Council: Burning Daylight
Passing the hot bond potato
At its budget work session last week, City Council spent several hours discussing the possibility of a November transportation bond package, with the understanding that they need to make some decision by the end of June – and then left the matter hanging. That was in part because it was clear there was no immediate consensus. The strongest advocate, Mayor Steve Adler, made a point of saying he is not yet endorsing a bond proposition – only recommending that the Council consider seriously whether a 2016 bond consensus is possible. (In late May, speaking to the Chamber of Commerce, Adler was rather more forceful, arguing that Austin is "at an inflection point" and describing the "mobility" bond as "a transformational investment in affordability.")
His colleagues on the dais were more ambivalent, passing the hot bond potato around the room with little enthusiasm but many questions. Some questioned whether priorities determined by previous Councils or previous corridor studies needed reconsideration; a few asked for specific benefits for their districts or their roadway hobbyhorses; some vaguely approved of the mayor's emphasis on "major corridors" (Burnet/Lamar, Airport Blvd., MLK, Riverside, etc.) but wanted to hear more details. All appeared somewhat blindsided by the sudden urgency out of the mayor's office, although early in the year, Adler had warned that the extended battle over Uber and Lyft – only partly of the city's making – would "suck all the oxygen out of the room" and inevitably delay other work and planning.
So here we are, in the middle of FY 2017 budget preparation (see "Working the Budget"), a month away from summer hiatus, and the mayor wants to talk transportation bondage. The reluctance on the dais is palpable.
Not that there isn't plenty of other work to do – although how much will get accomplished at today's meeting (June 9) remains in doubt, as the mayor and Council Members Delia Garza and Ann Kitchen will be in D.C. presenting the city's final "Smart City Challenge" application.
A few highlights of today's agenda:
• Items 36, 37, and 38: The return of the major purchasing decisions for the Austin Police Department of license plate readers ($900,000 over six years); body cameras ($12 million over seven years); and smartphones and related software ($5 million over five years). Although there's growing political and policy consensus endorsing body cameras, the initial and ongoing costs are nothing to sneeze at.
• Item 53: It's not only the cost that has delayed the purchasing decision, but also the policy questions associated with the body cameras. Council's Public Safety Committee considered the question, and the committee's resolution would direct staff to convene "stakeholder meetings" to discuss policies governing when and how body camera videos would be publicly released. (The current policy is designed and administered by APD, creating potential conflicts of interest.)
• Items 30 and 31: These are two purchasing proposals (laptop kiosks for the new Central Library, $413,000 over three years; digital content materials, $5.2 million over five years), and a couple of council members have routinely objected to most expenditures for the new library.
• Item 43: Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and four co-sponsors would expand the reach of the Housing Trust Fund (which underwrites affordable housing programs) to include all new revenue from Desired Development Zone lands (e.g., city- or state -owned) previously not on the tax rolls – staff's fiscal note is vaguely foreboding (i.e., we can't figure out the potential cost), so this one will likely take extended discussion. (At Tuesday's work session, Tovo anticipated that the matter would be delayed because today's Council will be shorthanded.)
• Item 46: Call it the "We're Touchy about Torchy's" resolution. Some council members were annoyed when Torchy's Tacos withdrew its application for an alcoholic beverage waiver for its South Congress restaurant across from Fulmore Middle School (the presumption was the sentiment and the votes were available to kill the waiver). Accordingly, Tovo and her co-sponsors (CMs Ora Houston, Leslie Pool, and Pio Renteria) have proposed a resolution for an ordinance requiring waiting periods for such requests to return to Council.
• Item 71: In a similar vein, Lone Star Pizza Garden on Hwy. 290 East (near Oak Hill Elementary) is requesting a waiver on alcohol sales; several council members (strongly urged by Austin Interfaith) appear determined to protect schoolchildren from adults enjoying a beer-and-a-slice (or a beer-and-a-taco), mostly after school hours.
• Items 58-62, and 68: Several public hearings concern potential approval for the Housing Authority to apply to the state housing agency for funding credits toward rehab of five different multifamily housing projects; Item 68 is a similar request, for a new affordable housing project, from Austin/Travis County Integral Care. In the past, CM Don Zimmerman has reflexively objected to all such projects underwriting affordable housing and may do so again.
• Item 65, (also expected to be postponed) concerning the innocuous-sounding "site development standards for educational facilities" – that is, the ongoing controversy over different standards for conventional public vs. charter schools – has been postponed for a week as staff tries to find a compromise that charters will agree to, short of just complying with development regulations.
There's definitely more where all this comes from, although there was sentiment at work session to delay certain matters because of the three CMs who will be unavailable. With budget prep, bond discussions, and related matters piling up in June, the list won't get any shorter next week.
Proclamations: It's Rebecca Baines Johnson Center Day, Gatica Boxing Day, and Love Your Rescue Pet Day. Honored musician is singer/pianist Jeremy McBee, so for a few minutes at 5:30, you can all relax and enjoy the show.