This Week at the Austin City Council #ATXAgendaAware
By Michael Searle, Executive Director, Austin Civic Fund
June 5, 2019
Almost every week the Austin City Council convenes, and collaborates on issues related to running the City, including everything from purchasing items to zoning cases to budget allocations to new ordinances and resolutions. On a typical meeting agenda, there are anywhere from 50 to 100 different items on which the Council will debate, take public input, and vote or postpone.
The local media often covers the more compelling issues, but typically simply acts as a megaphone for the ideologically monolithic City Council, rather than asking tough questions, investigating the effects of policy decisions, or expressing interest in the effectiveness or outcomes of the action. Policy at City Hall has become an exercise in pandering to influence groups, a wink-and-nod parlor game between friends, rarely measured for effectiveness.
Special interest groups, lobbyists, and City Hall regulars show up to say a few words, but the vast majority of the public are not tuned in to the happenings of City Hall political decisions, trusting in their elected officials and taxpayer-funded City staff to make decisions that help Austin thrive.
The Austin Civic Fund’s (ACF) exclusive new regular feature, This Week at the Austin City Council, is intended to highlight the good, the bad, and the ugly of City Hall. Consistent with its mission, ACF, will focus on identifying the most pressing issues facing the City of Austin, defining effective policy solutions, and elevate public awareness of the best solutions.
City Council Agenda for June 6, 2019
Homelessness Items (#45 and #49)
# 45 – Amending the City’s sit and lie and camping ordinances
What Does This Do?
- Currently there is a general prohibition of camping in a public area not designated for camping, such as a public sidewalk. The proposed changes would remove the general prohibition and make it only prohibited when the camping is endangering health or safety or intentionally impeding use of public property.
- The second change would remove a general prohibition from sitting or lying down on public sidewalks to only cases when the person is endangering health and safety or intentionally impeding use of public property.
# 49 – Homelessness shelters and support services.
What Does This Do?
- The City will begin to purchase property for shelters and/or housing for the homeless.
- The City will include funding in the 2020 Budget for a shelter and support services.
- The City will develop a plan for a small shelter of 50-100 beds with on-site support services
We support the City Council trying to effectively address the homelessness crisis in Austin. It is good for our City to show compassion for the most vulnerable members of our Austin community. And in doing so, it is important to ensure that, in addition to being compassionate, aiming to assist our homeless neighbors not just survive, but achieve long-lasting improved outcomes, City actions and response are both effective and outcome-driven.
A series of audits conducted over a 2-year span in Austin looked at the “effectiveness of the City in addressing homelessness.” The findings of the audit were concerning but informative, concluding that City “goals to measure the long-term success of its homelessness efforts … may not effectively measure success.” We will go into the findings of those audits in greater detail in an upcoming article.
The key takeaway is that the City must set a measurable goal, make a holistic assessment of all the current City efforts to address homelessness, and measure success of those efforts toward that goal. If the goal is to lessen or even “end community homelessness” then the City must be self-reflective enough to recognize what it has been doing, and what it is doing is just not working.
According to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), point-in-time count of homeless people in Austin, there was a 5% increase from 2018 to 2019, and a 142% increase in unsheltered homeless individuals in the last 5 years.
Despite the existing efforts and funding in excess of $33,000,000 annually (more than $15,000 per homeless person), the crisis is measurably getting worse.
The Austin Civic Fund agrees with the City Manager that the best approach is to “produce an overall holistic recommendation for Council to consider as a part of their vision for addressing homelessness (Homelessness Assistance Audit Series, February 2019).” Changing ordinances and building shelters may appear to be the compassionate thing to do, but when done outside an overall strategy with a clear goal, which must include measurement of success, the effect of those actions is unknown and may do harm rather than good.
Spending more money on programs and activities that have not proven to be successful, similar to what we see in other cities across the country, including Seattle and San Francisco, is not a wise strategy.
In conclusion, we support the proposed postponement, although believe even more time is needed, of Item #45, and would encourage the City to also postpone item #49 in order develop a holistic approach, setting clear and measurable goals and priorities, and a full assessment of current activities and expenses, including vending prohibitions and locations of existing shelters, namely the elephant in the room, our downtown ARCH.
There may be a perception problem within City Hall about what Austinites want, and that the actions of the City are incongruent with the goals of the community when it comes to homelessness, which is to actually reduce homelessness.
In the coming days, the Austin Civic Fund will be posting a more thorough analysis of this problem and potential policy solutions for the City to consider in our shared goal of helping the homeless.
Alabama Boycott Item (#47)
# 49 – Resolution to explore a City boycott of the State of Alabama.
What Does This Do?
- City would assess the potential impact of a City staff travel ban to Alabama.
- City would explore other ways to boycott Alabama
- City will explore options for boycotting or encouraging individuals to boycott companies who are the top political donors to the Alabama governor and legislators who voted for the abortion bill.
- The City expresses its official opposition to the abortion bills in various states.
Although the City Council may not disagree on the issue, it is important that they recognize and respect that the Austin public has a wide range of views on the issue of abortion. It is not an all-or-nothing issue and should not be treated as such. Further, it is the primary duty of the City Council to do the following things:
- Represent the interests of the entirety of their districts and the City; and
- Focus on addressing local issues, which are consistently cited by Austinites as affordability and traffic.
Every time any local, state, or foreign government does something that the City Council doesn’t like, are they required to consume City time and resources to take a stance? This is no way to govern a city and further, much like many other embargoes and boycotts and travel bans, it proposes to punish a population of people for the political positions of those in government. The Council is now the police of the political attitudes of other states.
From a philosophical standpoint, it seems diplomacy and dialogue is a better strategy than boycotts and travel bans. Just a thought. Plus, let’s spend our limited public time and resources focused on solving local problems. There are enough other hours in the day for the City Councilmembers to personally engage in national and state political entanglements.
Homestead Exemption (Not on the agenda)
Remember? Just four and half years ago, when the first 10-1 City Council was elected and sworn in, that it was partly due to the allure of landing the full 20% homestead exemption for residents dealing with ever-increasing property tax bills. This exemption is entirely in City Council’s control, and lack of action is no fault but their own.
In year 1, the Council jumped right to it, creating a 6% homestead exemption, then increasing it 2% more in two of the next three years, to a 10% homestead exemption. The Mayor, who campaigned on the full 20% homestead exemption, highlighted this progress as an accomplishment worth displaying on his re-election campaign website. So, where’s the follow through?
With former Council Members Troxclair and Houston no longer on the dais, it looks like another year will pass and the City will make no progress on this widely popular and repeatedly promised affordability tool. Further, with the State Legislature’s recently passed property tax bills, it is very unlikely that your homestead exemption will ever be increased, and it may be under threat of being decreased. That remains to be seen.
But as of today, with the state deadline fast approaching for any increase to the homestead exemption, there has been no mention of it from City Hall. So much for promises from politicians!