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Mayoral candidate says department hinders development

Wednesday, March 19, 2003 by

Candidates for Austin Mayor and City Council Place 5 stressed their business experience and ability to cut the city’s budget during a candidate forum sponsored by the Construction Industry Alliance and the Building Owners and Managers Association on Tuesday. Candidates repeatedly denounced the “red tape” that accompanies the development process in Austin, offering varying pledges to streamline the process and allow builders and developers greater autonomy and self-regulation.

The most specific proposal came from Place 5 Council Member and mayoral candidate Will Wynn. “The City of Austin should get out of the Development Review and Inspection business.” That would free builders from city-generated red tape, accelerate the process and allow the city to cut the superfluous payroll. “I promise you there are going to be significant layoffs in the city this year. I won’t enjoy that, but it’s a fact of life,” Wynn said. “I promise you also that I will be strongly suggesting to my colleagues and the City Manager that disproportionately those cuts should be in our Development Review and Inspection Department.” Wynn said the Council always kept environmental concerns in mind when making its decisions and predicted the industry would guard against unsafe construction. “When somebody shows up with a set of plans at the City of Austin, stamped by a professional engineer or a licensed architect, we shouldn’t treat it like my seven-year-old drew the drawings,” he said. “We should make sure that the zoning is compliant, but it’s your business to make sure the buildings don’t fall down . . . and I haven’t seen a building fall down yet.”

Other candidates agreed that the city’s development process was cumbersome and needed improvement, but their suggestions were not as specific as Wynn’s. “The biggest answer to solving red tape is going to the rank and file,” said restaurateur Marc Katz. “The construction industry is probably, in my experience, bogged down more in red tape than any other industry that I know of. You have the solution—I do not have the solution. I am willing to listen to you to find out the answer and then act on it.”

Businessman Brad Meltzer told builders that new leadership at the top of the government would have an impact on the actions and attitudes of city staff, especially inspectors. “We need them to understand they’re not God,” he said. “They need to go back and understand the plans, just like you and I do, and do it right. And if they don’t, they’re going to have a Mayor’s office to deal with . . . With your vote, you are going be bringing in a servant to the community. I’m going to be serving you and they’re going to be serving you.” And former Council Member Max Nofziger relayed the concerns of a businessman on South Congress who found the city’s regulations to be cumbersome, promising to do more to help small business owners. “For the last several years the city’s attention has been spent on ‘how can we give these big corporations tens of millions of dollars to come here?’ Giving away taxpayer dollars takes up a lot of staff time,” he said. “My focus will be: ‘how do we help the small business person be able to do their job better in the city of Austin?’”

While the candidates all expressed disdain for red tape and commitment to cutting the city budget, there were some differences among them. Nofziger was the only one to support the Council’s recent vote on a resolution regarding military action in Iraq, saying the war will have an impact on the local economy. Katz criticized Wynn for abstaining from that vote. “I maintain that abstaining is not leadership,” he said. “You’re either for or against.” Wynn defended his decision, saying it was the only appropriate choice. “I feel strongly that the Austin City Council should not take a position on issues that fall so completely outside its jurisdiction,” he said, noting that several similar items could come before the Council in the next few weeks. Meltzer sided with Katz and Wynn, saying that the matter was outside the Council’s purview.

The candidates used a question about light rail to discuss their own transportation proposals, although none listed light rail as a priority. Wynn, who had supported the light rail ballot measure in 2000, said he did not believe the issue would come back for a vote anytime soon. Nofziger, who worked against the light rail proposal, pointed to his own transportation plan which he said would cost much less and have a lower degree of risk. Meltzer said he would be opposed to light rail, as did Katz. And there was a three-way split over term limits. Wynn said he supported them, Nofziger was opposed and Katz said he had never considered them. “I just don’t have an opinion,” he said, drawing laughter and applause from the crowd. “I’d love to make one up that you’d like to hear, but I just don’t have one.”

Candidate also supports cap on taxes paid by seniors

Mayoral candidate Marc Katz on Tuesday called for property tax breaks for homeowners and criticized the city’s spending on lobbyists as he pressed forward with his campaign, one day after a judge ruled against his effort to overturn the city’s campaign contribution limits.

“I want to identify myself today as the homeowners’ candidate,” Katz told reporters gathered at his restaurant on 6th Street. “We’ve had a history, at least in the last five years . . . if not much longer . . . of every time there’s a deficit, anytime there’s more money needed or less coming in . . . the person we’re going to is the homeowner. I don’t think we can do that anymore. I think it’s become counter-productive.”

Katz offered two proposals he said would benefit homeowners. He wants the City of Austin to offer a homestead exemption of 15 percent on property taxes and also wants a cap on the property taxes paid by those age 65 or older. While both of those proposals would likely mean less tax revenue for the city at a time when the Council is struggling to close a multi-million gap between projected spending and revenue for next year, Katz said he was not prepared to provide estimates of the impact on the city budget. “I’m prepared to tell you we need to do this to make this city livable,” he said. “I think that we are chasing away our seniors by constantly raising taxes and going to them for money.”

Katz said a measure that could limit the property tax for senior citizens has been introduced in the Texas Legislature, but faulted the city’s lobbying team for failing to make it a priority. “We’re spending a million dollars at the legislature and I want to know what we’re spending it on,” he said. “We have city staff up there, we have consultants up there, we have lobbyists up there, all working for the city. Austin has the largest budget for lobbying of any city in the state . . . more than Houston, more than Dallas, more than San Antonio.” In the past, Council members have supported Austin’s spending on lobbyists as a defensive measure, since the city frequently receives special scrutiny from state lawmakers. (See In Fact Daily, May 31, 2001.)

Davis says tax could offset increased costs

Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis has suggested looking at a county bed tax as a way to defray some of the impending increases in property taxes.

Austin has more than 14,000 hotel rooms. Tourism contributes $500 million annually to the local economy, generating a hotel/motel bed tax of around $15 million for the city. Davis would like to amend the tax code to give Travis County the right to impose its own bed tax.

“If we can reduce the property tax increase and bring in revenue to offset any increase dealing within Travis County, then in my mind that’s a big plus,” Davis told his colleagues on the Commissioners Court yesterday. “At least, maybe we can get the tax code changed to allow Travis County to be included in the bed tax, if that is the will of the court.”

Adding a bed tax is possible but not easy, lobbyist Chris Shields told commissioners at a legislative briefing yesterday. The county would first have to find a senator or representative who is willing to amend a relevant bill to include a bed tax.

“Right now you don’t have a vehicle to establish a bed tax,” Shields said. “There isn’t a bill out there right now. But is there a vehicle that you can amend—a bill you could grab with that concept—so that you can amend the tax code?”

Under the current tax code, Harris and Bexar counties both impose bed taxes. So does the City of Austin. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner pointed out that the tax revenues generated in each jurisdiction are devoted to specific projects, such as the Austin Convention Center or the sporting facilities in Houston and San Antonio. Austin already has one of the highest hotel taxes in the state, Sonleitner added.

Shields says there are two sections of the tax code that address hotel/motel taxation. One section, under Chapter 334, funds venue development and could be used right now. If commissioners wanted to make substantial improvements to the Travis County Exposition Center, Chapter 334 would permit a hotel tax to pay for it. The tax could be applied to the entire county for such a project, Shields said.

A second section of code, in Chapter 352, is the tax code provision that governs the general hotel/motel tax. This provision applies to counties with a population under 600,000 or over 3 million. Shields also noted that a county bed tax would only apply to the unincorporated areas of the county. Shields warned that the county could expect a strong reaction from the hotel/motel industry if such a tax was proposed.

Davis said he had not gotten far enough with his study to offer a figure on just how much a bed tax in the unincorporated areas of the county would generate. He said he would like to continue to explore the possibility of the bed tax, as well as any other additional mechanisms that could be used to generate new revenue for the county.

Endorsements . . . The Austin regional group of the Sierra Club’ s Lone Star chapter has endorsed Will Wynn for Mayor and Margot Clarke for Place 5. Clarke has most recently been state director of the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund. Dick Kallerman, political chair for the group, said the Sierra Club did not make endorsements in the Place 2 and Place 6 races because the incumbents are not facing a major challenge. “We thought we’d stick with endorsing people who we thought we could help win.” He said, “Will Wynn is a champion of sustainable urban growth and public transit options, just what Austin needs right now.” Kallerman said Council Members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas, who have no official opponents, “are good candidates, but we try to make (endorsements) where we can do some good” . . . Another hat in the ring . . . While better-known candidates for Mayor—and that includes at least six men—were busy attending forums or raising funds, Herman Eugene Luckett Jr. made his first appearance at the City Clerk’s Office yesterday. Luckett, 46, lists his occupation as “revolutionary.” So far, Will Wynn, Marc Katz, Max Nofziger, Brad Meltzer, Leslie Cochran, Jennifer Gale, Christopher Keating and Luckett have filed for the top spot. Time runs out at 5pm today. On Friday, City Clerk Shirley Brown will conduct a drawing for positions on the ballot. Early voting begins April 16 for the May 3 election . . . Place 5 candidates . . . Though not as crowded as the Mayor’s race, the spot being vacated by Wynn has garnered five applicants: Brewster McCracken, Margot Clarke, Robert Singleton, Carl Tepper, Jason Pate and Stephen Swanson . . . NACA forum . . . The North Austin Civic Association will hear from City Council candidates beginning at 7pm tonight at Lanier High School . . . Today’s work session . . . At the request of Council Member Wynn, the Council will hear more about the ill-fated construction project on Barton Springs Road. In addition, staff will give an update on gentrification in East Austin. Members of the Water and Wastewater Commission will talk about their goals and work plan . . . A loss for Texas . . . The first Mexican-American woman elected to serve in the Texas Legislature, Irma Rangel, (D-Kingsville) passed away yesterday after a lengthy battle with cancer. Governor Rick Perry released the following statement: “Since 1977, Irma Rangel has represented her constituents with a fervor unrivaled among her counterparts in the Texas House . . . Passionate, dedicated and determined, Irma Rangel gave tirelessly of herself. I was lucky to have called her a friend, but more importantly, all of Texas benefited from her 26 years as a dedicated public servant” . . . Attention singers . . . The Heart of Texas Chorus is holding auditions during its weekly rehearsal Thursday from 7:15-10:15pm in room 222 of the Southwest Texas State University music building. The chorus welcomes men of all ages. For more information, or to schedule an audition, call Sam Tweedy at (512) 990-9325. A visit to one of the rehearsals doesn’t require prior arrangements for an audition.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc.

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