This Week at the Austin City Council #ATXAgendaAware
By Michael Searle, Executive Director, Austin Civic Fund
August 21, 2019
City Council Agenda for August 22, 2019
Property Taxes (Items 70, 86, 113)
What do these items do?
The evasion of reality by the City, although obvious to the regular Austinite watching City Council, is just astonishing on this one! Here is what the City plans to do on Thursday:
- Hold a public hearing to take feedback from the public on the budget, which includes an 8% increase on your property taxes (maximum allowed under State Law), and no increase to the homestead exemption or senior homestead exemption.
- Effectively set the maximum tax rate allowed under State Law, 8% increase from last year.
- Ask the City Manager to find ways to help Austin’s senior citizens, who are struggling with property tax bills, to reduce their property tax burden.
It is the year after year increases from all the taxing jurisdictions that have caused this crisis. The City is increasing spending every year with reckless abandon, with new spending items added to the budget on almost every Council agenda. The cumulative effect of these actions, which the Council says are insignificant when viewed through a one-year lens, are catastrophic to low income residents and renters and homeowners and senior citizens. This has got to stop. Want to address the crisis? Stop raising people’s taxes, find ways to lower taxes, increase the homestead exemption and senior homestead exemption, and collaborate – commit to no future increases with your partner taxing entities. That is the solution! But will the City step up and lead by example exercising fiscal restraint? Likely not.
New City Departments of Janitorial, Landscaping, Call Center and Security (Items #67)
What do these do?
Oh boy, here we go. The Council is requesting that the City Manager assess the permanent need of janitorial, landscaping, call center, security guard and other service contracts, including information about cost, salary and benefits. The City Manager will make recommendations on whether to continue to contract for these services or bring the services in-house, making those roles city employees. Additionally, the Council wants to require that all future contracts with the City require that each private company gives every employee an automatic 2.5% raise each year or they will not get City contracts.
With the new tax cap in place, one would think the city is trying to constrain costs, not increase them. Further, private companies know how to provide these services better, more cost effectively, than the City can. Cost of services is ideally determined by freely made market forces, not mandated by folks aiming to grow their bureaucracies. I expect the Council will choose to take over some, if not all of these services, and the cost of the services will go up significantly, with the quality of services going down. And the problem mentioned above, Austinites struggling with their property taxes, will be exacerbated.
City Can’t Help It – Gun Control (Items #69)
What does this do?
The City Council is creating a Task Force to advise the Council on potential additional actions the City can take to “reduce gun violence,” such as safe storage education, community and domestic violence intervention, and gun surrender programs. And the City Manager will now report to Council on incidents of gun violence that occur in the City, including location, demographics of individuals involved, association to hate groups, and other information. The Second Amendment is a federal law, the State has some authority to regulate guns and this effort mimics a similar effort underway at the state level. Need we spend even more local taxpayer money on this toothless virtue signaling?
Farmer’s Markets (Item #55)
What Does This Do?
This is a contract for the city to engage a local nonprofit called Farmshare Austin – who seem to be a great team doing good work. Farmshare Austin will operate 10 market locations serving Texas-grown fruits and vegetables at reduced prices, with a focus on locations without access to healthy foods, what the City is calling “food deserts.” The contract has an annual cost of $186,000, so almost $20,000 per location.
While this seems to be a very important endeavor and good work being done by this non-profit, it is not the role of the city to be funding these farmers markets. Rather, the city should find other ways, such as allowing the use of city land, reduced permitting time and costs, encouraging support of this nonprofit, to incent the outcomes it desires.
Certificates of Obligation (Items 61/63)
What’s the deal?
Disclaimer: This is not an indictment of the projects the Council plans to fund with certificates of obligation (CO), but rather a concern for this growing trend.
Texas State Law generally requires local governments to seek voter approval before issuing debt that will be repaid from tax revenues. However, one common form of borrowing that can avoid voter approval is COs. Originally COs were allowed to provide important flexibility to local governments when they need to finance emergency projects quickly, such as reconstruction after a natural disaster.
However, with our new City Council’s almost insatiable appetite for funding pet projects and spending new money – without, of course, any desire to look at existing programs and spending for savings or efficiencies – COs are becoming more and more common, and the “emergency” nature of the projects is questionable at best. With property tax reform passing the legislature and the City having to stick to a 3.5% increase each year unless they choose to ask voters’ permission for more, I expect the City of Austin to continue to avoid voter approval for regular, non-emergency capital projects, building on our already significant public debt.
This Week at the ATX Council
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.