Austin @ Large: The Dunkerley Solution

Official's Candidacy Tests Limits of the "Green Council'

Betty Dunkerley
Betty Dunkerley (Photo By John Anderson)

We got a letter earlier this week complaining about our annoying habit of calling for a serious property tax hike to bring Austin's rates in line with the rest of urban Texas. Our correspondent reminded us to look at the combined tax burden -- the city, the county, and the schools -- before throwing around such loose talk. "The difference between Austin and other cities is not 'enormous,'" he wrote.

We hear this a lot. It's not really true. If you do the math yourself, don't forget to include the substantial taxes paid for things like hospital districts (in Dallas) and community colleges (in Houston), areas of public endeavor where Austin doesn't exactly shine. Once you add it all up for real, Austin's combined tax rate is still between a dime and a quarter lower than its urban sisters, and most of that discount is embedded in the city's own tax rate. If the city raised that rate to what, say, San Antonio residents pay, it could increase revenues by as much as $40 million annually, which would wipe out the city's projected budget deficit.

Add to this the fact that Austin, unlike any other Texas city, has under state law the burden of paying for indigent health care (normally the responsibility of a county or hospital district), and our feelings become mixed. On the one hand, we're irritated with the community for insisting on a level of city service for which it is unwilling to pay, and for taking advantage of the golden goose of city-owned utilities to cover its bouncing checks. On the other, we've got to hand it to the city of Austin for finding so many ways for so long to pay for a lot of what people want.

Pursuing a Dream

Which brings us to last week's most interesting political news, a run for City Council by Betty Dunkerley, the assistant city manager and former city financial officer, who gets a lot of the credit for Austin's fiscal legerdemain. Dunkerley, for years City Hall's go-to gal on issues where the city's appetite outpaces its bank account, joins lawyer Brewster McCracken and retired police officer Billy Sifuentes (about whom we'll talk more next week) in challenging Beverly Griffith. So far, only Jennifer Gale intends to challenge Daryl Slusher (assuming she doesn't bump off Lloyd Doggett in the Democratic congressional primary first). And nobody has announced a run against Jackie Goodman, presuming she and Slusher both are able to bust term limits, as Griffith already has. (If not, both Dunkerley and McCracken may jump into the race for the open seats.)
Beverly Griffith
Beverly Griffith

Dunkerley has been trying to retire, though clearly not trying very hard, for about two years now, but City Manager Jesus Garza has been finding things for her to do. Most recently, she supervised the city's resolution (if that's the right word) of the Seton/Brackenridge mess. That ordeal put her into direct conflict with Griffith, but Dunkerley takes pains to note that her interest in a council run long predates any recent spats with any specific people.

"I couldn't leave until my projects were done," she says. "Now I'm free to pursue this dream." As for Griffith, Dunkerley says, "I'm philosophically more aligned with Daryl and Jackie, particularly Jackie -- she shares my passion for the health care issue. We have a health care system that's ready to implode. And with Daryl, I'm aligned on money issues -- he really is pretty conservative with money -- as well as with his environmental record. So I wouldn't run against the two council members I agree with the most, but ... I know it's going to be a very hard race."

Nobody can remember an instance in Austin where a high-ranking city executive ran for council (we do have a couple of cases of council members becoming city executives), though it's not unprecedented in U.S. cities -- for example, Atlanta's new mayor, Shirley Franklin, is the former city administrator. But it's safe to say City Hall denizens may find it weird to see Council Member Dunkerley ordering around city manager-to-be Toby Futrell, currently Dunkerley's boss. "I've worked with city councils a long time, and I know how the system works," says Dunkerley. "It won't be awkward. Toby will be a very good city manager; she's the hardest-working person I've ever met. Even harder-working than me."

Raging Pragmatism

Dunkerley is one of, unfortunately, a rather small club of city staff leaders that community members typically like or respect (a band that also includes Futrell and Mike McDonald, the deputy police chief Futrell has asked to take Dunkerley's place at City Hall). But among the neighborhood and progressive leaders who play such a huge role in city elections -- people whom Griffith has assiduously courted -- Dunkerley's experience on the management team may not be a political asset. "I'm certainly an insider," she says, "but it's not bad to know how things work."

Dunkerley feels she can "bring not only knowledge and experience but also [be] a team player. Issues in a community as diverse as Austin are generally not absolute. Listening to people and crafting the solution that's best for everyone even if nobody really likes it -- especially on hard, sticky issues -- is what I've done my entire career. You try to craft responsible and do-able solutions and get on down the road."

This stands in contrast to Griffith, at least in the view of the incumbent's many detractors, who describe her negotiating style as "First, nail your shoes to the floor ..." While Beverly started her council career with a platform, if not a portfolio, similar to Dunkerley's, she has during her second term become the most beloved council member among the least "pragmatic" voices in the political community.

This has put Beverly at the bottom end of a lot of lopsided votes, and it may be self-evident that a former city executive would be more closely aligned with the current council. So a race between Griffith and Dunkerley may appear to be a referendum on the green Council in its presumably waning days, with the incumbent, curiously, representing the forces of change. But to people outside the Birkenstock Belt, concerned about issues like public safety and public health and their spiraling costs, Griffith may look more like part of the problem, and Dunkerley -- or perhaps someone else -- like part of the solution.

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Betty Dunkerley, City Council, tax rate, Beverly Griffith, Daryl Slusher, Jackie Goodman, Brewster McCracken, Jesus Garza, Toby Futrell, Mike McDonald

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