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Ott talks about the “other Austin” in state of the city speech

Wednesday, February 18, 2009 by Austin Monitor

City Manager Marc Ott could name a lot of things that struck him about Austin when he got here – the cosmopolitan culture, the city’s progressive energy policy, the involved community – but Ott also was struck by one thing that many people didn’t wanted to talk about, what he calls the “other Austin.” Despite the city’s boom times and progressive culture, Austin remains an ethnically and economically-segregated city.


Ott often talks about the “other Austin.” He did so at the state of the city address at the League of Women Voters dinner. And Ott told the group at the University of Texas Club last night that people have often gone out of their way to change the subject when he raised it.  “There is this Other Austin,” Ott said. “In my 26 years in government, I’ve never seen as hard a demographic change as I see when I go east of I-35.”


Ott is acutely aware of the economic divide between the wealthy in downtown Austin and the poor in East Austin. People tug on his sleeve to tell him stories about gentrification, about being pushed out of their homes, about no longer being able to afford taxes on property they’ve owned for generations.


“If we’re not making it right for the least of us, it isn’t right for the rest of us,” Ott said to loud applause. “We have to be prepared and garner the courage to do something about those issues as well. We have to make a commitment to do something about it.”


Rose Lancaster, who has sat on the Travis County Healthcare District’s Board of Managers, offered a follow-up question about affordable housing. Ott said that much of the current $55 million in affordable housing bond money remains to be spent. And, Ott added, affordable housing should be available across Austin, despite opposition in some neighborhoods.


The manager also attempted to explain the stimulus package to the group. He said that the stimulus plan might cover $110 million for additional city sidewalks, and that Austin needed to pay more attention to its infrastructure. Some LWV members mentioned the now-infamous stimulus package proposal for an Austin Frisbee golf course and asked why that money couldn’t be spent maintaining library hours. “I knew someone was going to say that,” said Ott. He went on to express doubts about using stimulus money for ongoing operational expenses. It makes sense to spend stimulus money on one-time shovel-ready capital projects, he said.


The city manager also was surprisingly passionate about the city’s impending comprehensive plan, calling it a foundational document that would be the basis for making intelligent decisions with a degree of predictability.


Some expressed a worry that that the new comprehensive plan would undo the work of neighborhood plans, but Ott said the comprehensive plan would give context and foundation to existing neighborhood plans. He also said it would be continually updated. Ott worked in Fort Worth, where the comprehensive plan is updated on an annual basis, Ott said. Ott served as an assistant city manager in Fort Worth before he was hired as Austin’s city manager.


Asked to comment on alternatives to sales tax, Ott was a bit rueful. A decision to discuss new taxing options is rarely at the top of elected leaders’ favorite topics. “It’s difficult,” Ott admitted. “It’s a conversation that elected officials tend not to want to have.”


He noted efforts in Michigan to use statewide tax and fee revenues, known as Act 51 funding, to underwrite local transportation and transit projects. The Texas Legislature is also considering local option taxing for use on regional transportation projects.

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