Council Notes: Incentives, Booze, and More
Not quite as exciting as mayoral race buzz, but today's agenda matters
One of the more succulent City Council news nuggets that broke this week was the unexpected-yet-seemingly-orchestrated shake-up in the mayor's race, when two of the three deep-pocketed, well-connected "outsider" candidates dropped out of the contest, more or less before they'd even begun. That left one of the trio, attorney Steve Adler, emerging as the heir apparent in the eyes of many Austin business leaders and philanthropic movers and shakers. (See "Mayoral Dance Card Suddenly Shrinks.")
A postmortem staff briefing on how this top-tier reorganization played out would make for a fascinating discussion today (Thursday, Jan. 30) among council members – three of whom are weighing their own mayoral prospects as "insider" candidates – but there's plenty of other gristle to dissect. The last-minute cancellation of Council's Tuesday work session, however, threw a wrench into the group's ability to hash out some meeting agenda items and offer clues about what might get punted and which way the wind was blowing on a few issues of import.
One particularly contentious item – a rewrite of the "vested rights" development ordinance, which Council repealed last year under legislative threat, has been postponed until March 6 at the request of staff. Still on deck for consideration and possible action:
A public hearing on a proposed incentives deal for Massachusetts-based AthenaHealth Inc. (Item 38), which would take up quarters in the former Seaholm Power Plant, currently undergoing renovations. Under the proposed agreement, the cloud-based health care firm would be expected to create 607 high-paying jobs in exchange for an incentive package of $680,000 over a period of 10 years, with an anticipated net return to the city of $1.7 million. The Texas Enterprise Fund, also known as Gov. Rick Perry's slush fund for pet projects, has pledged $5 million if the locals enable it by kicking in some cash. Council Member Laura Morrison has questioned why the city should subsidize a company's move into what would be one of the most enviable corporate lakefront offices in Austin – a primo art-deco structure that is designated in the development agreement for public use, or at the very least, partial public use. She also questioned why the city needs to continue providing corporate subsidies when Austin already is one of the top go-to business markets in the country. In truth, though, this is already pretty much a done deal.
A public hearing and consideration of an appeal of the Planning Commission's rejection of Little Woodrow's request for a conditional use permit that would allow the pub at 5425 Burnet Rd. to serve alcoholic beverages (Item 40). Neighbors fear that this area of Burnet could become a clone of South Congress, where noise and parking issues have sometimes pitted residents against businesses, or vice versa.
Final approval of residential visitability standards – a term first bandied about years ago, during the final term of former Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who was getting on in years. The idea resurfaced in the last year or so as part of a move to make newly constructed Austin residences more accessible to people with mobility challenges. Homebuilders object to what would be additional construction regulations, if Council agrees to proposed amendments to the residential code, applying to single-family and duplex construction (Item 21). There could be some last-minute fiddling to the proposal to assuage builders' heartburn.
Approval of a resolution directing the city manager to develop an "affordability benchmark" that measures residents' ability to pay for general fund services (Item 48). Council Member Bill Spelman had hoped to gauge how his proposal squares with his colleagues (Mayor Lee Leffingwell is on board) at Tuesday's work session. But the cancellation also canceled out the time he had hoped to spend explaining his rationale; basically he believes the city should change the way it has always crafted the budget – an internal process by staff and Council. "We have a pretty good estimate of what sales taxes are going to do, what Austin Energy revenues are going to do ... property taxes – we know how much we're going to get," he says. "So we look at our internal needs and say 'okay, how much of the internal unmet needs can we meet?,' and then determine a budget. And nobody's looking over their shoulder to see what citizens' income has been doing. And it turns out that over the last 15 years we have steadily taken a larger and larger share of citizens' income since 1999." When you do the math, Spelman says, incomes have gone up citywide by about 100%, but general funding spending has gone up by about 150%. "We're taking more from people's pockets than we were 15 years ago." Spelman says what he's asking for is not a hard cap, but rather some sort of tracking mechanism that can be used as part of the budget-making process.