Council Recap: Too Late to Turn Back Time

New taxes for lakeside homes, operators for Butler Pitch and Putt

In addition to taking major strides to combat homelessness, Council's three-day City Hall marathon saw the repeal of a century-old exemption that allowed 401 property owners along Lake Austin to not pay any city taxes, despite receiving some city services.

Photo by John Anderson

Beginning next year, those owners will see a roughly 20% increase in their property tax bill, adding an estimated $3 million to the city’s general fund.

Before the vote, some affected owners asked for a delay so they could learn how the repeal would affect them. Adam Goldman spoke on behalf of the Austin Property Rights Alliance, a group formed hastily in the wake of news the tax loophole would likely be closed, and criticized the Council for not holding “a single meeting” with impacted stakeholders. Furthermore, Goldman said, he and his neighbors were concerned not only about access to services such as parks and libraries, but about their safety. “We’re talking about not letting our homes burn down,” Goldman said, repeating neighbor concerns that Austin emergency response times were too slow to justify paying city taxes. Representatives from the Austin Fire Department and the Austin Police Department said that the response protocol for homes in the area would not change. Council Member Alison Alter, whose District 10 includes most of the impacted properties, asked City Manager Spencer Cronk to study how to improve the level of emergency services to the area.

Although the repeal passed unanimously, views on the dais ranged from resignation to jubilation. Alter said before the vote, “I took an oath to defend the Constitution, and it is my understanding that we are legally obligated to repeal this ordinance.” That obligation came via analysis from the city’s law department that indicated the city could be exposed to legal risk by offering a tax exemption to selected areas within the city’s “full purpose” jurisdiction, which the Lake Austin properties have been since their annexation in 1891. According to city documents, “full purpose” areas are those where the city delivers “full municipal services, assesses taxes, and enforces City ordinances and regulation,” and in which the residents are eligible to vote in all city elections and to run for office. (That’s as opposed to “limited purpose” jurisdiction, which does include some parts of West Austin, but not these properties.)

CM Greg Casar, on the other hand, pointed out that other parts of the city – including less affluent ones like his District 4 – also receive inadequate services but not property tax exemptions. “We have all sorts of parts of this city that don’t have the adequate level of EMS or fire response,” Casar said. “But part of being a city is we work together to address the most urgent issues.”

Casar, who led the charge to fix what his office called the “mistake on the lake,” also carried a companion resolution directing Cronk to find ways to earmark the new $3 million to tackle homelessness and support early childhood education, which passed 10-1, CM Jimmy Flannigan voting against. (Flannigan wanted more information on the level of service the Lake Austin homes would receive, and what it would cost, before moving to spend that money.) The resolution directs Cronk to report back “as soon as the previously uncollected taxes are able to be collected.”

In another move that reversed decades of prior city practice, Council voted 7-4 to award operation of the Butler Pitch and Putt to Pecan Grove Golf Partners, who will take over management of the 9-hole Southside course from the Kinser family, which has operated it since its inception 70 years ago. The Kinsers’ own bid to extend their operations was disqualified for a missing signature; the fate of the course had become yet another proxy battle over growth and the fragile “soul of the city.” While the public hearing on the item was closed at the June 6 meeting, several CMs echoed concerns voiced then that new operators might change what gives Butler Pitch and Putt its “Old Austin” charm – affordable prices and laid-back atmosphere.

Initially, CM Ann Kitchen, whose District 5 includes the course, pushed to restart the bidding process so the Kinsers could resubmit, but other CMs felt this would set an unfair precedent, with Flannigan fearing future vendors could “manipulate” Council by intentionally submitting incomplete applications, rallying public support for their cause, and convincing Council to reopen bids.

Kitchen was joined by CMs Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo, and Mayor Steve Adler* in voting no; although her effort to give the Kinsers a second chance failed, she asked staff, in their negotiations with Pecan Grove, to try to preserve many of the things people cherish about Butler Pitch and Putt - such as affordability, walk-up play, a BYOB policy, and allowing dogs on the course. The contract would be for 20 years at a cost of $2.5 million.

* Our original post indicated that Alter, not Adler, was in opposition. We regret the error.

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Austin City Council, Lake Austin, mistake on the lake, Austin Property Rights Alliance, Adam Goldman, Alison Alter, Greg Casar, Butler Pitch and Putt, Ann Kitchen

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