The District of Austin
Another Capital City Gets No Respect
Surrounded by wealthy suburbs who desire to pay for nothing beyond the guard shack and local police force, Austin and Washington are both facing fiscal problems. Even though both cities play host to thousands of politicians, lobbyists and bureaucrats, the power brokers want nothing to do with their host city. Both cities provide the real estate, entertainment, booze, and police/fire protection needed by legislators. But rather than try to help the city that contains the Capitol building, legislators in both cities blame the problems on local politicians. U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has no inclination to help Washington's mayor, Marion Barry. Neither do Texas Speaker of the House Pete Laney nor Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock have any desire to help mayor Bruce Todd.
Think the comparison between the two cities is far-fetched? The Texas Legislature wants to make our city's Robert Mueller Airport into the local version of Washington National. As reported in September by Michele Kay of the local daily, our state leaders don't want to move their airplane facilities to the new airport at Bergstrom Air Force Base because it would increase the time of their commute. Laney said the new airport was "too inconvenient." And gee, you can't expect the state to pay for their own hangar, can you? Through their lobbyist and representative on the Aircraft Pooling Board, former speaker Billy Clayton, Laney and the Legislature have threatened to condemn Mueller to keep it open.
Obviously, there are many differences between Washington and Austin. The local economy in Washington has been in the dumpster for years. Austin's economy is booming. But unless Austin can continue to annex land and increase its tax base, it will face many of the same maladies that Washington is now dealing with.
In 1993, former city manager Camille Barnett released a report called "Strategic Choices," which pointed out that poverty levels and violent crime in Austin were showing dramatic increases. A key long-term problem for the city, said the report, was increasing suburbanization. It pointed out that over the previous two decades, the number of municipal utility districts created outside of Austin had increased from three to more than 40. Those districts were (and are) a problem. Without a bigger tax base, said the report, the city's revenues "cannot keep pace with the social and health services needed by the lower-income population that is a growing segment of the core city population."
In other words, Austin is headed down the same path that Washington traveled. But there's a key difference: While Congress ignores the problems in the District of Columbia, the Texas Legislature takes every opportunity to hurt Austin.
During the last session, Rep. Ron Wilson, (D-Houston) introduced a bill that would cut the pay of Austin's city councilmembers to $7,200 per year, making the pay equal to that earned by state legislators. Why did he do it? Apparently, he thought it was a good joke. When asked about the bill, he flippantly replied, "I think they make too much money." Then he added, "I just have this deep-seated perversion of wanting to serve on the Austin City Council."
Wilson's bill was one of several dozen bills aimed at Austin. But the city is fighting back. Last week, the city filed a lawsuit in state district court against the Southwest Travis County Water District, which was created last year by the 74th Legislature. The district, a specially created entity that benefits Circle C developer Gary Bradley and few others, strips the city of its ability to enforce its water quality laws. It forces the city to continue paying debts it incurred while extending utilities to Circle C and it prevents the city from annexing the 4,661-acre district, even though that was part of the city's deal with Bradley.
In its pleading, filed last week, the city's lawyers summed up the situation by saying that the water district bill, known as HB 3193, has moved the Austin area "toward regional balkanization." If Austin has become the Sarajevo of the Central Texas Balkans, I say it's time to pick up arms. Rather than let the Serbians from Circle C lob mortar rounds onto our city, it's time to strike back. If the Legislature wants to create special laws designed to hurt Austin, then they should pay the city for all the services the city gives them. It's time to take away the legislators' free parking passes. But more importantly, it's time to charge the state for fire protection.
Why should we Austinites continue to subsidize services given to an entity that goes out of its way to hurt us? The state owns hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tax-free real estate in our city. Yet they pay nothing to maintain the salaries and equipment of our firefighters. Other cities, including McKeesport, Pennsylvania, have begun charging fees to the owners of tax-exempt property. It's time for Austin to do the same.
And let's not stop with the Capitol and other state office buildings. Let's charge the University of Texas. Welch Hall on the UT campus has had five fires in the past two and a half years. A six-alarm fire at the building last month required a response by half of the city's firefighters. Yet the university doesn't have to comply with city fire codes. UT's ethically challenged chancellor, William Cunningham, has allied himself with New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan, which has repeatedly sued the city and hired lobbyists to attack us at the Legislature. Why then are city taxpayers subsidizing fire protection for Cunningham's operations? Require UT to contribute to the city's general fund. If they refuse, get out the marshmallows and watch their buildings burn.
The antics of the Texas Legislature have cost the citizens of Austin millions of dollars in legal fees. We have been forced to fight frivolous laws drafted by lobbyists who will do anything for a buck. And the city is batting 1.000. Despite all the talk about the city being endangered by these bad bills, the City of Austin hasn't yet lost a case in court when it comes to defending its water quality laws.
But if Austinites are going to have to pay to fight the Legislature in court, I say the city should make the Legislature pay for the privilege of doing business here.