustain these costs.
3. Austin should face up to the fact that it may be necessary to slow down some of the hype. That would take a lot of political will, but doing so could help prevent a boom and bust.
4. Job training should become a major goal and should be approached on several different fronts, from cooperation between businesses and the schools, to corporate involvement, to government participation.
5. Transparency should become a touchstone for every local authority. Citizens should be able to contact every individual board member of Capital Metro, Central Health, AISD and ACC. The financial status of each of these entities, along with Austin and Travis County, should be posted online in reasonable detail, and should be updated quarterly.
6. The Austin City Council should adopt my 28-year-old proposal for reforming the meeting process to allow citizens to speak without having to wait six hours or longer.
7. Public engagement with City officials and the consultants who work on major plans and projects should be completely redefined. We need a comprehensive policy that sets out formal procedures for public engagement. See my proposal here. Good models incorporating best practices exist online and should be cultivated. Once a framework for meaningful public engagement has been implemented at the City level, it should be replicated for each of the other entities.
8. Our next mayor should hold occasional town hall meetings in each of the new districts.