Council: It’s Always Something

This week’s Council, courtesy of CodeNEXT

The Starship Robot: Like if your Roomba ran the U.S. Postal Service

It's a busy week at City Hall, although today's City Council agenda is not likely the center of action. Tuesday morning marked the release of the first draft of the CodeNEXT maps – preceded by enough general apprehension that a few days earlier, Mayor Steve Adler declared it "Austin Everybody Chill Out Day," and reiterated that declaration Tuesday (see "Public Notice," Apr. 21).

Yesterday, at its budget work session, Council received a briefing on the five-year financial forecast, followed by interim City Manager Elaine Hart's early budget projections – generally upbeat in recent years, but always with a sense of cyclical forebodings (see "City Budget Forecast," below).

Robots first, sidewalks later; the techsters call it “disruption.”

I'm not sure whether the mayor's early exhortations made public anxiety worse or better, but it's amusing to wonder what Roseanne Roseannadanna might have made of the occasion – maybe, "Everybody Chili Out Day. That's when everybody in the Roseannadanna family goes down to City Park and shares a big chili picnic. We do it outside, because Grandma Roseanna­danna doesn't like it when we mess up all her best tablecloths with chili stains."

It's always something. The mayor is dancing as fast as he can, in the hopes that "the CodeNEXT process will help us manage our explosive growth while preserving what makes Austin special." We've got at least a year to determine whether that's possible.

There will be other business today – and remember, it's 4/20 – although the agenda doesn't reflect much explicitly dramatic material.

Public Safety & Labor: What's listed as a simple staff briefing (Item 48) might well turn out to be the matter with the most public reverberations. The backup PowerPoint is little more than a Contracts 101 for the 10-1 Council, sketching the history of the current police, fire, and emergency services labor agreements and providing a sense of what's at issue in the next round of negotiations. (There had been some sentiment that "meet-and-confer" would wait for the appointment of the permanent city manager, but it appears all the negotiations will proceed together under the current administration.)

However, the briefing is posted for public comment, and several activist groups (Austin Justice Coalition, Communities of Color United, Counter Balance: ATX, Grass­roots Leadership) have announced their intentions to testify, and specifically to address Austin Police Association contract matters that they believe need changing. They're expected to press for no new money for raises (on the grounds that APD officers are already the best-paid in Texas, and the funding is needed elsewhere) and for greater police accountability in use-of-force incidents (e.g., through the Office of the Police Monitor or other mechanisms). It's worth noting that, in management/union negotiations, concessions are generally "bought" with other personnel benefits – making the contract mechanisms here uncertain – but it will be interesting to see how Council reacts to what looks like an organized effort to move from accountability rhetoric to action.

Red Light Green Light: Speaking of accountability, Item 19 is a contract-and-extensions with Texas Highway Products Ltd. (potentially $5.7 million over three years) for "video imaging vehicle detection systems (intersection cameras)," appliances treated with contempt or suspicion from Austin's libertarian quarters. However, staff reports that these cameras function primarily for traffic counts and signal synchronization, are more efficient and much quicker to install than the current versions, and most specifically: "The system will not be used to assist in issuing citations for traffic violations."

Your Starship Is Stuck: The ambitiously named Starship Technologies is developing a robot delivery vehicle to address the "last-mile" problem on shipping – their solution is a cute little boxy robot on wheels, designed to autonomously deliver packages from hub warehouses to your door. A resolution sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo (and others) would direct staff to enable pilot testing in Austin. However, these R2D2 cousins are designed to run (and magically avoid obstacles and people) on sidewalks – meaning that in many Austin neighborhoods, they'll be as useless as roller skates at the ice rink. Robots first, sidewalks later; the techsters call it "disruption."

Young Entrepreneurs: By Saturday, May 6, this remarkable, pleasant spring weather will likely be over, and we'll all be gritting our teeth into the prolonged Austin heat wave. A good moment to celebrate "Lemonade Day," when the city encourages young juice salespeople to set up a corner stand by waiving fees and requirements for temp food permits and licensing. Think of it as a low-cost pathway to affordability – first lemonade, then apples and pencils.

It's National Infant Immunization Week, and let's hope that sufficiently annoys Alex Jones and his deluded local followers. Council will be honoring the late Mary Gay Maxwell by renaming the Slaughter Creek Management Unit (in the water protection lands) after her (quite an improvement), enjoying the rhythmic energy of the Rattletree School of Marimba, and – even better – awarding a certificate of appreciation to Miss Lavelle White, 87 years young, and performing at Antone's Sunday evening

City Budget Forecast: Partly Cloudy

At a Wednesday work session, City Council received its early five-year financial and budget forecasts, the first from consultant Jon Hockenyos of TXP Inc., the second from Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo. Hockenyos described the overall regional expectations for growth as still strong, but not as strong as in recent years. The metropolitan region remains "prosperous overall," but softening from years of very high growth (jobs, income) to a more sustainable average of 3-5%.

The budget forecast echoed some of Hockenyos' projections on a narrower frame, but Van Eenoo was cautious on the city's ability to maintain recent growth in revenues – especially if the Legislature lowers the property tax rate rollback cap from its current 8% to 5%, with an impact that would be compounded over coming years. Structural cost drivers (e.g., personnel costs, health insurance, growth) already boost anticipated FY 2018 expenses, and interim City Manager Elaine Hart began by saying departments have been directed to submit "no new request" budgets and in fact find 1% in cuts in anticipation of the whole General Fund (operating expense) budget.

The forecast includes roughly $47 million in structural cost drivers (over and above last year's spending); as drafted, it projects a 2.3% increase in property taxes and fees for the "typical" homeowner ($269,000 value): $7.34/month, the largest bump being a $5.20/month increase in the property tax bill (even at a lower rate).

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City Council, Steve Adler, Kathie Tovo

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