Even if it means a comparison to Ben Bernanke, I applaud Wells Dunbar for giving his full attention to the issue of the high cost of Austin’s growth in the Jan. 29 “City Hall Hustle
” [News]. If growth creates negative fiscal impacts, then why are we subsidizing it and expending so many local resources trying to get more?
For each new housing unit built in Austin, the cost of public infrastructure is around $25,000, which covers the incremental cost of building schools, roads, water, sewer, etc. The developer picks up only around $2,000, which leaves the remaining $23,000 capital cost for the general taxpayer. At the rate of 6,000 new housing units built annually, that’s $138 million of unfunded costs dumped into the taxpayers' lap every year – the “hidden” costs of growth. But it gets worse; on an operating costs basis, residential housing uses $1.25 in services for every $1 it contributes in taxes.
What about quality of life? Imagine another million people in the Austin metro area over the next 20 years, with another 300,000 housing units and a Walgreens/CVS on every corner. Another million people means another 60,000 unemployed people at 6% unemployment. Another million people sucking Lake Travis dry means emergency water rationing, dry swimming pools, and dying tree canopies. Higher cost of living, higher cost of housing, lost habitat, traffic gridlock, more noise, more pollution, and higher unemployment. Finally, Austin will stop growing but at an unacceptable cost.
Are we helpless victims of growth? Must we accept whatever growth is thrust upon us? Why does the city of Austin give $125,000 a year to a New York public relations firm to promote Austin on every No. 1 list? Why do we subsidize growth at $138 million per year? Can’t we begin to take our foot off the growth accelerator and require that those who benefit from growth pay the costs of their impact?