Tag Archives: Austin

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.”

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

The Ugly Truth About The Project Connect Ballot Proposition To Raise Property Taxes 23%

By Bill Oakey – August 13, 2020

Does Austin need some kind of improved mass transit system? Absolutely. Do we need a good plan to relieve traffic congestion? Absolutely. So, does the City Council’s November ballot initiative to raise your property taxes by 23% address those needs and solve the traffic problems?

Absolutely not! And there are plenty of reasons why.

Are You Ready for Just One Car Lane In Each Direction On Major Sections of Guadalupe, North  Lamar and South Congress?

if you go to the Project Connect website, you will see a fairyland artist’s rendering of a beautifully landscaped, massively wide boulevard. There are two lanes in the center for the rail line. Then there are two car lanes on each side of the rail line, with drivers cruising along blissfully. But this little slice of paradise is about as real as the yellow brick road that leads to Emerald City in the Land of Oz.

All you have to do is take a little trip from North Austin along North Lamar and Guadalupe through U.T. and then across the river and down South Congress. Look out the window and count the number of car lanes. Unless you see six wide lanes all along the route, you will be witnessing a big heap of trouble for the Project Connect Pie-In-The-Sky transit plan. Just do a Google search for “Project Connect” “car lanes,” with the quotes exactly as shown. You will find plenty of community concerns about this critical issue. What is Capital Metro’s response? Oh, well, we could always dig some more tunnels or do some elevated sections. Bottom line – There is no firm plan to address the problem. It’s all couched in several layers of ambiguous speculation. A “yes” vote in November will guarantee clogged turn lanes and exponentially worse traffic congestion.

But Isn’t It About Time We Got People Out of Their Cars?

If you dare to raise serious questions about the murky state of this transit plan, you will hear that familiar refrain. Well, of course in an ideal world, most people would abandon their cars and step into a sleek rail car that will whisk them away to their destination  There are cities like Portland and Vancouver that have excellent transit systems. But most of the good ones were started at least 30 years ago, when the costs were much cheaper. In today’s Austin, we have a large suburban population that uses the roads. There won’t be a rail line to serve most of them for decades. But they still need to come into the City and use the roads every day when they go to work. Project Connect’s grand plan is simply a companion piece to the high density land development scheme that threatens to disrupt and displace existing residents of Central Austin neighborhoods. It is designed to carry young hipsters back and forth to the bars and festivals, and of course to their high tech jobs.

The Ugly Truth About the Real Cost of a Citywide Transit System

You don’t have to look far into the Project Connect webpages to come across a key phrase that no one should overlook – “Initial Investment.” Yes, the glossy pages and slick ads will try to convince you that we can have a huge north-south Orange Line, a Blue Line all the way to the airport, a series of downtown tunnels, and a slew of new rapid and regular bus routes – all for the $7.1 billion from raising your property taxes and imagined Federal support. But remember that the November vote is only the “initial investment.”

The Real Cost Is at Least 8 Times Higher than $7.1 Billion!

All you have to do is look at the rail initiative approved by Seattle voters in 2016. It calls for a $54 billion expansion of their rail system. You read that right – $54 billion! And not for the entire citywide system, but just for an expansion of their existing system. This is why Project Connect refers to the November vote to raise your property taxes as an “initial investment.”

But hold on, it gets worse. In case you were wondering whether there would be cost overruns in Project Connect’s cost estimates,, take a look at this article that hit our fellow taxpayers in Seattle: “Seattle Light Rail, Transportation Plan Busting $54 Billion Budget.” They are barely getting started and the costs are already spiraling upwards. Project Connect’s plan calls for Austin’s entire downtown section to be built in underground tunnels. Just close your eyes and try to imagine the staggering, ever-escalating costs piling up over time to accomplish that.

Hey Wait! Aren’t We In the Middle of a Pandemic??

The first question anyone should have asked with regard to Project Connect is whether this year is the right time to ask voters to raise their property taxes. We have no firm estimates on how many businesses will fail completely between now and the end of the year. Even the ones that survive the downturn will be strapped for cash. How in the world will they be able to pay their property taxes in full and on time in January. Is anyone at the City or Travis County even looking into this question? Have they surveyed the many types of struggling businesses to gauge the situation? Have they calculated the potential loss of sales tax revenue combined with a steep loss of property tax revenue? What about all the unemployed workers? And the hundreds, if not thousands of landlords who haven’t been able to collect their rent payments?

Update: 6:00 PM, August 13

Today the City Council made it official. They voted unanimously to put the Project Connect measure on the November 3rd ballot. The referendum calls for an 8.75 cent hike per $100 home valuation. This would mean a property tax increase of 23%!! It would cost the owner of a median-valued home of $326,368 an additional $332 per year. The ill-conceived timing and the exorbitant cost makes this the most foolhardy and irresponsible action of any City Council in our lifetime!

Please send an email link to this page to all of your contacts, and share it widely on social media.

A Novel Message – The Coronavirus Speaks Out

By Bill Oakey – May 7, 2020

I just overheard a private conversation that I wasn’t supposed to hear. But since I did, you need to hear it too. And share it. This virus is not really a silent enemy. The little spikey things communicate with each other. We’re not supposed to hear it, but somehow I caught this conversation:

“If the latest news reports are true, we can beat these humans. They’re not very smart.”

“Well, what makes you so sure?”

“OK, Let’s start from the beginning. They have no idea where we really came from or when we infected the first person.”

“Do they still think we started in a Chinese lab?”

“Most of them don’t, but that doesn’t really matter. Our biggest advantage is how easily we traveled around this planet in the beginning. And, get this! They’re not taking serious measures to prevent the easy traveling environment that helped us spread in the first place.”

“You’re so right! We got to America by plane. If we inhabit the body of just one passenger, we get the freedom to spread in a closed cabin for up to 4 or 5 hours on a single flight. But planes are mostly empty now. Won’t they have tough regulations when the passengers come back?”

“Not hardly. There was talk of keeping the middle seats empty and requiring masks. But there are no mandated government regulations. Only phrases like “recommended,” “You might want to consider,” etc. It’s a joke! And, lucky for us, the aisle seats are a lot closer than 6 feet from the window seats anyway.”

“Wow, so we’ll get to spread almost as easily as we did last winter. Some of the masks might help them, but those aren’t regulated either. They can be made out of any old hokey thin cloth, decorated with flowers.”

“Well, I have one other airline question. What about those older humans? And the ones with vulnerable medical conditions. Won’t they be isolated in a separate, protected area of the plane?”

“I’ve read a lot of their news stories, and nobody’s mentioned it. They might ask people if they’ve been sick or even take some of their temperatures. But we can spread from someone who doesn’t even know they’re infected.”

“About the masks. Don’t they have companies mass-producing millions of masks that are certified for the best possible protection, at affordable prices for the general public?”

“Nope. There are no standards at all for consumer-grade masks, and many states have decalared wearing masks optional. And only a portion of the medical supplies are purchased in bulk at the Federal level. The states have to bid against each other for tons of it.

“What about this reopening of restaurants, hair salons, beaches and all the rest?”

“The humans should have read their own history. They could just Google ‘San Francisco 1918 pandemic.’ After their world war ended, San Francisco held a big celebration in the streets. They took off their masks and threw them in the air, and danced like crazy. They opened their businesses way too soon. The flu came back with a huge spike and killed a lot of people. I heard that San Francisco’s current mayor is not going to let us get that same advantage. But plenty of other cities are willing to let us start spreading again.”

“Well, hey, I think we should terminate this conversation immediately.”

“Why is that?”

“We forgot to activate our communication suppressors. One of those humans might be listening.”

“OK. Are you and I still on for this afternoon?”

“Sure thing, buddy. See you at the beach!”

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. From a Distance – By Nanci Griffith, 1987, original version. Or Bette Midler, 1990
  2. Don’t Stand So Close to Me – The Police, 1980
  3. Behind the Mask – Fleetwood Mac, 1990
  4. A Year’s Worth of Distance – Kenny Loggins, 2007
  5. Keep Away From Me – Graham Nash, 1986
  6. Drop the Mask – Diana Ross, 1999
  7. Keeping My Distance – Martina McBride, 1997
  8. Mask Upon My Face – Jeff Bridges, 2000
  9. Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home – Joe South, 1969
  10. All By Myself – Nancy Sinatra

Lyrics to “Behind the Mask” by Fleetwood Mac – Written By Christine McVie

Don’t you come too close to me
You’re dangerous, can’t you see?
You can make the darkness mean more
Than it ever did, ever did before
(It’s a Devil’s disguise)
Angel in black
And I recognize the face behind the mask
(It’s a Devil’s disguise)
Angel in black
I don’t know if I want you back
You’re the cool nights of the desert
And the hot kisses of the sun
Why is it that I don’t believe you
When you say I’m the only one?
I know I’m the lonely one
(It’s a Devil’s disguise)
Angel in black
And I recognize the shadows from your past
(It’s a Devil’s disguise)
Angel in black
Don’t you know it’ll never last
The face behind the mask
There will never be a second chance for you
Oh no, not for you
(It’s a Devil’s disguise)
Angel in black and I recognize
The face behind the mask
(It’s a Devil’s disguise)
Angel in black
Don’t you know it’ll never last
The face behind the mask
(It’s a Devil’s disguise)
Angel in black and I recognize
The shadows from your past
(It’s a Devil’s disguise)
Angel in black
I don’t know if I want you back
I don’t know if I want you back
Don’t you know it’ll never last
The face behind the mask

Vote Against Proposition A, But For Props J And K

By Bill Oakey, November 1, 2018

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

Vote Against A Quarter Billion Dollars For Affordable Housing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By Bill Oakey – February 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Does Texas Public School Funding Compare With Other States?

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

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

What Are Our State Politicians Doing About This?

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

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

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

Here’s What You Can Do to Help

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

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

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

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

By Bill Oakey, January 22, 2018

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

Hello Mayor Pro Tem Tovo & CM Alter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We need a seat at the table.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Blog Launches To Help Support Austin’s Music Industry

By Bill Oakey – January 18, 2018

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

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

The Scary Future For America’s Middle Class

The following commentary was published in The Conversation. Steven Pressman is a professor of economics at Colorado State University.

GOP tax plan doubles down on policies that are crushing the middle class

By Steven Pressman, December 20, 2017

The U.S. middle class has always had a special mystique.

It is the heart of the American dream. A decent income and home, doing better than one’s parents, and retiring in comfort are all hallmarks of a middle-class lifestyle.

Contrary to what some may think, however, the U.S. has not always had a large middle class. Only after World War II was being middle class the national norm. Then, starting in the 1980s, it began to decline.

President Donald Trump has portrayed the tax plan Congress is wrapping up as a boon for the middle class. The sad reality, however, is that it is more likely to be its final death knell.

To understand why, you need look no further than the history of the rise and decline of the American middle class, a group that I’ve been studying through the lens of inequality for decades.

The middle class rises

The middle class, which Pew defines as two-thirds to two times the national median income for a given household size, began to grow after World War II due to a surge in economic growth and because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal gave workers more power. Before that, most Americans were poor or nearly so.

For example, legislation such as the Wagner Act established rights for workers, most critically for collective bargaining. The government also began new programs, such as Social Security and unemployment insurance, that helped older Americans avoid dying in poverty and supported families with children through tough times. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, set up in 1933, helped middle-class homeowners pay their mortgages and remain in their homes.

Together, these new policies helped fuel a strong postwar economic boom and ensured the gains were shared by a broad cross-section of society. This greatly expanded the U.S. middle class, which reached a peak of nearly 60 percent of the population in the late ‘70s. Americans’ increased optimism about their economic future prompted businesses to invest more, creating a virtuous cycle of growth.

Government spending programs were paid for largely with individual income tax rates of 70 percent (and more) on wealthy individuals and high taxes on corporate profits. Companies paid more than one-quarter of all federal government tax revenues in the 1950s (when the top corporate tax was 52 percent). Today they contribute just 5 percent of government tax revenues.

Despite high taxes on the rich and on corporations, median family income (after accounting for inflation) more than doubled in the three decades after World War II, rising from $27,255 in 1945 to nearly $60,000 in the late 1970s.

The fall begins

That’s when things started to change.

Rather than supporting workers – and balancing the interests of large corporations and the interests of average Americans – the federal government began taking the side of business over workers by lowering taxes on corporations and the rich, reducing regulations and allowing firms to grow through mergers and acquisitions.

Since the late 1980s, median household incomes (different from family incomes because members of a household live together but do not need to be related to each other) have increased very little – from $54,000 to $59,039 in 2016 – while inequality has risen sharply. As a result, the size of the middle class has shrunk significantly to 50 percent from nearly 60 percent.

One important reason for this is that starting in the 1980s the role of government changed. A key event in this process was when President Ronald Reagan fired striking air-traffic control workers. It marked the beginning of a war against unions.

The share of the labor force that is organized has fallen from 35 percent in the mid-1950s to 10.7 percent today, with the largest drop taking place in the 1980s. It is not a coincidence that the share of income going to earners in the middle fell at the same time.

In addition, Reagan cut taxes multiple times during his time in office, which led to less spending to support and sustain the poor and middle class, while deregulation allowed businesses to cut their wage costs at the expense of workers. This change is one reason workers have received only a small fraction of their greater productivity in the form of higher wages since the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the real buying power of the minimum wage has been allowed to erode since the 1980s due to inflation.

While the middle class got squeezed, the very rich have done very well. They have received nearly all income gains since the 1980s.

In contrast, household median income in 2016 was only slightly above its level just before the Great Repression began in 2008. But according to new unpublished research I conducted with Monmouth University economist Robert Scott, the actual living standard for the median household fell as much as 7 percent due to greater interest payments on past debt and the fact that households are larger, so the same income does not go as far.

As a result, the middle class is actually closer to 45 percent of U.S. households. This is in stark contrast to other developed countries such as France and Norway, where the middle class approaches nearly 70 percent of households and has held steady over several decades.

The Republican tax plan

So how will the tax plan change the picture?

France, Norway and other European countries have maintained policies, such as progressive taxes and generous government spending programs, that help the middle class. The Republican tax package doubles down on the policies that have caused its decline in the U.S.

Specifically, the plan will significantly reduce taxes on the wealthy and large companies, which will have to be paid for with large spending cuts in everything from children’s health and education to unemployment insurance and Social Security. Tax cuts will require the government to borrow more money, which will push up interest rates and require middle-income households to pay more in interest on their credit cards or to buy a car or home.

The benefits of the Republican tax bill go primarily to the very wealthy, who will get 83 percent of the gains by 2027, according to the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank.

Meanwhile, more than half of poor and middle-income households will see their taxes rise over the next 10 years; the rest will receive only a small fraction of the total tax benefits.

From virtuous to vicious

While Republicans justify their tax plan by claiming corporations will invest more and hire more workers, thereby raising wages, companies have already indicated that they will mainly use their savings to buy back stock and pay more dividends, benefiting the wealthy owners of corporate stock.

So with most of the gains of the $1.5 trillion in net tax cuts going to the rich, the end result, in my view, is that most Americans will face falling living standards as government spending goes down, borrowing costs go up, and their tax bill rises.

This will lead to less economic growth and a declining middle class. And unlike the virtuous circle the U.S. experienced in the ‘50s and ’60s, Americans can expect a vicious cycle of decline instead.