Tag Archives: Austin Taxes

An Open Letter To City Hall

By Bill Oakey – May 7, 2021

A Quick Background Summary

I have been a community taxpayer advocate since 1983. I have recently urged the Austin City Council to allocate a significant portion of their $195 million in Federal COVID Rescue Plan Funds to cover the City’s budget shortfall, and reduce or eliminate any property tax increase in the upcoming City Budget. So far, I have run smack into a brick wall. They never even thought of what I’m suggesting, and the City’s CFO has asked the City for authorization to raise taxes all the way to 8%, instead of using the Federal money. Please go to the home page of this blog and scroll down to earlier postings for more details.

Please Send Me Your Hardship Stories…

Use the Comments section of this blog, or email me. If you or someone you know is facing difficulties with this year’s high tax appraisals, send me their stories. Do you know a landlord who cannot afford to keep their property because they can’t raise the rent high enough to cover the taxes? Or someone who could be forced to give up their own home? Or a small business that will have to close if their taxes continue to rise beyond reason? I will compile these stories and submit them to each member of the City Council. It is HIGH TIME that longterm Austin residents and our iconic business owners had their voices heard at City Hall!

Read On, And Let’s Break Through That City Hall Brick Wall!

On Wednesday, I met with a City Council policy advisor. It did not go well. And I’m afraid that many others at City Hall have had their heads dunked into the same sour vat of faulty reasoning. The comments below are addressed to all of them. The last part is a fervent appeal to anyone at City Hall who might be willing to wake up and see what is happening around them.

Hello to Anyone Listening at City Hall,

I don’t know where you are getting your advice from. But they steered you in the completely wrong direction. Their mode of thinking will make our City’s financial condition much worse than it is today. You won’t have to take my word for it. You will see it unfold yourself, and it will not be a pretty picture!

If you and the people who have influenced you cannot see that $195 million in aid from the Federal government can help a City mitigate their financial difficulties, then maybe you and they are beyond help. There are many other cities that saw it several months ago, and they are taking the obvious and correct actions. This is not just about lowering taxes. The Federal money needs to be applied towards shoring up the city’s financial foundation, regardless of where you set the tax rate.

Providing tax relief during a recession and a pandemic is a separate issue. And it’s one that should be considered as well. It could only be done for a year or two, but THAT’S WHAT A RECOVERY IS. It’s a temporary thing. If you don’t want to cut the effective tax rate to zero, then cut it to 1%.

Do not obsess over the limitations placed on the City by the State Legislature. If you are concerned that their limit on raising taxes will hurt the City’s financial condition long term, then get this. That’s all the more reason to shore up the budget now with Federal money. That’s a major reason why Congress passed the American Rescue Plan in the first place!

You have the information on the other cities that are following the correct path. You can choose to ignore it. Or, you can choose to dissect each of those cities’ plans, and conjure up reasons why Austin’s situation is somehow different. But it won’t change the reality. Austin is in financial trouble, for all of the reasons that you pointed out. But refusing to take advantage of a large infusion of money that could provide relief to the citizens makes no sense at all.

Please do not think that what I am telling you is coming from me alone. This is not about one person sitting at home with a blog. A large number of people across the City are involved in this effort – because they care about Austin. All of them can easily see a few simple facts:

1. Austin’s bond rating has already been lowered once. We cannot afford to pass up the opportunity to prevent it from being lowered further.

2. Spending nearly all of the Federal money on the homeless and other social programs would be a very bad idea. There is plenty available to take care of those needs AND shore up the City budget too.

3. In my meeting on Wednesday, I was told 15 or 20 times that the City cannot afford to lower taxes because of Austin’s debt, contracts with City workers and the City’s structural financial weakness. If that is the case, then please tell the community HOW IN THE WORLD we can possibly afford billions in additional debt for Project (Dis)Connect??!!

4. The high tax appraisals and looming tax increases facing homeowners and small businesses are not on the City Council’s radar at all. You can’t address a problem until you make it a top priority. It is long past time for at least one or two City Council members to stand up publicly and finally take notice! Which one or two of our City Council members will it be?

Please use this single-click link to email the Mayor and City Council. Forward this blog piece to your friends, post it on social media, and ask your friends to do the same.

Mayor Steve Adler

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes

Council Member Mackenzie Kelly

Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria

Council Member Paige Ellis

Council Member, Leslie Pool

Council Member Kathie Tovo

Council Member Gregorio “Greg” Casar

Council Member Ann Kitchen

Council Member Alison Alter

In 1983, Austin Was Scared About Its Future

By Bill Oakey – May 2, 2021

Today, as we emerge from the pandemic, Austinites look to the future with both hopes and fears. We hope that our fun times will soon return – live music, outdoor festivals, meeting friends at favorite restaurants, and enjoying our city’s special quality of life. Our fears go well beyond what the pandemic did to the economy and our iconic local businesses.

People are scared that their neighborhoods will be transformed into super-dense vertical villages, where you have to look up to see the sky. We worry that the over-hyped promise of a sleek mass transit system will be bogged down with huge cost overruns, and a downturn tunnel system that nosedives tens of millions into debt, before going bust. And we are scared that our tax appraisals will soar to San Francisco levels, while retired folks and middle income workers struggle to get by. We actually wonder whether City leaders are serving us at all, or just the people they are recruiting to replace us. We even face the twisted notion that trying to preserve our neighborhoods is somehow divisive and racist.

Now, let’s turn the clock back 38 years, and read what the New York Times wrote about our fears back in 1983:

BOOMING AUSTIN FEARS IT WILL LOSE ITS CHARMS

By Robert Reinhold, The New York Times – October 8, 1983

This appealing college town set in the lovely Texas hill country is rapidly becoming a major city with a high-technology economy, and many an Austinite is wondering if that will spoil a good thing.

As a growing number of computer, aerospace and other high-technology companies like Motorola, I.B.M. and Lockheed discover Austin’s charms, many here are asking whether the city will become ”another Houston.” That grim catchword symbolizes for Austinites the worst of Texas’s unbridled urban development: clogged freeways, sprawl, pollution and garish commercial strips.

Widely regarded as the most ”livable” of Texas cities, Austin long got along on just two economic legs: the University of Texas and the state government, a mix that made it a politically liberal and socially tolerant pocket in a conservative state. Now it is becoming a formidable industrial center, too.

Last May, Austin was selected over 57 other places as the site for the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, or M.C.C., a joint research venture of 11 major American computer makers to compete with the Japanese in building the next generation of information technology.

The Chamber of Commerce predicted that the ”multiplier” effect of M.C.C. could turn Austin into the country’s foremost high-technology center. It is a vision that has not been greeted with uniform enthusiasm by Austinites, many of whom remain uneasy about its consequences. But few believe growth can be halted.

”They’ve gotten away from the notion it is possible to stop growth, so now the question is how to manage it,” said Michael Levy, publisher of Texas Monthly magazine, headquartered here. ”What motivates people is fear of becoming another Houston. Every other household has a growth-management expert in it.”

Robert Lane, president of the InterFirst Bank, the largest here, said the city’s ”paranoia” about growth had led it to neglect roads and services. He believes the city must devise a long- range ”road map” to see beyond the weekly battles over zoning and development that consume the City Council.

”Austin really has the last good chance to manage its growth to maintain the quality of life we have,” he said.

Whether Austin can rein in the powerful economic and social forces at work is problematical. For better or worse, there are already signs that it has outgrown its small-town charms. On Congress Street downtown, a half dozen major office buildings are going up, including One American Center, a 32-story complex that has stirred outrage among many because it will block the view of the State Capitol from many neighborhoods. On the outskirts, commercial strips along Highway 183 and Ben White Boulevard are as garish and congested as anywhere.

Barton Springs, a spring-fed swimming hole longer than two football fields that many Austinites consider the town’s greatest natural treasure, is often closed because of bacterial pollution after heavy rains. The closures started after development began in its watershed.

Meanwhile, despite a city ”master plan” that discourages it, developers are inexorably carving up the limestone hills to the west of town to accommodate growing demands for housing there, raising fears about pollution of the Edwards aquifer below ground that supplies the city’s waters.

For years the city tried to limit its growth by denying water and sewer services to developers and by refusing to annex surrounding land; the voters repeatedly turned down bond issues. But this approach backfired because developers got water from the Lower Colorado River Authority, meaning development was occurring anyway and Austin was losing control of it.

As a consequence, the no-growth battle has been given up. Roger Duncan, the strongest environmental voice on the City Council, said: ”We’ve lost that battle. We have not been successful in controlling development in environmentally sensitive areas by utility controls. Now we are trying other things.”

He said he was now in favor of extending utility services to developers in exchange for stiffer landscaping, environmental and zoning standards.

By the same token, the pro-growth forces have begun to compromise politically with the environmental forces. The newly elected Mayor, Ron Mullen, an insurance broker, was a voice of business for years as a Council member. He has since changed his views, he said, and now believes development should proceed in ways that do not damage the aquifer and Austin’s natural beauty.

”I am much more concerned than I was about keeping that quality of life as good or better than it is,” he said, praising his erstwhile environmental foes as ”good consciences for the community.”

An example of the city’s new approach to ”managed” growth is Gary L. Bradley’s plans to develop the old Circle C Ranch, 3,600 acres of cedars and live oaks southwest of the city that is in the aquifer area and outside Austin’s ”preferred” growth corridor. Mr. Bradley, a 34-year-old West Texas native who has been in Austin since 1968, is negotiating with the city to provide him water and sewer lines by approving a municipal utility district with authority to issue bonds for his project, which would ultimately have 7,000 homes and apartments.

In exchange, Mr. Bradley has offered to build special retention dams to reduce runoff pollution and to limit paving and density.

”The city does not have to extend utilities to me,” he said. ”But they want to because they do not want me to buy water from the river authority.” Moreover, he said, he is cognizant of what he affectionately calls the ”granola army,” environmentalists who ”can beat you without money.”

”We’ve got a town with a conscience,” he said. ”We will not have another Houston. We have too many safeguards.”

Others are less hoepful. ”I don’t see any way of avoiding the fate that awaits us,” said Kenneth Manning, a 38-year-old lawyer and environmental leader who used to work for Mr. Bradley. He said the city was unable to take a strong hand in channeling development because ”it is extremely difficult to get the City Council to tell a developer ‘no’ once in a while.” All six Council members and the new Mayor ran with contributions from developers in April’s elections. The Best of All Worlds

Austin in a way has the best of all worlds: the fine restaurants, theaters and good bookstores of urban life, yet a small-city layout with lots of parks that lets you get home from work in 15 minutes. Many of its residents are Texans who came to study at the university and stayed, many of them professionals who have sacrificed more lucrative careers elsewhere. Many artists, writers, poets and artisans have also gravitated here.

It is just these things that have brought high-technology businesses seeking refuge from the high costs and congestion in California’s high-technology area and wanting an agreeable setting to help recruit staff. Austin’s population swelled from 254,000 in 1970 to 345,000 in 1980. The chamber estimates its has since grown to more than 367,000, and some estimates say the metropolitan area will exceed a million by the year 2000. Over the last decade, the number of passengers using the municipal airport has grown from 600,000 to more than 2 million yearly. The growth is accelerating. Since 1979 2.6 million square feet of office space has been built; 2.3 million more is now under construction.

Frank W. McBee, a native Austinite who heads the pioneer technology firm here, Tracor Inc., welcomes all this. ”If I want to come into Austin I could put my plant in Elgin, Buda or Georgetown and not pay the city any taxes,” he said, referring to nearby towns. ”The city needs to embrace growth, manage it and benefit from it.”

Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, U.S.N., retired, head of the new M.C.C. venture who is a former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, agreed, saying, ”I think the fears are greatly overstated.”

In 1979 the City Council adopted a master plan to encourge growth along a north-south axis on the theory that new development would be most efficient where there are aleady utilities and transportation lines. But people prefer to live on the hills to the west, and nothing has been able to stop them.

The Council is devising new, more stringent zoning and building codes, and pressure is mounting for strict new rules to limit density in the ecologically fragile Lake Austin watershed to the west. Many, too, are urging the city to annex aggresively lest nearby towns hem it in, even though annexation means that the city must supply services. Over the next few months voters will be asked to approve more than $1 billion in bonds for water, sewer and electric service.

The watchword is low density, but that means high cost. Austin’s population is about 20 percent Mexican- American and 10 percent black, and Councilman John Trevino, son of a Mexican laborer, has his doubts about managed growth.

”Low density development eliminates most minorities,” Mr. Trevino said. ”Are we building an elitist community? Yes, we want to enjoy the environment. But none of my folks will be able to move in.”

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

San Francisco Is Worried That Austin Is Becoming Like San Francisco!

By Bill Oakey – April 19, 2021

My cousin pointed me to a Bloomberg Business article that clearly shows how out of whack things are getting here. People from the Silicon Valley have been coming here for years because  they liked Austin. That’s the Austin that had a thriving live music scene, a funky “keep it weird” vibe and lots of other things that the locals created. For many of us, it’s been fun meeting the new people at various festivals and other events.

But, what happens when the very factors that drove people out of California start happening right here? Well, we don’t have to wait long to find out. I will provide a link to the “San Francisco Is Worried” story. But first, here are a few things they need to think about before and after they get here. Maybe one of their high tech think tanks could discuss these, and then sit down with the folks on our City Council. Here’s what they need to know…

To The Good People Of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley:

Our transportation system will get much worse before it gets better!

Last year, Austin voters were promised a dazzling crosstown rail system, with a downtown tunnel, and two lines crossing Lady Bird Lake. One of those will extend to the airport. The grand plan, which was easily approved by voters, is riddled with problems. For starters, the “initial investment” of $7.1 billion won’t go very far. In 2016, Seattle approved a $54 billion expansion of their existing rail system, and it is already over budget. Our new system, even if it could be built on a wing and a prayer, will leave several of Austin’s busiest roadways with only one car lane in each direction.

I requested detailed feasibility and engineering studies, prior to the bond election. Why were they not provided to me? Because they don’t exist. Studies were set to begin many months after voters bought the plan and started paying taxes for it. The plans call for two crossings over the lake, but doesn’t specify where, how, or even whether enough land is available or could be acquired near either crossing. Nobody has been able to figure that one out yet.

The downtown tunnel is a dead-on-arrival pipe dream. A fault runs under part of downtown, causing occasional leaks into basements in buildings. There are numerous utility fixtures under the downtown streets. The rock in the ground is so hard that utility contractors have a difficult time even drilling a small space for a maintenance vehicle to squeeze through. Project Connect’s fairy tale image of people sipping cocktails across from an underground rail station, while grooving to a live band are positively hilarious!

Wait Till Austinites See Their Property Tax Bills Later This Year!

The $7.1 billion “initial investment” by taxpayers is only a drop in the bucket for the expected final cost. Any modern citywide rail and expanded bus system would easily cost 3 to 4 times that much in local funding. This year’s 8.75 cent property tax for the sure-to-fail-rail is almost as high as the 11 cent annual tax for our entire Central Health System. And it’s even closer to our 10.6 cent tax for Austin Community College. In my next blog piece, I will introduce you to the boondoggle bureaucracy that will “enhance, engage and facilitate” the implementation of the big fairy tale plan.

Perhaps I’ve Said Enough for One Tough Swallow!

I wouldn’t want to spoil anyone’s lovely welcome from San Francisco, before they even get their moving boxes off the truck. So, I won’t bemoan the fact that I-35 will be torn apart for 10 or 15 years with new construction, at the very same time that rail construction rips up the streets across the city. And I’ll say no more about the hapless diggers who will try to bore their way under our downtown streets. Oh, and I almost forgot to say this to our kind and gentle friends from San Francisco…Welcome to Austin!

And Now For That Entertaining Story…Click the Headline:

Silicon Valley Is Flooding Into a Reluctant Austin

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

1. “San Francisco “ – Scott McKenzi
2. “San Franciscan Nights” – Eric Burdon & The Animals
3. “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” – Tony Bennett
4. “Fairytale” – The Pointer Sisters

Get Ready For Something Nasty In Your Mailbox – Tax Appraisal Notices Are Coming!

By Bill Oakey – March 22, 2021

Birds are chirping. Spring is in the air. People are out frolicking, with hardly a care. High above that facade sits an unmerciful God. Reach into your mailbox…but only if you dare!

I offer both good news and bad news. You might qualify for a temporary property tax exemption if you sustained certain levels of damage during the February storm. The TCAD website lists all the details. The bad news is that the Chairman of the Appraisal Review Board has abruptly resigned, because of serious animosity towards him from other board members. That could throw a huge kink into this year’s rollicking tax protest season, which seems to set new records in numbers every single year. The appraisal review process has strained under heavy workloads in the recent past, leading to chaos and legal challenges.

Why Do Austin’s Tax Appraisals Keep Skyrocketing?

The simple answer is that the official mission of our once affordable city has morphed into something rather frightening for ordinary, hard-working, longtime residents. If you look in the City Budget, you will find an organization chart. The little box at the very top is labeled “Citizens of Austin.” The official wording in that box remains the same, as it has since Austin’s founding in 1839. But, unofficially, a single new word has been added.

You may recall a scene from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The first time the animals walked by the big sign on the barn, it said, “All Animals Are Equal.” But the next time they saw it, the message had been altered – “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” In the case of our City’s Organization Chart, just one single word has been added to describe the folks in the very top box – “Future Citizens of Austin.”

The powerful special interests who control the City have a mission for you and your neighbors as well – Make way for those wealthy newcomers, and the developers who want to bulldoze your house and turn it into multiple luxury units. For another analogy, think of the science fiction movie classic, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Seed pods were placed outside people’s bedroom windows. Once you fell asleep, the seed pod would burst open to reveal a blank, alien body that had arrived to take the place of yours. The assembled army of new, sinister creatures then tried to brainwash the rest of the town into falling asleep and joining their herd.

That same scenario is playing out here in Austin. This time it’s called “Invasion of the Property Snatchers.” No family is safe, not even from its own members. If your wife comes to the breakfast table looking a bit odd, and speaks in a dull, lifeless tone, get ready to run. Especially, if she says something like, “Oh darling, we were so wrong! High density is wonderful for our neighborhood. It’s too late to stop it anyway. Let them have our lot. We should sell it, or maybe just give it to them…” Jump up from the table and run! As fast and as far as you can. But whatever you do, don’t fall asleep!

How to Open Your Tax Appraisal Notice

By Bill Oakey – Originally published March 26, 2014

Within just a matter of days, something will happen all over Austin that must be approached with utmost caution.  That thump and rustling sound that you hear outside your front door could evoke a cold sweat and the starkest feeling of sheer dread and fear.  “Could it be out there today?” you might wonder.  “Was that really the mailman, or just a bird trying to make another nest?”  “Should I actually go out there and look?”  “Do I have to?”

All of those are perfectly legitimate questions.  But sooner or later, you are going to have to open that door.  You are going to have to stick your hand in the mailbox, and find out if this is the day that you were hoping  would never come.  But I have a few suggestions that might help you get through the process.  There may be a way to do it and remain in one piece.

1. With any luck, the “bad envelope” will be buried inside a bundle of junk mail.  Grab the bundle and squeeze it tightly, so that you can take everything inside without looking at the envelopes.

2. Once your are safely inside the house, it’s OK to look through the envelopes.  But make sure you are sitting down first.

3. If you even think you see an envelope from the Travis Central Appraisal District, don’t open it right away and don’t panic!  Take a few deep breaths and look at the envelope again.  Make absolutely sure that you saw what you think you saw.  Our brains can play tricks on us sometimes.

4. If you are positively certain that what you are holding really is your tax appraisal notice, then you will have to make another decision.  When and how are you going to open it?

5. My advice is definitely not to do it alone!  If your significant other is not home yet, wait until you can share the memorable experience together.

6. If you don’t have a significant other, or if he/she is out with another significant other, just call a good friend.

7. Depending on your situation, you might want to pour a glass of wine or have some medication handy if needed.  I’ve always heard that aspirin is good for a stroke.

8. If the battery is low on your phone, plug it in.  You might need to call 911.

9. When you and at least one other supportive person are sure you are prepared, go ahead and get ready to open the envelope.  Do not attempt it with a sharp object like a knife or a letter opener.

10. Open your tax appraisal notice.

Sorry, I can’t help you any further.  We will all miss you when you leave.  Take those fond memories of Austin with you, and come back and see us sometime!

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece

1. “Something’s Coming” – West Side Story, Original Broadway Cast
2. “Getting Ready for the Heartbreak” – Chuck Jackson
3. “Bad Moon Rising” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
4. “Taxman” – The Beatles
5. “Shutters and Boards” – Jerry Wallace
6. “In the Middle of the House” – Vaughn Monroe
7. “Make Way for a Better Man” – Willie Nelson
8. “Home of the Blues” – Johnny Cash
9. “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town” – Ray Charles
10. “Little Boxes” – Pete Seeger

23% City Tax Increase Baked In Before November Election!

By Bill Oakey – August 18, 2020

As the pandemic drags on and threatens to be compounded by the winter flu season, Austin taxpayers face another daunting challenge. Last week the City Council adopted their new budget that includes a 23% property tax increase. This increase is for Project Connect’s “initial investment” of $7.1 billion for a horribly flawed mass transit plan. Voters will decide whether to approve the tax increase in the November 3rd election.

But by the time the election gets underway, the Travis County Tax Office may have already processed our new property tax bills with the City’s 23% increase baked in. This link shows that last year, the Travis County Tax Office submitted electronic bills to taxpayers on November 1st. It remains to be seen whether it is possible or feasible for the County to wait until after the election to prepare this year’s tax bills.

What Happens If Tax Bills Get Processed Before The Election, And Voters Reject The Unconscionable Tax Increase?

The Texas Municipal League has published a helpful guide to implementing Senate Bill 2, which contains the State legislation related to this topic. At the bottom of Page 9, it states:

”If property owners pay their taxes using the originally adopted tax rate and the voters ultimately reject that rate at an election in November, the city must refund the difference between the amount of taxes paid and the amount of taxes due under the voter-approval tax rate.”

As you can easily imagine, we could be headed for a confusing and chaotic whale of a mess! Long before the November election, scores of businesses, landlords and homeowners struggling with mortgage payments during the pandemic will confront a harsh reality. They may be delinquent or completely unable to pay their property tax bills. On top of that, the City of Austin may have to calculate and process tax refunds for a few hundred thousand taxpayers.

And If That Isn’t Enough, Another City Tax Increase Is Looming!

In their infinite wisdom, the City Council chose this unfortunate time to put a whopping $460 million bond issue on the November ballot. Proposition B is a grab bag of projects including bike lanes, urban trails and transportation improvements. Some of these are well thought out and necessary. But voters should reject it this year, because it is loaded down with far too many expensive goodies that we can’t afford during a hundred year health crisis and recession. (For crying out loud)!

The absurd Project Connect item is Prop A on the November ballot. The nearly half-billion dollar goody bag is Prop B. So, here is a slogan that we can share with friends all the way to the November election:

Vote Nay On Prop A, and No Sirree On Prop B!

City Council Rejects Police Contract – But Will They Trim The Cost?

By Bill Oakey – December 14, 2017

The late-night vote to send the contract back to negotiations was unanimous. And unprecedented. It came after seven hours of heated public testimony from both sides in the debate. This is the first time a City Council has ever rejected a police contract. Here’s the bottom line…

We Have Until March 22 to Implore the City Council Not to Let the New Contract Double Our Property Taxes Every 9 Years!

This issue is also about improved public oversight of the police. But for hundreds of thousands of taxpayers who are struggling with the taxes we already pay, we face a very real danger. The police negotiators will continue to demand higher pay in exchange for the reforms in citizen oversight.

What Is Wrong With This Picture?

I ask everyone reading this to please grab a pen and write down eight critical words – How do they do it in other cities? Put that scrap of paper in your wallet or purse. Then, every time you meet a City Council member, pull out that note and read the critical question out loud – How do they do it in other cities? What’s wrong with the picture in the police contract discussions is this:

1. Austin already has the highest police salaries in the State of Texas.

2. Our standards for public oversight of police are among the lowest in the country.

What Were the Scariest Moments in Last Night’s Meeting?

Over and over again, I kept hearing the same line of talk. Look at these variations on a single theme, straight from the Council dais and from the lips of the speakers:

1. “If we add X number of officers over the next five years, how much money will be left in the General fund for other programs?”

2. “If these new benefits are kept in the contract, will we end up with more or less money to spend in the General Fund than we were able to spend this year?”

Every time I heard a question like that, I knew something scary that is fundamental for every taxpayer to know…

City Officials Are Assuming That Raising Property Taxes to the 8% Legal Maximum Is the New Normal!

When Council members asked, “Can we afford this in the police contract, or can we afford that,” here’s what they meant by “afford.” They wanted to know if the “leftover money” after the contract was paid would be enough to cover the other services that the City normally provides. Plus all the new spending items from goals that the Council has set. All of this assumes the same chilling fact. The City expects to hit the maximum allowed 8% property tax rate every year going forward. And if that happens, your City taxes will double every 9 years.

How Can We As Taxpayers Stop This Cost Spiral?

1. Email and call City Council members. Ask them to reduce the unaffordable pay raises in the police contract.

2. Ask them to establish more reasonable boundaries for the pay raises.

3. Ask them to communicate those boundaries to the police and the City negotiating staff BEFORE the negotiations even begin.

4. Above all, ask the City Council to let the negotiators know that bringing our police accountability standards up to the nationally accepted level DOES NOT require granting unaffordable pay raises!

5. Don’t ask the City Counci…Tell them…That there is no such thing as “leftover money” in the City Budget. They need to overhaul their thinking and adopt a whole new set of goals. Doubling our property taxes every 9 years MUST NOT be an option. Would everyone please pause and take a look at the subtitle of my blog at the top of this page. It says this…

Let’s Put the Public’s Ability to Pay Into Austin’s Planning Process

Every City Council member should ask themselves one little question before they tuck themselves into bed tonight…When was the last time period that most of their constituents got annual pay raises, year after year, equal to what they as taxpayers are giving to City employees? Then, let them drift peacefully off to sleep and have pleasant dreams.

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.