Governing Post-Boom Austin

Outside the Courtrooms, the Candidates Consider the Issues

Governing Post-Boom Austin
Illustration By Doug Potter

Judging from the City Council campaign so far, you'd think that the most important issue facing Austin is the proper valuation of a signature as a "campaign contribution," or whether a "one-tailed" or "two-tailed" statistical test is a more appropriate method of quantitative analysis. But before we descended into this circle of hell -- say, six months ago -- bigger issues were clearly at stake. Do we remember what they are? And how are they being tackled in the real campaign for the hearts and minds of Austin voters, far from the shadow of City Hall and the courthouse?

The fact that some candidates are willing to go to court to stop the incumbents may itself attest to the high stakes. (We're being generous here.) But most of the formidable candidates agree on most of the issues and only vary in tone and emphasis. This is even true of candidate/plaintiffs Kirk Mitchell and Linda Curtis, who acknowledge they agree with incumbent/defendants Daryl Slusher and Jackie Goodman on many things -- just not on the issues they feel are important above all others.

Even if it's hard to make issue-specific, or even broad philosophical, distinctions between the aspirants, campaigns are the occasion for citizens to talk about their sense of and vision for the city. The winners on May 4 will help govern an Austin that's fundamentally different from the city that first elected incumbents Slusher, Goodman, and Beverly Griffith six (in Goodman's case, nine) years ago. "Except for the last six months," says Slusher, "for my entire two terms we were going through a huge population and income boom, and mostly we were dealing with that."

Now we're living with the hangover. The 40% jump in Austin's population since 1990 did not simply add more of the same people who were already here. Austin is now nearly 50% non-white. More than 150,000 Austinites lack health insurance. More than half the students in AISD qualify for federal nutrition programs. As high-tech jobs dry up, even if the industry rebounds, it would be years before it attains the employment levels of the late 1990s, and there's no obvious second wave of new employment to replace those jobs.

Likewise, Austin's tax base is getting crunched even as suburban communities start to recover, leading many to suspect the fallow years of the 1990s -- when the city enjoyed annual double-digit increases in sales tax revenue -- are gone for good. But the city's expenses -- particularly for public safety and public health -- are not shrinking, which is why you hear talk of budget deficits anywhere between $30 million and $70 million for the foreseeable future. "We'll have to cut back everything to some degree," says Goodman. "Virtually everything we do for the next year or two will be constricted by the amount of money we have."

That includes not just meeting the new needs of a big, not especially wealthy city (despite what lingers of dot-com excess) in an economic downturn. It also means fulfilling the promises made during the last five, or six, or nine, years of Green Government. Millions of dollars in boom-era bond money remain to be spent, yet may not be spent -- if only because the city can't afford the extra operating costs of new parks, libraries, or miles of roadway. And though the policy backdrop of the boom -- you know, Smart Growth -- has gone to ground, the needs that prompted it have not become less acute. (All three incumbents go to some lengths to disclaim, or even avoid using, the phrase "Smart Growth.")

The city will have to find funding solutions for a number of health care issues,  including reproductive services and indigent care.
The city will have to find funding solutions for a number of health care issues, including reproductive services and indigent care. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

The people who did the most to make those words dirty feel something stronger than just antipathy toward shipwrecked downtown subsidy deals. They feel their city -- their unique city -- is at risk, squeezed from below by the increasing cost of living, from above by the loss of culture and environment. "Our unique quality of life is one of the pillars of our competitiveness as a city," says Beverly Griffith. "We have to keep that set in the bedrock." Her challenger Brewster McCracken says much the same thing, perhaps even louder. "What do we love about Austin? [Things that] tend to wither away when the city gets too expensive."

There's not a lot of time between now and May 4 to talk about such things, and even less if we spend any more time in court. So let's hurry:


The City Budget

It doesn't look good, but if there's an option other than muddling through, it hasn't presented itself yet. All three incumbents feel the strategy taken so far -- substantial but judicious cuts in expenditures, deferring new spending, sharing costs with private and other governmental partners, and when necessary raising property taxes -- is more or less the way to proceed. "We're going to have to do everything," says Goodman. "You can't just raise taxes on the people who aren't able to afford to live the way they did last year. So everybody is going to be looking everywhere for where they can leverage, pare back, consolidate, partner, or look for future partnerships."

Likewise, all three incumbents stress the need to not cut too much, particularly from basic social services. "We didn't lose sight of the fact that [the downturn] left some citizens hurting really badly," says Griffith. Nor does the prospect of large property tax increases fill any candidate with glee. Griffith's challenger Betty Dunkerley -- the city's former finance director -- all but promises not to raise taxes. "Part of making Austin affordable is keeping city government affordable for the people of Austin -- that means responsible spending, keeping tax rates down, and stretching our resources," she says.

Not that there's no silver lining. As Daryl Slusher notes, "One opportunity might be that land prices are a little lower and we can do a higher volume of affordable housing. You can turn crisis into opportunity."


Affordability

Generally, "affordability" means affordable housing -- as Dunkerley puts it, "The people who make this city work -- whether they're teachers or construction workers, city employees or musicians, firefighters or nurses -- ought to be able to live in this city." She advances a multi-point strategy, including expanding the city's down-payment assistance program -- currently available to police and firefighters -- to other workers in need (like teachers), working with the county to clear abandoned lots for conversion to housing (an idea first brought to the council years ago, by Brigid Shea, who has endorsed Dunkerley), liberalizing zoning laws to make it easier to build housing on non-residential property (a Smart Growth "infill tool" included in neighborhood plans), and creating a community land trust to bank property for affordable housing.

The incumbents more or less agree with Dunkerley's thrust. Her opponent Beverly Griffith cites a recent Wharton School study indicating that "increasing the supply [of affordable housing] is good, but what helps most is to increase the buying power of the people who need affordable housing." That's what down payment assistance does. "The market responds more efficiently, and there's more accountability, because you know exactly where the money's gone. Let's talk about that."

The city's current SMART Housing program -- which does focus on increasing supply -- "is doing well, but we need to increase volume," says Slusher. One way of doing that would be to raise the city's financial stake, whether by underwriting development or, through homebuyer assistance, stimulating demand. This was the thrust of the $25 million affordable-housing bond program that didn't make it to the November 2000 ballot, supported by Griffith and Goodman, opposed by Slusher (and, sotto voce, Dunkerley). Financial reality would seem to make such debt an even harder sell now, but Griffith wants to revisit the idea.


Future Economic Growth

The other half of the affordability equation is jobs, which Austin needs to once again think about how to create and attract. There's widespread agreement among the candidates that, in McCracken's words, "The economy is not diverse enough. We have an amazing array of talented people here, and we need a diverse enough economy so these people can all find something fulfilling to give to the community, while keeping in mind our fundamental aim of a relatively clean, knowledge-based economy."
Long-term costs at Austin Energy -- such as closing the Holly Power Plant -- may cut into the utility's ability to subsidize other city services.
Long-term costs at Austin Energy -- such as closing the Holly Power Plant -- may cut into the utility's ability to subsidize other city services. (Photo By John Anderson)

The inescapable inequalities of the boom make it unlikely that the next council will give too much thought to any deal designed to shift high-wage high tech workers from one place to another. "I'd be willing to look at some public-private partnerships," says Slusher, "especially if they were bringing jobs to people at the middle to lower end of the spectrum but that were nonetheless a step up. I don't want to bring in a bunch of jobs below living wage, but a public/private project to help the working poor and lower-middle class would be worth considering."

He cites as an example the Convention Center hotel, subsidies to which he opposed (strongly) until a deal was crafted where the hotel would eventually become city property. Now, with the downturn and the way things are downtown, he says, "the hotel looks good; there's a lot of jobs down there." Slusher also says he wants to focus on pushing along the revitalization of East 11th and East 12th streets. "What we're seeing [on East 11th] now is the first serious progress in 20 to 30 years of trying, and I'm proud to have had any role in that."

Griffith, who broke with the council's support of Smart Growth subsidies in the latter days of the boom -- "We put about $100 million in central-city buildings and investment, and I voted for about half of that" -- does not rule out future subsidies, but is focused on "investment in areas where unemployment is highest, with business and industry that wants to go in those areas and that shares our community values" with programs like vanpools, on-site child care, and job training. "The cost-benefit analysis could come out really high on that," she says, "and it's consistent with what we saw in the 2000 census. Job growth and population growth will flatten out, but poverty is a trend."

It may not be hard to find the kinds of industries that merit public investment in economic diversity, says Goodman. "Things like film, music, tourism -- we didn't focus on them like we needed to," she says. "We gave them some support, but not enough. If we use this as an opportunity, we can look at details that weren't looked at in ... the push to make us a sustainable community [her attempt to avoid saying You-Know-What]. High-profile initiatives took all the resources and energy, and other things are languishing."

And there's general support -- as there is every election -- for doing more for small business, which would include many of the creative and leisure industries Goodman is talking about. "We know that's where the job creation is," says Griffith. Slusher has defined himself as a uniquely stalwart friend of small business ever since he ran for mayor in 1994, and both of Goodman's opponents other than Curtis -- retired police officer Billy Sifuentes and activist/understudy Robin Stallings (who just dropped out and endorsed Goodman) -- have done the same.


Health Care

The city's recent reclaiming of certain women's health services from the Catholic-run Seton Healthcare Network, which operates city-owned Brackenridge Hospital, was the pre-campaign warmup bout between then-staffer Dunkerley and Griffith, and Dunkerley has made health care perhaps the most important issue of her campaign. But she, Griffith, and McCracken -- and Slusher and Goodman -- all agree that the city needs to move toward "a regional health care system," in McCracken's words, "run by the city or a secular organization" that distributes more equitably costs for indigent care that are now borne (under state law) by the city alone (and, as part of its charitable mission, largely defrayed by Seton, which is why they proved irreplaceable at Brack).

Dunkerley herself leaves the options open as to whether that means a separate hospital taxing district, increased state funding for indigent health care via Medicaid, or interlocal agreements with the 13 counties who currently send cases to Brack, or perhaps all of the above. Goodman is more focused: "We need a health care [taxing] district, even if we have to start out on our own and evolve into a regional system. We may have to make up our own pattern, but if we're going to have a healthy community, you can't just sit and say, 'Well, we can't do it.'"

Slusher, on the other hand, feels "we need to consider a hospital district, but we don't need for Austin to come into a 13-county regional group and say 'Here's the solution,' because that makes it less likely to happen. We need to make clear that Austin is picking up most of the indigent care costs for all these counties, and we'd like to come up with a regional solution. Maybe there are approaches in Austin that can help health care in those counties -- a regional system similar to the MAP program, for example. We don't want to just start sending them a bill. It's not as fast an approach as I would like, but it's got as much of a chance of success as anything around here."


Transportation

Brewster McCracken identifies Austin's traffic woes as his No. 1 issue, but his position on transportation is of a piece with what the council has done -- or has said it wants done -- in recent years. "We do need better regional planning," he says. "There's a perception that the city does not play well with others and is punished even when it's doing the right thing" -- such as limiting highway building over sensitive lands. "People can scapegoat us. We do need a better road system, but we can't simply pave our way out of the problem. We destroy too much of what makes Austin great with a roads-only approach."
The proposed Villas on Guadalupe: the right idea on urban infill, but the wrong solution
The proposed Villas on Guadalupe: the right idea on urban infill, but the wrong solution

Most of the action on the transportation front has been, for better or worse, beyond the city's sole purview -- be it highways like SH 130 and SH 45 or light rail and Capital Metro. But the major arterials within the city limits are a part of the network that Goodman feels have been too long overlooked. "We don't yet have anything we can really implement," she says, referring to city projects like corridor planning, the Great Streets program, and the Downtown Access and Mobility Project.

"We haven't assessed what roles and functions and characters the roads are going to have," Goodman says. "We haven't addressed, for example, where parking would and would not happen downtown." As for rail, Goodman -- who, unlike Slusher and Griffith, doesn't sit on the Capital Metro board -- says the city needs to decide "what kind of density we will naturally grow into along the line, and what other design and access and connection issues we need to address so that the central neighborhoods still exist."


The Neighborhoods

Rightly or wrongly, not only rail but Smart Growth were pegged real early on as threatening to the established center-city neighborhoods whose power brought you the Green Council. This conflict saw yet another incarnation last week with the council's 4-3 approval of high-density zoning for the Villas on Guadalupe near UT, over the fierce objections of the neighborhood. (Slusher voted yea, Griffith nay, and Goodman switched from yes to no on third and final reading.) Yet bringing more density and infill into the urban core is, if anything, a greater imperative now, since what's at stake isn't just environmental "sustainability" -- the opposite of "sprawl" -- but real-life tax revenue that might otherwise escape to the 'burbs. "The alternative is not to plan," says Griffith, "and that just isn't an option."

Can it be done better? The Villas' opponents decried their lack of a neighborhood or comprehensive plan, and Griffith points to the "charrette"-based community efforts she's championed -- on Barton Springs Road, at the Triangle, and for Town Lake Park -- as the model. "We need to have a very inclusive look at planning. We didn't do that on the front end [of Smart Growth], but nothing is forever." Her opponent McCracken says much the same thing -- "The success of the Mueller model (see Austin@Large) proves the need for more public participation on the front end."

Yet Slusher notes that "opponents [of the Villas] say if we had a neighborhood plan, everything would be okay, but then we'd just be fighting over the neighborhood plan instead. This being Austin, I don't know if there's a 'process' way that you can stop things like this from happening. But I'll look for ways to communicate better the program we're trying to implement."

Changing not (just) the planning process but the political process, says Linda Curtis, would be a big step. "You can't separate political reform from the complaints in the neighborhoods ... It has a big impact on the expectation people have of getting a hearing from the council. I think Jackie's done a lot for Austin, but the main complaint I've heard is that she's not as accessible as she used to be because of how closed-down the system is."


The Environment

All three incumbents were, of course, elected as greens, and unlike in past campaigns there's no formidable challenger arguing that they may, in fact, be too green. Kirk Mitchell, rather, has spent much of his time and rhetoric arguing that Slusher is not green enough, that he "hasn't defended the environment down to his last breath." Slusher, naturally, disputes this vigorously, highlighting a long list of actions during his tenure, from reinstating the Save Our Springs Ordinance to acquiring 15,000 acres of open space for water quality protection. "There's been all this talk about not having a 'plan' to save Barton Springs, but that's my plan to save the springs," he says. "I've been implementing it for six years." Next on his to-do list is developing a trail from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center down to the Rutherford Ranch area in Hays County, where the city has acquired open space preserves. "That would be a great legacy for the city to leave."

Slusher's view may be validated by the fact that both McCracken and Dunkerley decided not to run against Daryl, in part, because they agree with his environmental positions. It's their opponent Griffith who's led the call, now echoed by Mitchell, for a "plan to save the Springs." "We have a massive amount of studies and analysis and information about the issue; it's like Rumplestiltskin's workshop," she says. "Let's pull it all together, identify the action items we need to take to save the springs, creek and aquifer, cost them out, and start doing it."

On the other side of town, Griffith touts her backing of millions of dollars in bond money to acquire "destination parks" and greenbelt lands, but she notes that "while we've been able to spend $70 million [on open-space reserves] on the west side without any trouble, it's going real slow on the east side. We need to have that emerald necklace all the way around the city." This is one point on which she and her opponents, particularly McCracken, are in obvious disagreement. "The incumbent is focused on new parks purchases," he says, "and while I supported previous bonds, I don't think we can afford any more."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

city council, Kirk Mitchell, Linda Curtis, Daryl Slusher, Jackie Goodman, Beverly Griffith, Brewster McCracken, Betty Dunkerly, Smart Growth, SMART Housing, Villas on Guadalupe

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