Point Austin: “Austin Will Still Be Austin”
Adler’s “state of the city” imagines a bulwark against “a giant honking mess”
Mayor Steve Adler's "State of the City" speech Tuesday night was a fairly subdued affair, with little of the razzmatazz of a couple of its predecessors, one staged at the then-new AISD Performing Arts Center and another at Zachary Scott. A capacity crowd in City Council chambers heard the mayor declare that "the state of our city is stronger than ever." He made it clear, however, that he isn't so certain about the state of the country.
More on that below. In the meantime, the occasion gave the mayor plenty of opportunity to cite statistics celebrating Austin's continuing prosperity and the various accomplishments of the mayor and Council. The highlights, some statistical and some from those ubiquitous "Best" lists:
• 30,000 new jobs in the metro area;
• Second-lowest unemployment rate in the U.S.;
• Best place to start a small business;
• "Best place to live in America."
That last headline should be qualified as highly subjective, and dependent upon on your particular magazine subscriptions.
There was more of that, most of it a little closer to the ground, in favor of preserving "the spirit and soul of Austin." Along those lines the mayor recounted specific 2017 progress in addressing major city challenges: "traffic, affordability, racial and economic inequality, homelessness, and climate change."
The catalog included:
• Work funded by the 2016 Mobility Bond – improved intersections, corridors, sidewalks;
• Work on a regional mobility plan this year, a collaboration among the city, Cap Metro, the Regional Mobility Authority, and CAMPO;
• New affordable housing units (2,000 completed, 6,300 in progress since 2015);
• Senior/disabled property tax cuts; various programs to assist creative artists;
• Joint Austin/Travis County workforce plan, target of 10,000 job upgrades.
The State Taketh Away
And so on. Some are concrete accomplishments, some remain aspirational. Interestingly, joking that he was "channeling Ross Perot," on the subject of affordability, Adler took a graph-aided detour to address a major factor undermining local efforts: the "State Property Tax" – his term for that portion of AISD property taxes that "the state takes and isn't used to educate children in Austin" (aka "recapture"). Over the last five years (said the bar graphs), of an overall $1,408 increase in property taxes on median-value homes, $1,023 is due solely to the increase in state recapture money, which leaves AISD (the money available for Austin students has actually declined).
Adler began sounding that alarm during last year's budget deliberations, and he and Council are aware that it's only going to get worse this year – the state is now collecting more in property taxes than even the city itself. Instead of even attempting to fix the broken school funding system, Gov. Greg Abbott recently announced his intention that the Lege cap local property tax increases (without an election) at 2.5%. Yet cities are simultaneously expected to maintain (and expand) the roads, defend public safety, and increasingly, supply all the social services that the Legislature would rather ignore or underfund.
That also helps explain the framing of Adler's speech, which began with a spirited introduction by Carlos González Gutiérrez, Austin's consul general of Mexico, who thanked the mayor for the opportunity and for his friendship. González Gutiérrez cited Adler's defense of immigrants, and quoted his responses to Mexican questions about the new official U.S. policies: "Austin has always been an open, plural, and inclusive city for newcomers; it has always been that way, and it will continue to be that way in the future."
In addition to their personal friendship, it was apparent that Adler's choice of the consul general was a statement of renewed solidarity. Neither mentioned President Trump, but the mayor promised, "We will not use fear to divide our community." The bulk of the speech was celebratory, but in addition to his talk of distorted state priorities, Adler opened and closed with acknowledging the shadows of national political divisions that have forced their way into every corner of the country.
"If we're going to work together," the mayor challenged, "we're going to have to address what can charitably be called a gigantic honking mess in our civic life." The mayor explicitly noted the recent federal indictments charging Russian interference in the 2016 elections, efforts explicitly intended to "exacerbate divisions in our country and to increase our distrust of our own institutions." He asked Austinites to reject the impulse to "make enemies of those that merely have differences of opinion," and to "reject politics based on dangerous stereotypes and simplifications intended to make us scared of one another."
If it was odd to hear these cautionary notes struck in a speech otherwise devoted to the sort of pothole-fixing we normally associate with municipal politics, well, it's a very unusual political era. The mayor hopes by reiterating "regardless of what happens elsewhere, together we will show the world what Austin is made of," that the current hurricane of national political reaction can be kept at bay. We can only hope he's right.