The Austin Chronicle

City Hall Hustle: The Wages of Faith

Perfect and good face off in US Farathane incentives debate

By Wells Dunbar, December 23, 2011, News

Is half a loaf still better than none?

That was the question council wrestled with last week, in its jam-packed end-of-year meeting. The proverbial bread in question was the city's proposed economic development deal with US Farathane, a maker of plastic auto parts proposing to open a manufacturing facility in Austin.

The deal itself was pretty austere. In exchange for some $212,000 over a decade, the company would invest millions of dollars in equipment and improvements and create 228 jobs. City staffers with the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office trumpeted the proposal on its own merits as well as its potential tie-in to Austin's recently re-green-lit Formula One races, as well as the chance to support an industry – manufacturing – that's never been particularly strong locally.

However, for opponents of the deal as written, the austerity cut both ways. Some 70% of the jobs created would be entry-level positions, with an average wage of $10.80 an hour. (After a three-month probationary period, employees would get a 50-cent raise; the company also offers tuition reimbursement and a $100-200 quarterly bonus tied to performance.)

Several speakers from Austin Interfaith were on hand to protest the terms of the agreement, offering that if city funds were going to Farathane, then the company shouldn't be paying "poverty-level wages." Austin Interfaith argued that if full-time employees become eligible for food stamps, for instance, it would amount to a double-dip of public resources.

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole grew increasingly heated over the criticism. "Do you think a high school dropout doesn't use any public subsidies?" she asked one speaker. Indeed, Farathane has touted its willingness to work with the hard-to-employ: dropouts, even felons eager to re-enter the work force. Representatives from job-promoting nonprofits Skillpoint Alliance and the Reentry Roundtable were on hand to note their support for the agreement.

Other council members were more sympathetic to the AI's at-times strident demands (for instance, the group doesn't support city funds going to projects that pay less than its definition of a livable wage, based on a family of four – $18 an hour, a laudable, if not necessarily realistic, goal). "I don't think we have enough leverage to force them to crank up those wages all by our lonesome," said Council Member Bill Spelman, citing the low stakes of the city's investment.  

Those wages were the justification Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo offered for their negative votes, with Morrison saying her support was "almost there" but derailed by the wage scale. Cole enthusiastically noted her own support, saying, "I see it as a social-service proposal," not an economic development deal. Mike Martin­ez also spoke in support, beginning with tales of his own hardscrabble upbringing. "We cannot let perfection, and we cannot let the ultimate and the best, keep us from doing the good and the right – and that's what we're doing here in my mind." Addressing the pay scale, he said that while he didn't want to endorse "poverty-level" wages, "you can't get past poverty if you're not even there – you have to be given that opportunity to get through that door." Addressing Austin Interfaith's opposition, he said, "Quite frankly, I'm looking forward to the debate." At one of AI's candidate "accountability sessions," Martinez recalled: "I was asked to either commit or not commit to $18-an-hour on everything that we do. ... I don't think that's a fair debate, and this is a prime example of why. ... A one-size-fits all-policy just doesn't work in this building."

The item eventually passed, 5-2, with Spelman somewhat cryptically but sagely musing, "We may be doing more good for Austin residents with $20,000-a-year jobs at Farathane than $100,000-a-year jobs at Facebook." Post that to your Timeline.

I'm Two Puffs Over Par

The meter was running throughout the day for dozens of cab drivers crowding chambers, waiting to see what would become of proposals to add some 75 new permits and consider the creation of a "legacy permit" system, under which drivers themselves – instead of franchises – would own the taxi permits. After much public comment – including would-be franchisees arguing they should be the ones to get any new ones issued, instead of the established Lone Star Cab and Austin Cab – council delayed any definitive decision till next year, as staff prepares a report on what effects additional permits might have on existing drivers and franchises. A ban on smoking in parks passed – excluding golf courses during rounds, although Mayor Lee Leffingwell picked at language allowing smokes only between the first and last holes. "What if you over-hit the green?" he asked.

That's a query the Hustle's golf game is far too familiar with.

Pitch. Putt. Tweet. @CityHallHustle.

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