Tag Archives: Kathie Tovo

Kathie Tovo Is Hands Down Best Candidate In District 9!

By Bill Oakey – July 22, 2014

If you walk through District 9 and you happen upon someone sitting on the fence, help the person down off that uncomfortable perch, and over to Kathie’s side.  There is simply no comparison between the candidates. Kathie Tovo is far and away the best choice!



The current City Council does not elicit much excitement these days, but Kathie stands out as the strongest voice for grassroots Austinites.  The special interests would love to see her defeated, but we are not going to let that happen!  While the other incumbants should be running away from their records, Kathie and her supporters have plenty of reasons to be proud of hers.  Here are just a few examples:

1. Increase to the Over-65 Homestead Exemption – Kathie and her staff did not back down in the face of initial resistance to this City Hall victory.  We won because she listened to the facts and fought to convince a majority of the Council to stand up for Austin seniors.

2. Not spending the $14 million budget surplus – While other Council members looked for ways to spend the surplus, Kathie applied her diligence to the issue and avoided any new spending.  The taxpayers scored another victory when her vote helped preserve the entire surplus.

3. A Resolution to End Costly Fee Waivers – Kathie sponsored a resolution to explore alternative funding for special event fee waivers for profitable event promoters.  The funds would come from ticket surcharges or the Hotel Occupancy Tax.  This reform would save taxpayers millions of dollars.

4. A Resolution to Consider a General Homestead Exemption – The City staff has been directed to evaluate the impact of setting up a general homestead exemption.  We are hopeful that this can happen, perhaps by phasing in the exemption over a few years.  Once again, Kathie is our champion for taking the first step in this important effort!

5. Standing Up for Neighborhoods Time After Time – Kathie understands the importance of preserving our neighborhoods and not letting them become gentrified or hobbled by inappropriate development that destroys their character.  Ask any neighborhood leader this: Who among the entire seven members of the City Council can you trust the most?  They’ll tell you it’s Kathie Tovo!

6. A Council Member and Staff That Listens to the People – As a veteran City Hall watchdog for over 30 years, I have never encountered a better working relationship with anyone on the City Council or their staff.  All of Kathie’s staff do a great job, but my special thanks go to one policy aide, Shannon Halley.  When you vote for Kathie in November, just know that you are getting not just one person, but a whole team who will do the research, listen to your concerns, and do what’s best for those of us who really care about Austin!

You can visit Kathie’s website here, and click here to make a donation.  And go here to visit her Facebook page.  Make sure that you send this blog link to all of your friends and neighbors in District 9.  When it comes to affordability, we just can’t afford to pass up the opportunity to keep Kathie Tovo.

See below for the award that Kathie earned from this blog earlier this year.  Click to enlarge it.

Tovo Award


Affordability Challenges And The Needed Reforms

By Bill Oakey – July 15, 2014

The following is my presentation for the South Travis United Democrats on July 15h.  It provides a good overview of affordability.

The Challenges

1. Lip Service to Affordability – Austin’s current political leaders pay lip service to affordability, but have shown no willingness to take meaningful action.  We need to elect a new City Council that will listen to the concerns of existing residents, and adhere to specific plans and policies that will improve affordability.

2. Taxes – The City financial staff are projecting a whopping 33.6% increase in property tax revenues over the next five years.  This rate of increase is simply unsustainable, because of stagnant wages and income inequality.

3. Gentrification – The City’s planning policies depend on accelerating gentrification in order to make room for tens of thousands of new residents every year.  If you want your voices to be heard, you need to speak up loudly and you need to vote.

4. Affordable Housing – Apartments and duplexes in the central core are being bulldozed and replaced by luxury units.  The goal of the Imagine Austin plan and CodeNEXT is density, density, and more density.  But very little of it is “affordable” for existing residents.  The argument that density in the urban core reduces sprawl is bogus.  It forces people out into the less expensive suburbs and increases sprawl.  And then the commuting expense becomes a burden.

5. Transportation – The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) estimates that it will cost $32.4 billion to build new roads, rail systems, etc. between 2015 and 2040.  That works out to $1.3 billion per year for the five-county area.  This assumes massive population growth, which of course is unsustainable because of the unrealistic cost projections and the lack of water.

6. Unfair Tax Appraisals – Commercial property owners are only being assessed at about 60% of the market value of their property.  It will take Legislative reform to fix this inequity.  We need to support Brigid Shea, who is leading that effort.

7. Public Engagement – For 28 years I have observed citizens waiting up to six hours to speak at City Council meetings.  And the public input allowed for consultant-driven planning processes is often blatantly ignored or given only a token nod.  It is time for the people to unite behind two critical reforms (See below).

8. Wasteful City Budgets – The City staff does not provide adequate transparency on budget balances throughout the year.  Spending is never tied to even the vaguest notion of the public’s ability to pay.  The status quo will price even more people out of their homes, unless we adopt some reforms.

9. Truth In Taxation – Every year at budget time, the City Council hides behind the “tax rate” and crows about “holding the line” on the rate.  You and I know that increased tax appraisals drive the taxes up.  It is long past time for a truthful, transparent process.  (See reform below).

10. Water and Electric Rates – Both utilities need to do more to control rate increases, and to slow down the freight train of utility add-on fees that are spiraling out of control.

The Reforms

1. Work for Good City Council Candidates – We all need to work hard to elect the best affordability candidates.  I strongly support Eliza May for District 8, Kathie Tovo for District 9, Laura Pressley for District 4, Ora Houston for District 1, Ann Kitchen for District 5, Mandy Dealey for District 10, and Steve Adler for Mayor.  Other endorsements will come later.

2. Taxes – The City needs to coordinate better with the other local taxing entities.  We can’t afford the level of spending and cumulative tax increases that keep pummeling us every year.  The City needs to phase in a general homestead exemption.

3. Gentrification – Instead of whispering about this problem under our breath, we need to insist on a valid study that looks at the issue head-on.  How do other cities deal with it?  What can be done to retain the ethnic and economic diversity that any city needs for a vibrant quality of life?  Let’s start with a broad-based campaign to raise the minimum wage, provide better job training, and create jobs that are in between service sector and high paying tech jobs.

4. Affordable Housing – This is a perfect example of a topic that gets good lip service.  Let’s ask local leaders to survey the housing, establish some goals, and implement a plan that delivers actual results.  Then post those results online so that everyone can assess the progress.

5. Transportation – Vote against the expensive urban rail plan.  It’s in the wrong location, according to most experts who have reviewed Austin transit plans for decades.  Let’s change the MoPac “Improvement” Plan to provide free access for carpools and private vanpools in the express lanes.  That’s how nearly every city listed on the MoPac website does it.

6. Unfair Tax Appraisals – We should invite AISD into the discussions, and bring them along with Austin and Travis County into the Capitol in January to insist on this reform.  And we need a statewide network of other communities to help carry the reform to victory.

7. Public Engagement – I have prepared a proposal for a Public Engagement Ordinance that would require the City to include public input in all planning processes in a meaningful and quantifiable manner.  The Austin Neighborhoods Council will consider a resolution supporting this proposal at an upcoming meeting.  The City should also adopt my proposal for City Council Agenda Reform, so that people can speak at designated times.  It is time for our voices to be taken seriously.

8. Wasteful City Budgets – Austin needs to preserve budget surpluses for holding down tax increases.  We need much better transparency on budget balances throughout the year.  Instead of funding unfilled vacancies at 9.7% of the workforce, let’s get it down to 5%.  Let’s eliminate fee waivers for profitable event promoters.

9. Truth In Taxation – I have proposed a “Taxpayer Impact Statement” that would be included in the City Budget.  It would show the true percentage increase in taxes above the effective rate.  In other words, the percentage increase above the amount that would keep revenues the same.  This statement would show the dollar impact on a wide range of home values.  And it would also include the increases in utility rates and fees.

10. Water and Electric Rates – Consider transferring this year’s budget surplus to the water utility to reduce the double-decker rate increase.  For Austin Energy, we need to adopt a cost of service model that does not penalize residential and small business ratepayers.  We lost that portion of the battle in the 2012 electric rate case.  We need a thorough review of all utility add-on fees, and a plan to reduce them as much as possible.

City Council To Host Citizens Forum – Saturday May 31st

By Bill Oakey – May 20, 2014

Austin taxpayers have a rare opportunity to let their voices be heard at a special Citizens Forum hosted by the City Council.  We are only about 10 days away from the start of Budget Season.  So, we need to let them know that “holding the line” does not mean keeping the tax rate within a fraction of a penny of where it is now.  We need full accountability on what the true budget surplus is, including the original $14.2 million plus the money left over from all those vacant staff positions.  And we should ask them to use that surplus to cover the revenue shortfall in the Water Utility – instead of passing a gigantic rate increase that would do nothing to encourage conservation.

My suggestion is to bring your tax appraisal notices to the forum.  Bring your utility bills and your property tax bills.  Let the City Council know that “business as usual” will not be tolerated in the upcoming budget.

We have Council Member Kathie Tovo to thank as the sponsor of this Citizens Forum.  Last month, she was the recipient of the AustinAffordability.com “Above and Beyond” award.   Below you will see her picture with the award, followed by the official announcement of the Saturday forum.  You and your neighbors and friends can contact the City Clerk’s office (512-974-2210), and make plans to fill the Council Chambers on May 31st with a resounding message on affordability.  Let’s tell them with a unified voice that the current spending path is simply not sustainable.

Kathie Tovo With "Above and Beyond" Award

Kathie Tovo With “Above and Beyond” Award


Forum will be held at 9 a.m. Saturday, May 31, 2014.

The Austin City Council will host a three-hour Citizens Forum, 9 a.m. Saturday, May 31, 2014, at Austin City Hall (301 W. Second St.).

Council invites the community to come and speak directly about any topic or issue they feel the Council needs to hear about or address.

“City Hall and city government should be accessible to everyone,” said Council Member Kathie Tovo. “Austinites with daytime jobs and those with children cannot always make it Downtown during the week to make their voices heard. I’m committed to creating opportunities for everyone to be able to address the Council on issues important to them.”

Tovo’s co-sponsors agree that having a weekend meeting could be more accessible for some people who cannot attend the regular Thursday Council sessions.

“We recognize there is a need for alternative opportunities for all constituents of Austin to be able to be heard by their City representatives, and I look forward to hearing from new voices as a result of this Citizens Forum,” Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said.

“We all recognize that attending Council meetings on Thursdays isn’t possible for everyone who works and has a family, but might want to come speak on an issue,” Council Member Mike Martinez said. “We should be taking steps like this to ensure that every citizen has the opportunity to address Council and make their voices heard.”

There are two ways residents can sign up to speak:

  • General Citizen Communication:  There are 20 slots available under General Citizen Communication and require registration in advance of the meeting. Sign up begins May 9 either by contacting the City Clerk’s office at (512) 974-2210, in-person at City Hall or by email at citizens.communication@austintexas.gov. Pre-registration closes May 23. These registrations will be posted on the agenda and citizens will be asked to provide a topic in advance to allow Council to engage in a full discussion of the topic. The same rules regarding registration during regular council meetings apply.
  • Open Citizens’ Communication: Participants may register using the City’s Speaker Sign-up kiosks located in the lobby of City Hall.  Participants may also register in person beginning at Noon on Wednesday, May 28 through the day of the forum. The number of speakers is limited by the noon meeting deadline or until all the speakers have spoken. Council will only be able to listen to these topics and not engage in a dialogue with the citizens.

For both General Citizen Communications and Open Citizens’ Communications, speakers have three minutes, and no time can be donated to be used by someone else.

Travel Resources:

The address for City Hall is 301 W. Second Street.  The following Cap Metro routes offer downtown service: 3, 4, 17, 22 or 801. Find schedules and complete route information at capmetro.org or by calling 512-474-1200. Get step-by-step travel directions for using Capital Metro routes with Trip Planner.

Something Doesn’t Smell Right At City Hall – And We Need To Get To The Bottom Of It!

By Bill Oakey – May 13, 2014

I was enjoying the gentle breeze while waiting at a table outside Jo’s on Second Street last week when City Council Member Mike Martinez showed up for our meeting.   He introduced two new critical words into the Austin affordability discussion…

Vacant Positions

Mr. Martinez said he was concerned that City Manager, Marc Ott, had left too many vacant positions in the City Budget.  How many is too many?  Well, how about 900 of them?

As I mentioned in my recent blog posting, the City Council has a big problem on its hands, going into the new budget cycle that begins in earnest within a couple of weeks.  They need to double down on affordability if they expect to gain any hope of confidence among beleaguered taxpayers.  So, what are they doing with 900 vacant positions on the books?

Such a large number of vacancies can add up to quite a bit of money.  And once it’s in the budget, those funds can easily be shifted to other purposes by the individual departments.  As it turns out, this very same issue began brewing in the City of Honolulu in 2010.  In their case, it was 1,000 vacant positions that added up to almost $40 million.  See “City Budgets $38.8 Million for 1,000 Vacant Positions” in the Honolulu City Beat.

There was great debate in between the luaus, and it took their city three years to resolve the issue.  Questions were asked about why that much money was “borrowed” from the taxpayers, and whether some of it was being used as a slush fund.  After all, once money finds its way into the budget, people can always find a way to spend it on something other than what it was originally intended for.  As a veteran accountant, I can tell you that one can accomplish such a switch by changing an object code, a cost center, or some other designated code.

Last year Honolulu abandoned the practice of allowing individual departments to “manage” large sums of money budgeted for vacant positions.  Those duties were assigned to a centralized staff person, who now disburses unused funds for approved hiring purposes.  The funds are held in a provisional account.  And they don’t keep $40 million on hand.

While at Austin City Hall yesterday, I asked City Council Member Kathie Tovo to please look into this issue.  I also asked her one important question.  Can departments spend money allocated for vacant positions on other things?  Her answer was simply…


I have also learned that some members of the City Council attempted to address this problem during last year’s budget deliberations.  As of last August 1st, there were 934 unfilled staff vacancies, with only 76 of them posted for applicants to apply, according to the Austin Business Journal.  So, in September the City Council approved the new fiscal year 2014 budget.  Some of them thought they had fixed the problem with the huge pile of taxpayer money being posted to the books as “unfilled positions.”

Come January 10th, City Manager Marc Ott sent a memo addressed to all departments heads.  In it, he states that there were no less than 900 vacant positions, and he concedes that is “quite frankly, far too high.”  What happened to the “fix” that the City Council thought they had done?

I concur with the Honolulu Council Member who had this to say about huge piles of taxpayer money being stacked up for vacant positions and potentially being spent for other purposes:

“In essence, it’s a no interest loan in favor of the city,” said Anderson. “The city is saying, ‘We took your money this year, no we didn’t use it, thanks a lot for letting us borrow it, and no you can’t have it back.”

As of today, we do not know what has happened to the extra money that was bottled up at Austin City Hall in early January.   But we do know that we paid for it in the property tax bills that we sent to the Travis County Tax Office.

I have asked the City Council for a full accounting from every department on the status of all funds originally allocated for vacant positions since the beginning of this fiscal year last October 1st.  And I have also asked them to consider adopting the Honolulu model of assigning the duties of disbursing vacant position funds from a centralized office.  That office should report the status of these funds to the regular meetings of the City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee.

I am reminded of the fishing trip that my parents took us on when I was a young child.  As we were about to leave the driveway, my mom asked me to do something.

“Billy, please run back in and grab the thermos bottle.  And rinse it out first.”  When I pulled the thermos bottle out of the cupboard and popped the cork off, I gagged and took a few steps back.  Somebody had put it away the last time when it was still full of milk.  Needless to say, it didn’t smell very good.

Something doesn’t smell right today down at City Hall.  And somebody needs to do something about it.

Should the City Council Wave Goodbye to Special Event Fee Waivers?

By Bill Oakey – May 5, 2014

Once upon a time when Austin was a much smaller city, our local officials did not hesitate to waive the fees for all kinds of special events for things like parades and festivals that benefited the community.  These fees cover everything from park maintenance to permits to security and law enforcement services.  Today, as Austin has grown into an international destination, the cost of managing crowds and handling a host of other festival related functions has grown exponentially.  Many of the fees for those services are still being waived, even for companies that are not dedicated to charities.  And much of the cost to do that comes right out of our property tax bills.

At the April meeting of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, Police Chief Art Acevedo received a thunderous round of applause when he made an appeal for canceling future fee waivers for the SXSW Festival.  This year’s tab for those waivers came in at $756,000.  As Acevedo pointed out, the Police Dept. must compete with other departments for scarce budget dollars.  And when funds are not available to pay for extra police at major public events, neighborhood patrols must be reduced and crime intervention is placed at risk.

Is It Time for a New Special Events Fund?

Last week City Council Member Kathie Tovo put forth a comprehensive and quite innovative resolution to create a new Special Events Fund.  Tovo’s co-sponsors on the resolution were Bill Spelman and Mike Martinez.  This new fund would either supplement or potentially reduce large fee waiver draws from the General Fund, thus saving taxpayers some money and eliminating gaps in funding for parks and police.  Possible sources for the new fund could include ticket surcharges for event patrons, as well as expenditures from the hotel and bed tax.

There are several components of the adopted resolution that reflect a wise effort to plan and review the concept carefully.  These include soliciting input from citizen boards and commissions, and asking City staff to review special event procedures from other cities.  The specific aspects of both large and small events will be reviewed.  In addition, the resolution asks for new guidelines and a matrix to evaluate fee waiver applications for large events.  You can read the resolution here.

It is not clear from my initial reading of the resolution whether the proposed fee waiver guidelines in combination with the new Special Events Fund would result in eliminating most of the waivers.  That certainly appears to be the goal.  But here’s my question.  If enough money is generated from the new fund, wouldn’t the festival organizers apply for a portion of those funds and then use the money awarded to pay the required City fees?   Ticket surcharges turned over to the City would also negate the need for waivers.  I plan to address those questions and some others at a City Hall meeting next week.  It looks like some taxpayer relief may be finally headed our way on this issue.