This Week at the Austin City Council #ATXAgendaAware
By Michael Searle, Executive Director, Austin Civic Fund
June 19, 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 20, 2019
Items #177, 178, 179, 184 – Homelessness Items – Ordinances and Shelters
What is the City doing?
The City Council is proposing to amend the city code to eliminate the prohibition on camping and sitting/lying on city right of way. Under the proposed changes, this would only be prohibited when somebody is endangering themselves or others.
The City is also proposing to purchase a property in South Austin for a future homeless shelter, at the cost of $8 to $10 million.
We support an indefinite postponement of both items, neither of which is going to solve the issue of homelessness, and remain concerned the city is just doing things for the sake of doing things, without the context of a comprehensive plan to, according to the city, “end homelessness.”
By any measure, what the city is currently doing is not working. And while it is hard to find anywhere in the country where the local government has been able to improve or “end homelessness,” we can aim to develop a holistic community-driven approach, setting clear and measurable goals and priorities, and a full assessment of current activities, including vending prohibitions, possible restroom/laundry facilities, use of city land/assets, and locations of existing shelters, namely the elephant in the room: our downtown ARCH.
Look out for the Austin Civic Fund Blog ATX Citizen post on homelessness in Austin!
BEYOND SATIRE – Item #93 – Diapers, Diapers, Diapers
What Does This Do?
This item directs the City to “advance the goal of ensuring universal, gender-neutral access to diaper changing stations.”
Who doesn’t love babies? I do. I have a 2 month old nephew named Reece, who is adorable, and my favorite human on the planet. But come on.. This item attempts to capitalize on our adoring vibes to extend the reach of government into every building in Austin. This is just too much. The goal of this resolution is to actually require a gender-neutral baby changing station on every floor of every building in Austin. Good grief.
For privacy’s sake, I will not post the video I have of safely and lovingly changing my nephew’s diaper on a blanket placed on two 2’’X12’’ pieces of lumber at my family’s construction site. Would that count as a gender-neutral diaper changing station?
Lots of Purchasing Items – Christmas in June
What’s the deal?
This is typical of the last meeting in June. City Departments race to fund last minute procurement (spending and purchasing) items (City fiscal year is October 1 to September 30).
During my time at City Hall, one former City employee told me this time of year at the City was called “Christmas in June.” Rather than saving unspent funds and building city reserves, City Departments project how much surplus revenue they will end the year with and race to spend all of that money.
There are a number of reasons why this is bad fiscal policy. First, a lot of purchasing items are multi-year contracts. If you approve one month of funding this year, you are committing to the full 12-months of the contract next years – the ever-elusive “cost-drivers.”. Council Member Jimmy Flannigan has pointed this out, and is urging the city council to postpone some of these items.
With a possible national economic downturn, and recent changes to State law regarding city revenue, it would be prudent for the city to save as much as possible, rather than trying to spend every last dollar.
Items #79, 80, & 83 – Bonds, Certificates, and the City Charter
What do these do?
These items begin the process of the city issuing Certificates of Obligation (CO) and Revenue Refunding Bonds for various capital projects, totaling more than $340 million in debt.
Austin City Charter Article VII, Section 11 requires the city to get voter approval for “all revenue bonds.” The intention was to give the taxpayers the final say on any debt taken out that the public would have to pay back. But, these are clearly not “revenue bonds,” right? While not labeled as such, they are still obviously debts that must be paid back. The projects to be funded are not emergency items. This should go to voters.
According to the Texas Bond Review Board, non-voter approved COs issued by local municipalities, between 2006 and 2015 rose by 85 percent, substantially faster than the 50% growth rate of total debt. With revenue caps in place, I only expect this trend to accelerate. The Charter should be amended to clarify that all rate and tax supported debt be approved by voters.