The Austin Chronicle

Council Proposes “Austin Affordability Action Plan”

Looking for ways to balance the budget

By Michael King, March 3, 2017, News

Predictably as clockwork – or calendar-work, with the FY 2018 budget deliberations looming on the horizon – the "affordability" phrase is back in the City Council air, carrying as many definitions as there are tongues to repeat it. Formally on the agenda today, March 2, is a resolution sponsored by Council Member Ellen Troxclair (co-sponsored by Mayor Steve Adler and CMs Ora Houston, Ann Kitchen, and Jim­my Flannigan), to direct staff "to prepare a timeline, budget recommendations, and ordinances necessary to finalize and implement the Austin Affordability Action Plan" itemized in the resolution. As drafted (there were a couple of versions floating through Tuesday's work session), it's a five-part plan addressing housing supply, employment incentives, budget planning, property taxes, and transportation (see below).

Nothing on the list is exactly new (as several council members noted Tuesday), but Troxclair is promoting it as an omnibus attempt to address intractable issues that have thus far somehow eluded the 10-1 Council. On some of the details – greater housing supply, more "middle-skill" jobs – there's a rough consensus, and (other members responded) city policies are already in place, but on others – flat-rate budgeting, deregulating transportation – Council and Austinites remain quite divided.

That divide became obvious at the work session, when Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, and CMs Leslie Pool and Delia Garza hammered the proposal in turn, saying that it made assumptions about previous Council action (or inaction) that were inaccurate, and jumped to conclusions – e.g., that an "effective rate" budget (no increases in property tax rate or utility fees) is a good idea – not shared by the Council majority. Tovo and Garza explicitly withheld their support in advance of today's meeting, and there was no groundswell from their colleagues, although Troxclair and the co-sponsors raised various defenses.

One issue was the genesis of the proposal – transparently a simplified version of the "Affordability Agenda" currently being promoted by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. Troxclair's Council message-board postings cited the support of the GACC and other groups (RECA, Downtown Austin Alliance, contractors and builders associations) that also includes surprising bedfellows the NAACP, Goodwill, and One Voice Central Texas (the broad coalition of social service organizations). An argument simmered over the Chamber's role – Flannigan objected to "demonizing" the business community – and there was puzzlement over the involvement of One Voice, which is generally tightly focused on support for social services, quite likely to be undermined by an effective rate budget.

One Voice Chair Ann Howard (also executive director of the End Community Homeless Coalition) told the Chronicle that the coalition had supported the Chamber's agenda in the spirit of being "team players" and supporting an "overall package good for people in poverty." Nevertheless, she continued, One Voice is "very focused on the [projected] health and human services funding that Council has already passed," and the group's "Put People First" document notes that overall Council budgets have risen faster than social services funding.

Garza pointed out that a budget based on the effective rate would not only not incorporate social service needs, it wouldn't acknowledge the city's structural "cost drivers" – inflationary or contractual – and would leave social services (and many other discretionary needs) fighting over funding. In any case, city budget staff routinely provides the effective rate numbers for Council, as a matter of course. The demand for an "effective-rate budget" is essentially political, in order for conservatives to portray any additional spending as "a tax increase." Though the draft has five sponsors, there was enough hesitation in the room to suggest that sixth vote won't be an easy domino.

Elsewhere on the agenda:

If Not That, This: As if smelling trouble on the "affordability" agenda, Mayor Adler returns his economic incentive reforms in another version (Item 34).

Defying Trump: The immigration crisis persists, and Council is likely to formally denounce the Trump regime's executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, and condemning discrimination (Item 35).

Let's Get PUDdy: Both the Plaza Saltillo zoning case (Items 62, 63, and 64) and the Austin Oaks planned unit development (Item 76) return today for further deliberation, along with a pitch from the mayor (and others, Item 40) to drop some Housing Trust Fund money into the Plaza Saltillo affordable housing mix.

Zoning to Go: Including those two marathon items, there are a couple of dozen zoning cases on the list – more than likely, several will be postponed.

With 79 Items in all, there will be plenty to do beyond these highlights. The musical honoree is "Vocalista" Courtney Santana; it's Women's Veterans Month and Social Work Month, and Amplify Austin ("I Live Here, I Give Here") Day.

The (Latest) "Affordability Agenda"

The proposed "Austin Affordability Action Plan" (sponsored by CM Ellen Troxclair) would direct city staff to prepare a timeline, budget, and ordinances to implement a series of policies aimed at reducing the local cost of living, incentivizing employment, cutting taxes, and improving transportation – not entirely consistent goals. Here's a summary of the proposal, available in full in the Council meeting backup, Item 32.

Housing & Real Estate Affordability: Build 13,500 new housing units annually through 2025, including more affordable units; adopt supportive CodeNEXT by April 2018; streamline permitting review.

Diversify the Economy & Support Local Businesses: Add 10,000 "middle-skill" jobs by 2022; invest portion of city pension fund in local venture capital; revise economic incentive policies to emphasize equity issues and locally owned businesses.

Better Way of Budgeting: Conduct biennial full budget reviews of every city department; implement Strategic Plan; collaborate with other taxing jurisdictions to reduce costs.

Cost of Living & Doing Business in Austin: Present budget at "effective" property tax rate (same revenue as previous year, plus new construction); prioritize health and human services contracts; no increase in utility rates.

Affordable & Accessible Transportation: Improve transportation choices; implement 2016 Mobility Bond improvements; provide citywide accessible bus service.

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