Point Austin: Left Pending
Council’s summer daze leaves plenty of work in progress
City Council's summer hiatus – when any council member with a lick of sense hides out for a couple of weeks – provides an annual opportunity to take stock of Council business, and the large matters looming for the remainder of the calendar. Last week's marathon meeting gave a 128-Item, overnight sense of the current workload and unfinished business. (One permanently unresolved project involves the promise made on the campaign trail by Mayor Steve Adler and nearly every current council member that there would be no further need for late-night Council meetings. Alas ...)
Once they return, their primary business is of course the FY 2019 budget, yet to be submitted by rookie City Manager Spencer Cronk. Based on spring projections by the Budget Office, this year's product is likely to be roughly akin to last year's, not necessarily a good sign. Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo told Council in April that the city's structural expenses are rising about 5% annually – and revenues are not quite keeping up. "If the budget is growing four to five percent per year," Van Eenoo said, "I need everything to grow – [but] the sales tax, utility fees, and everything else is growing less than four to five percent."
That means that once the operating fund big-ticket items (public safety, then everything else) are budgeted, based on annual projections, there will be little left over for Council prerogatives – notably the perennial attempts to meet social service needs with the few million left over at the end of the process. Council has already made its job more difficult by voting to increase the homestead exemption by another 2% (bringing it to 10% total, or half what the 2014 Council-elect promised on the stump). That blows about a $5 million hole in operating funds, for a lagniappe of about $30/year, or $2.50/month, for the owner of a median-priced home. Spend it wisely.
Bonds to Come
While not precisely a budgetary matter, Council did vote also to approve a draft omnibus bond package for November (confirmation scheduled for August). At $925 million, it's larger than the $720 million tally approved by voters in 2016, with the most expensive item an unprecedented $250 million for affordable housing. That's less than the $300 million endorsed by advocates, more than the $161 million proposed by the Bond Election Advisory Task Force. It would pay for land acquisition and housing construction, as well as maintenance and upgrades for existing housing stock.
It will also have to live or die on its own, since as drafted it would ballot separately from each of the other bond proposals: public safety, transportation, flood mitigation/open space, parks, libraries/cultural centers, health and human services. (That final category is proposed at $16 million – it could have used an infusion of $5 million now heading for the homestead exemption.) In recent years, Austin voters have remained mostly supportive of bonds in general, while blowing hot and cold on affordable housing.
It will be interesting to see how the bonds interact with the Council election. The package passed 8-3, with nay votes from Ora Houston, Jimmy Flannigan, and Ellen Troxclair. Houston is stepping down and Flannigan isn't up for election this year; perhaps Troxclair will run against the bond, and her three progressive opponents will presumably position themselves accordingly.
A Free Kick
Another huge matter of unfinished business is of course CodeNEXT, which theoretically was going to be accomplished by now but instead resides in a limbo of Council considerations and litigation. The latter involves a potential district court decision to require the city to place the anti-CodeNEXT petition on the ballot – essentially to freeze the code rewrite until after the next Council election (November 2019). The case was argued Monday; if district Judge Orlinda Naranjo rules that the question must go to the voters, presumably that will suspend the current Council deliberations, and we can all blame each other for another year of delay.
How about some soccer? In the wee hours of Friday, Council voted both to pursue negotiations with the Precourt Sports Ventures group hoping to install a Major League Soccer franchise at McKalla Place, while simultaneously considering other potential developments for a city-owned site that has lain fallow for years. Setting aside the cross-purposes – city staff inevitably responds to Council directives, "Your wish is our busy-work" – that decision might also end up in court, by opponents looking for a reason to block the deal.
I'm personally agnostic on soccer. I think it would be fine to have a team in Austin (sans vuvuzelas), but should it come, the "community benefits" we get in return for whatever city underwriting eventuates should be more tangible than a friendly place to gather, cheer, and drink beer on a Saturday night. Ideally, that should be an ownership interest, perhaps along the lines of that afforded the citizens of Green Bay with the NFL's Packers. What say you, City Manager Cronk, late of Minneapolis ... can you list that among your negotiating terms? In our dreams ...