Looking back on the 2015 Austin City Council
How the new City Council handled transportation, affordability and other issues in 2015
In its first year, the Austin City Council had its small triumphs and its missteps — and a whole lot to learn. Ten of the 11 council representatives had never held the position before taking office in January 2015.
The public perception of the council, at least according to an online survey the American-Statesman posted in December that garnered 887 responses, is a mixed bag but leans negative. Two-thirds of respondents said they weren’t happy with the council’s efforts to improve transportation, and 51 percent said they weren’t satisfied with the council’s efforts to address affordability.
Independent pollsters said the Statesman survey results should be taken with a grain of salt: The results aren’t reflective of the city as a whole, as the survey was more likely to capture Statesman subscribers and those who closely watch City Hall and was only available to those with computer access.
For the following evaluations of this council’s first year in office, the Statesman combed through hundreds of survey responses, interviewed dozens of City Hall observers and Austinites, reached out to all of the council members, compiled information about council members’ votes, and relied on a year’s worth of our staff reporting and observations of the council.
Here’s what the council did on some of the largest issues facing Austin.
Budget and property taxes
Affordability was a running theme of the 2014 campaigns, and the main way the council directly affects residents’ pocketbooks is by setting the property tax rate, utility rates and other fees.
Led by Mayor Steve Adler, who pledged on the campaign trail to phase in a 20 percent homestead exemption, the City Council in June approved knocking 6 percent off the value of owner-occupied homes for tax purposes, which played into saving the average homeowner $14 on the city tax bill. Many Austinites weren’t happy with this decision. Some wanted a higher exemption, while others criticized the council for providing the most relief to the wealthy and for shifting more of the tax burden onto multifamily properties.
And in the end, the small savings were wiped away by the council’s approval of some higher utility rates and fees, meaning the typical Austin household will pay the city about $46 more over last year.
The city lost millions of dollars in tax revenue because of the homestead exemption, but growth in the city’s tax base, driven by a hot real estate market, meant the council side-stepped what would have been an unpopular move: raising the property tax rate to make up for a hole in the budget. The council tweaked the city manager’s proposed $3.5 billion budget to increase health and human services funding by $7.6 million while scaling back a proposal for new cops (from 85 to 50). But it stayed away from sweeping changes like major new investments or drastic spending cuts.
The council also sought the reappraisal of thousands of commercial properties and vacant lands at higher values, which later led to a lawsuit additionally seeking to strike parts of state appraisal law. A judge dismissed the lawsuit late last year, siding with commercial property owners but also saying he wanted to clear a path to the case’s inevitable destination: an appeals court. The city filed a motion for a new trial last month, which extends the time for the city to file a notice of appeal.
This council was elected the same night that Austin voters rejected the most ambitious transportation initiative in the city’s history, a $1 billion rail-and-roads bond package. Given that defeat, and the inevitable growing pains of having only one incumbent member, the council in the transportation arena mostly confined itself to small steps, such as a $3.8 million initiative to make changes at five dangerous intersections, a don’t-block-the-box program to cite drivers blocking intersections, and have-to tasks such as renewing the city’s three taxicab franchises.
But the council did take an active role in the South MoPac toll lane controversy, joining other elected officials and activists in successfully pushing the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to look for design alternatives to the controversial flyover bridges proposed over Lady Bird Lake. Six options are now under study.
Led by Mobility Committee Chairwoman Ann Kitchen, the council also moved to rewrite the city’s regulations of transportation network companies like Lyft and Uber. That contentious process, which came to focus on whether drivers for the companies should be fingerprinted for background checks, led to the approval in December of what Mayor Steve Adler labeled an “incomplete” ordinance calling for such checks. That measure will be augmented this year, perhaps as soon as by the end of this month — though it could be overturned in November by a public vote. A petition drive to force such a referendum is underway.
As the national conversation about excessive police force heated up in 2015, the City Council made purchasing body cameras for Austin police officers a priority. Council members approved a budget in September that included a $3 million rollout of body cameras that would first outfit downtown cops, who are statistically more likely to use force.
During the budget season, the council pared down the larger-than-usual staffing request from the police department, hammering out the details of the final figure largely out of the public’s eye. This was a departure from the past council, which may have hotly debated police proposals for more officers but typically gave police their way in the end. In public meetings, Council Member Don Zimmerman said he wanted a greater focus on property crime, while Council Members Ellen Troxclair and Ann Kitchen said they preferred hiring fewer officers and asking Austin police to use research to provide the council a more defined model of community policing.
In May, the city and Austin’s firefighters union ended two years of acrimony when they agreed to a contract that would increase employee pay 5.5 percent over two years. The contract also soothed tensions created after a federal investigation into allegations of racist hiring practices by ensuring that the union will have a voice in responding to any new allegations.
Process and meetings
In April, the City Council introduced a major change to the way it conducts business: 10 legislative-style council committees, most with four members, that met once a month. The main goals were to end the practice of 3 a.m. dais decision-making, provide more opportunity for public testimony and give the council more time to work out policy kinks before a final council decision is due.
But so far the council has struggled to achieve these goals. Due to limited meeting space at City Hall in the evenings, most committee meetings are held during the day,making it difficult for everyday Austinites to attend. The council unevenly relies on committee recommendations, sometimes spending months rewriting what a council committee has suggested and other times rubber-stamping it. Council meeting management is still a problem, with five meetings last year stretching past midnight.
The council is expected to review its committee system early this year, with several council members noting the problems and urging changes. And a special committee on the new committees is supposed to offer a report soon with recommendations.
One of the biggest utility issues this council grappled with was whether to purchase solar power capable of producing 600 megawatts now or later. It pitted environmentalists — who want it now — against Austin Energy and the big power users, who questioned what this surge in solar would do to customers’ bills. In the end the council voted, as it often does on controversial issues, for an Adler-generated compromise of 450 megawatts now and 150 megawatts by the end of 2019.
The council also faced a ticking clock in the form of contracts expiring in May for its biggest power users. This powerful business lobby wanted its rates extended, which would save those customers millions of dollars. In the end, in part due to the advocacy of Council Member Greg Casar, all of these contracts expired, requiring the biggest power users to pay more.
Various stakeholders pointed to this decision, and the one about solar power, as a point of difference from the previous council, which was viewed as more sympathetic to the arguments of the bigger power users. Some stakeholders felt like the council didn’t spend adequate time on Austin Energy issues this year,while others said that given their rookie status what the council members achieved was admirable.
The council as a whole spent very little time dealing with the Austin Water Utility. A year of rainy weather put less time pressure on efforts to study potential future water sources, and the utility was just trying to live within its means after a major budget cut and large rate increase last year.
Land use and zoning
One of the biggest local political trends in recent years has been a shift away from the old development battles, which tended to focus on the impact to the environment, toward arguments over housing density. These debates often boil down to residents of older Austin neighborhoods fighting the “upzoning” of a new housing development, while proponents of urban density argue that additional housing supply is the cure to the city’s housing affordability crisis.
Many folks were eager to see where this City Council would fall on the density vs. preserving neighborhoods spectrum. The short answer is: We don’t know yet.
Advocates for urban density point to a 7-4 vote in April to rezone a site on Burnet Road to allow for a 300-unit residential development, against neighborhood objections, as an indication the council leans toward pro-density.
But some of the city’s longtime neighborhood activists see a council that is still finding its way on land-use decisions. For instance, the City Council backed away from a recommendation to allow homeowners to build garage apartments on an additional 62,000 single-family lots citywide, instead allowing them on just 9,000 additional lots. This was more aligned with what neighborhood advocates wanted.
Other potentially explosive zoning decisions faded away. A controversial proposal to build two golf courses at Lake Walter E. Long in Northeast Austin was postponed indefinitely. And a mixed-use development called Austin Oaks in Northwest Austin had so much neighborhood opposition that developers shelved their plans and went back to the drawing board.
Council Member Sheri Gallo launched a crackdown in June on short-term rentals used as “party houses,” and through a series of hearings the council tightened the rules for rentals that are leased for less than 30 days at a time. Council Member Kathie Tovo introduced many of those revisions, including a temporary ban on Type 2 short-term rentals that are owner-unoccupied year-round. A final decision on these regulations is still to come in January.
Everyone involved in the short-term rental debate agrees it was anything but short. An analysis done by Mark Littlefield, a lobbyist for some of the rental owners, showed the council spent 33.5 hours over various meetings debating STRs.
Though many council members pledged to address affordability — and housing is one of the largest costs of living — the council was slow to act on this issue. Still, housing advocates are generally pleased with decisions made just before the close of 2015.
As far as housing for low-income residents, which often takes the form of government-subsidized housing, the council approved three new homestead preservation districts in gentrifying areas of the city and set up a special taxing zone in an existing district. Key to know about these districts — which have been in the works since 2005 —is that half of the money the city spends on them has to go toward very low-income households making up to 50 percent of the median family income($38,400 for a family of four and $26,900 for one person), and at least another quarter of the funds has to go toward extremely low-income households making up to 30 percent of the median family income.
The council also took steps to increase the housing supply for families making more moderate incomes, such as by approving a deal negotiated by Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Delia Garza for 1,000 affordable units at the Easton Park development available to those making up to 80 percent of the median family income.
Though opponents didn’t see it this way, housing advocates also believe the council’s decision to ease the rules for building accessory dwelling units such as garage apartments will result in some, though not a flood, of moderately priced units. As proposed by Council Member Kathie Tovo, the council also required developers of certain large projects seeking extra density to include on-site housing that is affordable for those making 80 percent of the median family income or below.
Survey Results:21 percent: Respondents to the Statesman’s online survey that said Greg Casar has done the best job on the City Council, the largest share of positive responses out of all the council representatives.
Kathie Tovo came in second with 13 percent of respondents liking her work, and 11 percent selected Don Zimmerman.
28 percent: Respondents that said Don Zimmerman has been the biggest disappointment on the City Council, the largest share of negative responses out of all the council representatives.
Ann Kitchen and Leslie Pool tied for second place, with each chosen by 9 percent of respondents.
66 percent: Respondents that said they weren’t satisfied with how the council tackled transportation issues. Another 24 percent said they were satisfied, and 10 percent said they weren’t sure or didn’t know.
Note: The survey was closed before the council took its closely watched vote on Dec. 17 on fingerprinting requirements for Uber and Lyft.
51 percent: Respondents that said they weren’t satisfied with the council’s efforts to address the cost of living in Austin. Another 37 percent said they were satisfied, and 12 percent said they weren’t sure or didn’t know.
Source: American-Statesman reader survey, conducted online Dec. 8-15. Respondents do not reflect the demographics of Austin at large.
City Council member evaluations
Just after taking the oath of office on Jan. 6, 2015, Austin City Council members promised to “do big things,” such as “realign our hopes (and) our dreams” and “make impactful policy changes.”
This was the first council elected by geographic districts rather than by the city as a whole, a long-fought-for system called “10-1” meant to ensure representation for all parts of Austin.
Some feared the worst, predicting that council members would turn to “ward politics,” simply deferring to one another on district-specific issues or making deals to support pet projects in each other’s districts, leaving citywide priorities by the wayside. That didn’t happen.
Some hoped for the best, wishing that the new council would make major strides toward top priorities such as cutting down on the cost of living in Austin and alleviating traffic. That didn’t happen, either.