City Hall Hustle: Big Thinkers

Council's pre-vacation litany looks toward the biennium

City Council hasn't been through a 152-item stemwinder like last week's meeting in a while – and won't do so again until late July, when they next meet again. Just as council's current monthlong hiatus predicated an item-overloaded agenda, so too, invariably, will their break bloat the roster they return to July 29, pregnant with a summer's worth of new items, actions, and major decisions on matters like the city budget.

But the items receiving the most attention at council's 12-hour marathon Thursday looked even further into the future – to 2012, when a slate of ambitious initiatives may be placed before the voters: the omnibus bond election, including both general construction spending and a likely vote on urban rail, and an item that, if voter-approved, would make the city attorney report to council instead of the city manager. Even the recycling contract negotiations council initiated (see "TDS, Balcones to Split City Recycling Work") have ramifications that will reverberate for decades.

It's a hallmark of urban rail's mammoth footprint that the city needs to spend $100,000 just to figure out how to finance the actual project itself – and with that total projected at $1.3 billion, that's arguably money well spent. Failing any new revelations about the rail line (still projected from Mueller to Downtown, then out to the airport along Riverside), other than some nods to regional connectivity, it was the price tag that drew attention. Along with federal help, which the project depends upon to some degree, the city will need a full range of funding options. The Hustle is reminded of former Council Mem­ber Brewster McCracken's notion to consider whether Austin-Bergstrom International Airport connectivity could trigger an influx of airport-earmarked dollars. (We're also reminded of an outstanding balance burdening Capital Metro, but that's a topic for a whole 'nother column.)

Meanwhile, Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar was on double duty, talking up not only the 2012 elections but also this fall's proposed transportation bond. The biggest takeaway from Spillar's presentation of the package – which still confusingly bundles projects ID'd for funding with the $85 million bond money along with projects to be paid for from separate pots – was his admission that the $17 million Lady Bird Boardwalk project, belittled by road warriors as lacking impact and by multimodalists for not being funded via waterfront development contributions, could be divvied up: "In short," said Spillar, "we believe that particular project could be phased, and that could free up capacity."

That acknowledgment may give heft to speculation that the fattened boardwalk calf was always set to be slaughtered, coming in high in order to be frittered away to appease development (i.e., road) interests. If so, that looks pretty self-defeating, as Spillar's presentation arrived attached to some eye-opening numbers on disproportional spending. Tallying Texas Department of Transportation, Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, Cap Metro, and city spending on regional transportation projects through 2018 (totaling $1.76 billion): 1.1% will be spent on trails and sidewalks, 1.3% on bike lanes, 1.6% on mass transit – and a whopping 94.7% on roads.

However the tweaks to the transpo bond shakeout, it highlights the importance of not just thinking big but thinking smart. Returning to the 2012 election and potential charter changes that may accompany it, Council Member Randi Shade deployed a bit of critical thinking, noting that simply changing the reporting structure of the city attorney (on a proposed charter vote) might not prevent another catastrophe like the KeyPoint Government Solutions episode. "I think citizens are best served when we take a strategic and holistic approach and a less politically expedient approach. ... It feels like a piecemeal approach, and I wanted to raise that point." She later expanded on her remarks in an e-mail: "Changing the reporting structure of the City Attorney doesn't come close to solving the problems associated with KeyPoint and/or the larger issues associated with having better policies in place to ensure that information on legal risks is provided on a regular basis to the Council and City Manager. ... It is complicated regardless of whether the City Attorney reports to Council or City Manager."

Also pertinent to 2012 were remarks from perennial council petitioner Paul Robbins, rightly pointing out the need for a charter revision committee to examine other issues to be put to the voters – possibly including single-member districts and other similarly messy but necessary conversations we've put off for too long as we continue to grow in size and prominence. (Elections to alter the city's charter can be held only every two years.)

Going big is obviously on people's minds: With Lee Leffingwell commemorating his first year in the mayor's office, we can relfect on council's achievements (attracting high-profile employers), controversies (KeyPoint, the Arizona travel ban), and future priorities (the upcoming elections). With council stretching out for the summer before returning to the thick of budget deliberations, let's hope everyone's thinking similarly big – but still sweating the small stuff.

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City Council, city budget, transportation bond, Lady Bird Boardwalk, Randi Shade, KeyPoint Solutions, Paul Robbins, Lee Leffingwell

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