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Candidates discuss property taxes, traffic at forum

Wednesday, April 29, 2009 by Austin Monitor

At the Central Texas Democratic Forum yesterday, Place 1 candidates Perla Cavazos and Chris Riley gave the well-informed crowd a taste of the differing perspectives they would bring to the Council, in what is turning out to be one of the most contested races this year.  (Place 6 candidate Sam Osemene did not show up for the debate, so Council Member Sheryl Cole answered questions along with Cavazos and Riley.)


In her opening statement, Cavazos outlined the general tone of her campaign: she understands the struggles of the lower middle class, and would champion their needs as a city council member. She talked about her humble upbringing along the Texas-Mexico border, where she was raised by grandparents who owned a family business. She said that she became politicized as a student at Stanford University, when former Governor Pete Wilson championed the anti-immigrant measure Prop 187. She eventually came to Austin to work as an affordable housing advocate, and then as a policy aide in the Texas Senate, where she says she got her real political education. “It’s important to have great ideas,” she told the crowd. “But it’s just as important to build relationships.”


Chris Riley, who has chaired the Planning Commission and the Downtown Commission, largely skipped over the autobiographical details in his opening statement, and launched straight into his detailed policy prescription for Austin, which he broke down into three distinct areas: the economy and the environment; transportation; and preserving the local character of Austin.  Riley believes that Austin should focus on creating a green economy, which, for instance, could include expanding Austin Energy’s energy efficiency programs in homes and commercial buildings and training more workers through Austin Community College. “The weapon in this war is the caulking gun,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to create blue-collar jobs.” 


Since Cole’s opponent did not arrive, she offered a low-key pitch that she’s “learned a lot” in her first term as Council Member. She talked about her effort to move the Waller Creek project forward.  “It’s one of the biggest projects in the city,” she said. “It takes 11 percent of downtown out of the floodplain, which will create jobs and tax revenues for the city.”


The audience questions the candidates directly at the Central Texas Democratic Forum, and the first question was about a minor, but, for any motorist in Austin, frequently frustrating aspect of transportation policy. Why do I find myself waiting at red lights when there is no opposing traffic? In general, what can the city do to synchronize the lights better?


None of the candidates disagreed that fixing the lights would be a good idea. Cavazos began by noting that she would work to improve the situation, which, she said could do a lot for transportation in Austin, since it would also help buses run more efficiently.  The question allowed Riley to illustrate his deep understanding of transportation issues, discussing how the city has been trying to make smart intersections and synchronized lights work for the city, but has not succeeded. Cole got a laugh when the question came to her, “This is when you hate being the incumbent.” She noted that this has been an issue since bond funds were dedicated to traffic lights when Kirk Watson was mayor.


The next question was about property taxes: Why doesn’t the city have a homestead exemption? And with commercial real estate values falling, how can the city stop the tax burden from falling on homeowners?


All three candidates agreed that it would be great to have a homestead exemption, but said that it would be hard to pass one when the city is already looking at a deficit of tens of millions of dollars. Riley noted that a ten percent homestead exemption would cost the city around $10 million. Cole said that the fall-off in commercial real estate prices is a problem with no immediate solution. She noted that residents often oppose downtown commercial development, but that the tax revenues from those projects pay for vital city services. Cavazos said that she would like to come up with a “carefully-crafted” exemption for low income Austinites who are being pushed out by gentrification.


The final question dealt with the property tax rate. With the city council looking at a steep budget deficit, will it consider raising taxes above the rollback rate?


Cavazos seemed caught off guard by the question, asking the audience, “How many pennies can we raise it over the rollback?” (The answer is, the city can raise taxes beyond the rollback rate but voters can roll it back by petition and election.) She then went on to say that “I think we need to realize it’s not just the city struggling, but ordinary people, too.” She said that she would look to city departments to cut back before raising taxes. Riley agreed, saying he would ask city executives and council members to cut salaries first, and proposed staff furloughs as an option, which he said had been used in the past. Cole said she’d “love to say no to a tax increase,” but the deficit makes that impossible. “I don’t want to cut city services,” she said.

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