Point Austin: Unfinished Business
Working Austin’s weirding ways to New Year’s resolutions
The most persistent organizational principle of the 10-1 City Council has been never to do today what can be put off until tomorrow – or until next week. It's not entirely intentional; as often as not, the combination of institutional rules imposed by the state on municipalities and the sheer (and growing) volume of city business make it difficult to work through Council agendas with anything approaching efficiency. That pattern repeatedly has meant – as it does this week – postponed business piling up like Fibber McGee's closet. (If you're mystified by that ancient reference, YouTube saves everything.)
So City Hall enters December and the year-end in a familiar place: plenty of work begun and pending, hanging fire, looking toward February of 2018 (and the early rumblings of an election campaign). To their credit, this week Council altered the weekly schedule to move its most contentious matter – the public hearing on the proposed Austin Police Association contract – to its own Wednesday meeting (still in progress as the Chronicle goes to press), in hopes of providing a little more time for today's (Dec. 14) hefty agenda.
Meanwhile, it's useful to take stock of year-end matters that will follow the Council and city into 2018. A few will buzz through the chambers today.
• Soccer on the Colorado: This is a relatively new problem, imposed by an Ohio professional soccer franchise getting wanderlust and looking for a new municipal patsy – er, fan base – to offer up a prime piece of Downtown real estate and a diverse, fairly flush clientele for ticket sales. The Parks and Rec staff issued a preliminary report this week on potential stadium sites (including the club's preferred Butler Shores), but the siting, the financing, and the neighborhood politics issues will carry this debate into the spring. (Parkland privatization in Austin rhymes with Trouble in River City.)
Water and Puzzles
• In the Swim: As if the beleaguered PARD staff didn't have enough problems, this week also welcomes the long anticipated Aquatic Master Plan for what will apparently be a brief appearance before being punted to 2018. Council members heard the potential price tag to address deteriorating pool conditions and neighborhood inequities – an estimated $124 million – and blanched. (Jimmy Flannigan: "This is insane.") After decades of neglect, the costs won't get any lower – but existing infrastructure bond proposals have already hit $650 million, so Council's problem won't get any easier.
• Still Puzzled: Dais tension over Mayor Steve Adler's "Downtown Puzzle" resurfaced at Tuesday's work session, primarily concerning its central component of a Convention Center expansion triggering new hotel tax funding to address a brace of other Downtown needs. Council appears ready today to commission UT's Center for Sustainable Development to spend a year studying the question – so perhaps we'll be having this same conversation next December.
Cars to Cops
The problems listed above are relatively specific conundrums. Others still unresolved that loom larger over the whole city include:
• Transportation: Even the vexing soccer stadium decision would be less so if Austin had begun taking steps to address its woeful lack of substantial mass transit. That's on us as much as City Hall: Voters have repeatedly turned away rail proposals as too expensive, opting instead for more spending on highways that promote more residential sprawl and immediately fill with even more single-occupancy vehicles. The Mobility Bond will help somewhat – but until Austin seriously addresses mass transit, consider yourself stuck in traffic.
• #FixtheCode: The hottest ongoing political arguments are over CodeNEXT, also postponed, but certain to resume in earnest with the February release of draft three. After decades of amendments and years of planning, nearly everybody agrees that the land use code demands revision – but neither Council nor the commissions have yet developed a consensus on what those revisions should ultimately be. Impatience collides with intransigence: not a good formula for progress.
• Policing Police: Whatever this week's decision on the APA contract, Council and the city face continuing issues over officer hiring, training, discipline, and accountability. That these are national as well as local problems – indeed, a cultural crisis akin to gun violence – does not make the solutions any easier (or less expensive). Erasing the meet-and-confer process (with one of the few unions allowed to function in right-to-work Texas) might be emotionally satisfying, but it is unlikely to give city management (or Council) any additional policy leverage going forward. Moreover, policing is also a perennial budget issue that inevitably affects all other city needs, including those that also sustain public safety and quality of life. If there's a core solution ... neither this Council nor its predecessors have found it.
That's a fairly imposing year-end holdover list, and we haven't even touched on city budget planning, nor the larger questions of Austin's rising living costs, and the increasing responsibilities of cities to address national problems – immigration, climate change – that the state and federal authorities have abandoned or aggravated.
Sorry to end on such a December bummer – and despite it all: Happy Holidays!