Tag Archives: Austin plans

Affordability Proposals That Will Really Make A Difference

By Bill Oakey – March 1, 2017

Even though it is commonly accepted that Austin has a serious affordability problem, there are some who do not believe City officials are taking the matter seriously. A recent newspaper article even used the word “affordability” with quotation marks around it. I believe it is well past time to get very serious about it and permanently remove the quotation marks.

Here is a set of proposals that will make a real difference in the lives of many Austinites:

1. Work With Area Businesses to Raise the Minimum Wage

The City does not have the legal authority to require businesses to raise the minimum wage. But they could certainly call business leaders together and work to make it happen. In January, 19 states raised their minimum wage. Major cities, such as St. Louis, Baltimore and many others  have either raised it or are scheduling votes to do so. Many of those plans call for a phased-in approach to reach a certain wage target between now a some future date.

Here in Austin, low-wage workers have struggled for the past several years to stay afloat amidst appalling rent increases and stagnant wages. It is time for somebody to step up to the plate and call for a voluntary agreement to phase in increases to the minimum wage. Downtown business leaders are not going to do this on their own. It will take a major leadership push on the part of City officials and labor advocates, as well as grassroots citizen involvement.

We always hear the same arguments against raising the minimum wage – It will put people out of work, it will cut workers’ hours, etc., etc. And yet, whenever the Federal government has raised the minimum wage in the past, businesses somehow survived and people kept working. What is terribly galling in all this is that businesses will gladly pay for increases in rent, utilities, furniture, supplies and everything else you can think of…except the very people who keep their businesses running and serve their customers.

2. Set Priorities On Austin’s $8.3 Billion Set of Costly, Ambitious Plans

Last year on this blog, I asked several time for a complete listing of all of the plans across the City’s entire spectrum of departments.  Finally, during last summer’s budget discussions, Council Member Ellen Troxclair asked for a list of plans and the costs for each one of them.

 Here is the list of plans. If you put these plans and costs into a spreadsheet and total them up, the price tag comes to a staggering $8.3 Billion! And keep in mind that several of these items only show annual costs, without saying how many years it will take to complete them. So, the real total is considerably higher than $8 billion. And the plans keep coming. Another one was probably started while you were reading this!

The City needs to publish a complete list of plans in a single printed volume and also post them on their website. We need to have a major public discussion on prioritizing these plans. There is no way we could afford to pay upfront or borrow anything close to $8 billion dollars anytime soon. It would be irresponsible for the City to continue writing and developing any more plans until they can come up with an affordable timeline to pay for the ones we already have.

3. Allow People 65 and Over to Opt Out of the New Composting Fee

Sometime during the past year, some person or persons on the City staff woke up one morning with a brilliant idea…Let’s start charging every utility customer a brand new $5.00 composting fee! Hey, why not? It’s only money, and it would sure make Austin look green, cool, and hip! Well, in case you haven’t noticed the “add-on fees” that are tacked onto our monthly utility bills are growing faster than the annual increases in property taxes. You can look up the annual budgets online and see this disturbing trend. The new composting fee is scheduled to be phased in, and there is currently no opt-out provision. Seniors are already overburdened with skyrocketing taxes year and year and many of us are living on fixed incomes. An opt-out for seniors on the composting fee is a very reasonable request.

4. Establish a Two-Year Freeze On Utility Bill “Add-On Fees”

For almost 150 years, the City of Austin paid for all of its service from property taxes, sales taxes and transfers from the Austin Energy and the Water Utility to the General Fund. Then, a creeping trend began to evolve. Some bureaucrats decided to add things like a drainage fee, transportation fee and “clean community service” fee to our utility bills. These fees are rarely discussed in detail during budget season, but they have been rising at an alarming rate in recent years. The City Council should order a freeze on increases to these fees for two years and direct the staff to come up with efficiency plans to control the spiraling costs.

5. Set Policies to Protect Austin’s Remaining Affordable Neighborhoods

Austin is far from being the first city to face an affordability crisis. San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and other cities have faced the same issues of gentrification and displacement that we have. It is time for our City officials to reach out to these other cities and collaborate with them to determine what policies can be put into place to save some of our older neighborhoods before it is too late. We have heard lots of talk about traffic impacts and neighborhood preservation. But where are the proactive strategies to ensure that we don’t continue to lose every square inch of Austin land to luxury retail and extremely dense residential development?

We already have plans and reports that claim to include these protections. And yet we watch as communities in East Austin and along South Congress and other areas fall prey to the greedy whims of outside profiteers. To them, Austin is just another page in their ledger book. If our economy collapses under the weight of wage stagnation and economic inequality, then it’s no problem for the profiteers. They can just move on to wherever the next “It City” happens to be. And Austerities will be stuck with the massive debt hangover that comes with another boom and bust cycle.

If the City wants to get serious about affordability, our leaders will approach the problems of wage stagnation, displacement of older residents and enforceable standards for neighborhood traffic and land use compatibility. There should be plenty of examples to follow from other cities that have stumbled along the same treacherous path that we find ourselves on today. We should all call upon our City Council to take the quotation marks off “affordability” and get to work on some serious, meaningful solutions.

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One More Time – Can We Get A Master List With Total Costs For All City Plans?

By Bill Oakey May 19, 2016

I have asked this question before, both on this blog and in the offices down at City Hall. There was the first time and then the next time. The last time I tried it out on a City Council aide, I got a polite response. In fact, they’ve all been polite.  But we are still no closer to an actual, tangible report that you could hold in your hand or click on from a website. What we need, in my opinion, is a complete list of all active City plans, showing how much each one of them will cost, and what the total cost would be if we funded every one of them. And, there’s one other thing. We need a public process to engage with the City Council, so they can set priorities and establish an affordable timeline to implement and pay for the most essential plans.

So, there! I’ve said it again. And on Thursday during Citizens Communications at the City Council meeting, I will deliver the suggestion and the request one more time. Rather than repeat myself on this blog, I will offer the previous links to this subject at the end. But first, I must confess that I failed to employ one of my core research principles. So, let’s get that out of the way right now.

My Favorite Question for Other Cities – How Do You Do It?

Today a little light went off in my head, and I realized that I needed to do a simple Google search for “list of city plans.” Lo and behold, there are other cities out there that publish lists of their plans. Granted, these are not necessarily in a format that summarizes, prioritizes and tallies up the total cost. But, heck, a master list is a gigantic step in the right direction. This might help convince Austin officials that it isn’t such a crazy idea after all. Below are links to some of the lists from other cities found in the Google search:

  1. Portsmouth, New Hampshire – “Plans and Reports,” from “Plan Portsmouth” website
  2. Homer, Alaska – “Strategic Doing List of City Plans” (Memorandum 15-042)
  3. Ann Arbor, Michigan – “List of City Plans,” from “Sustainability Framework, 2013,” Appendix A, Page 14
  4. Asheville, North Carolina – “City Plans”
  5. Urbana, Illinois – “Urbana Plan Commission, Regular Meeting Minutes,” November 6, 2014, Item 5, Page 2, 5th paragraph, “There is a list of City plans that are available on the City’s website…”

I should point out that a few of Austin’s plans are listed on the “Planning and Zoning Development webpage.”

How Long Should It Take the City to Compile the List?

One friend told me that it’s “pretty scary” to think that no one person at City Hall knows how many plans there are, much less how much all of them totaled up might cost. So, what deadline should I suggest, if I can find a Council sponsor for a resolution? The bottom line would be a pretty scary number, so perhaps October 31st, Halloween, would be appropriate. The City Manager would no doubt decide which Halloween of which year in the future to comply with the resolution, regardless of what due date is certified by the City Clerk in the approved document. But it’s still worth one more try. Maybe the request won’t just fade away, like all the other times.

One Final Comment That Does Bear Repeating

You can read my previous blog postings on this subject by clicking here, here and here. To conclude, let’s all think about this question. What would happen if the CEO of Apple, Google, Amazon or any other big company was called upon by their board of directors to provide a complete list of that company’s active plans, their total cost, and a time frame for funding those plans? Suppose that CEO stared back at the board and said, “I don’t have any such list, and I don’t know how many departments have active plans in place.” The chairperson would most likely reply, “We hope you have enjoyed your tenure here as CEO. The door is over that way…”

door out

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:
Planning Songs
  1. “Making Plans” – Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton, 1980
  2. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” – Paul Simon, 1975
Timing Songs
  1. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” – Celine Dion, 2004
  2. “The Next Time” – Cliff Richard & the Shadows, 1962
  3. “The Last Time” – The Rolling Stones, 1965
  4. “This Time” – Troy Shondell, 1961
  5. “Time After Time” – Frank Sinatra, 1947
  6. “Time After Time” – Cyndi Lauper, 1983
  7. “There! I’ve Said It Again” – Bobby Vinton, 1963
  8. “Try Me One More Time” – Wanda Jackson, 1966
  9. “Like All The Other Times” – Marty Robbins, 1961
  10. “Do It Again” – The Beach Boys, 1968
Questions & Answers
  1. “How Do You Do It?” – Gerry & the Pacemakers, 1963. (Turned down by the Beatles for their first record)
  2. “Lo And Behold” – James Taylor, 1970
Scary Songs
  1. “Haunted House” – Jumpin’ Gene Simmons, 1964
  2. “The Purple People Eater” – Sheb Wooley, 1958
  3. “The Mummy” – Bob McFadden & Dor, 1959
  4. “Monster Mash” – Bobby “Boris” Pickett, 1962

If We Don’t Like What’s Happening To Austin, What Should We Do?

By Bill Oakey – September 12, 2014

We often hear statements made about Austin as though they were carved in stone. “Austin is This” or “Austin is That.” And we are expected to march along, blindly accepting whatever Austin “is” or whatever it is being turned into.

But what if the majority of citizens have a different desire for what they want Austin to be? Is there anything we can do to change the status quo? Well, I can assure you that if I did not have the heartfelt belief that we can do something to change the status quo, this blog would not exist and you would not be reading it right now.

I’m going to paint an analogy that feels a whole lot like what Austin residents have been subjected to in the last few years. Suppose you went to work one morning and the boss unexpectedly called you into his office. He announces that your entire division at the company is being outsourced. Over the next six to eight months, your assignment will be to train your replacements. But let’s add one more little piece to this analogy. The boss tells you that in order to accommodate the good folks who will be taking your place, he will need to dock your pay significantly so that you and the others in your division will shoulder the cost of the transition.

In other words, you have just been told that it’s only a matter of time before you are kicked out of your office. And to add insult to injury, you will foot the bill to pay the cost of bringing your replacement into the workplace that you have enjoyed for the past twenty odd years. Sound familiar? All you would have to do is substitute “neighborhood” for “division,” “home” for your job, and “city” for your company. The people who control the planning and policies of Austin are working hard to convince you that the “right thing to do” is to abandon your home and your neighborhood so that some people you have never met can come in and take it over. And on your way out, you can kindly leave a check for your share of the expenses of the upgrade of your neighborhood.

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear somebody say, “Well, the population is going to double by the year so-and-so” and we just “have to start somewhere” to make the investment needed to accommodate all of the new people. We are expected to be good little soldiers and head down to the polls on November 4th and vote to double our bond debt for the new urban rail system. If we don’t like the route, that’s not a problem. This is only the first phase of a citywide system that will cure all of our traffic problems. Never mind that the price tag for a citywide rail system would be $8 billion to $10 billion.

Is There Anything We Can Do to Change the Status Quo?

Indeed there is, but it will not be easy. After the new City Council is sworn in, we need to let them know that “Austin” is not just a page in a banker’s ledger book or a real estate broker’s portfolio. It is a place where living and breathing people already have homes, families and jobs. There are numerous words that politicians and power brokers use to describe their aspirations for Austin. One of those is “competition.” Austin is supposedly in constant competition with other cities for the next corporate tax handout. Well, what if the people told the politicians that we would rather be in “competition” for an affordable place to live?

A word that you will hear very seldom if ever is “capacity.” What is the public’s financial capacity to pay for an endless parade of plans and projects to turn Austin into a completely different and unaffordable place? Do you suppose that there just might be some practical limit on how much a homeowner should be expected to pay for property taxes? I submit that there is a limit, since we know that many Austinites have already clocked out and left for more affordable pastures. For those of us who remain, how much more in property taxes can we absorb? A $10,000 annual tax bill? $12,000? $15,000? Who knows where it will all end up if we stay on the path that we currently find ourselves on.

Within the context of capacity, we have transportation experts who can measure our road capacity. It is not terribly difficult to predict how long it might take for certain roadways to reach total gridlock. So, what do we do about that? The boneheaded planners who conjured up the limited-access “Lexus Lanes” on Mopac certainly did not help matters any. And do you really think it’s a good idea for the City Council to approve a PUD along MoPac with more retail square footage than Barton Creek Square Mall? If we thought real hard about it, we might just realize that the plans in place could be revised under the new Council to help preserve our neighborhoods.

Attempting to go up against the well-funded and firmly entrenched powers-that-be who pull the strings on City decision-making will not be easy. But the new 10-1 Council system is our best chance in a very long time. There have been plenty of extensive discussion on various reforms that could be enacted to set Austin on a more financially sustainable path. But one fundamental concept underlies all of those reforms:

Citizen involvement in the planning process.

Until we convince our elected leaders that we and our neighbors are entitled to a seat at the table during major planning sessions, and that our input must be included in the published reports on the plans, then we can only expect more of the same. Healthy doses of Inclusiveness, transparency, and financial accountability are essential ingredients for any reform package that will tilt the balance of future opportunity and prosperity back toward the existing residents who helped make Austin the desirable place that it is today.