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City Manager Ott says maintaining Austin’s financial health his top 2011 highlight

Tuesday, January 3, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Asked about the highlights of his 2011, Austin City Manager Marc Ott points to the city budget. “Underlying all of the other things that happen has always been a really keen focus on trying to lead the city through the financial challenges associated with this fairly severe economic decline,” he told In Fact Daily. “We’ve done well here.”

 

Then he adjusts his statement with something of a hedge.

 

“We’ve done well here, comparatively speaking,” he said. “I don’t mean it simply in the context of history: during times of economic decline, Austin tends to be the last in and first out. I think that phenomenon, for a variety of reasons, was true to some extent this time.

 

“When I think about the municipal corporation, however, I don’t know that that’s necessarily the case. I know that in periods of previous economic decline, the city has had to make some pretty significant cuts in personnel and so on.” 

 

Success there, he argues, stretches back over the length of his time in charge of management for the City of Austin. “We work very hard at trying to, sort of, read the crystal ball…as much as possible try to stay ahead of what the potential impact could be of the ongoing economic decline.”

 

Besides completing another budget cycle relatively that leaves the city relatively unharmed, Ott points to a host of familiar 2011 issues. These include what looks to be the final approval of the city’s Water Treatment Plant 4 project, the resolution of the painful Nathaniel Sanders case, and what he sees as progress on affordability in the city.

 

The treatment plant project has divided the city for roughly three decades. And despite all the concern, the questions, and the potential of a stoppage in 2011, Ott saw his direction clearly. “I had sort of a different perspective, I think, than a lot of people,” he said. “From my standpoint, the charge had already been given to go out and construct the plant and that’s kind of how I looked at it until I got a different set of instructions.”

 

“It kept it kind of simple from the standpoint,” he continued. “Things would only change for me if I got a different set of instructions. And, of course, ultimately I never got that. So Treatment Plant 4 is proceeding.”

 

The Sanders case – a law suit brought by the family of a young black man who had been shot by an Austin Police officer – divided the city in an entirely other way. Here, Ott found “relief” in its conclusion. “It’s hard for me to think about the past year and not acknowledge…how significant that was for the whole community,” he said. “I am grateful that, at least to some extent, aspects of that have been settled.”

 

“That was, I think, difficult for everyone.”

 

For Ott, affordability starts with the city’s commitment to affordable housing. “That work was going on even before I got here,” he said. “I remember my reaction to the fact that a city had allocated, in terms of its debt capacity, that much money to an issue like that.”

 

He sees that commitment continuing into the next bond election. “I think that’s exceptionally good and important,” he continued. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see council allocate a significant portion of the next bond program towards that issue, as well. And I think we should.”

 

Ott connected this to the city’s new Downtown Plan. “Austin needs to be the kind of place where, if you’re just making a living wage, you ought to be able to find a place to live here in Austin, including downtown,” he said.

 

“It’s complicated, and time will tell how the development community reacts to (the density bonus).”

 

He also discussed the just-approved economic incentive package for auto parts manufacturer U.S. Farathane. Farathane will provide jobs for traditionally difficult-to-employ members of the Austin community such as ex-cons or high school dropouts

 

“That is an important one,” he said.

 

“Because of the types of jobs. As a matter of council policy…economic development deals that we do, obviously entail bringing jobs to our city, we want at the very least for them to provide a living wage—I think we call that $11 an hour.

 

“A few of these jobs with Farathane are $10 (an hour),” he continued. “I think there are maybe 22 positions or so within that, but I think we’re talking about a couple of hundred jobs. This is a good company, and when you listen to what they have to say, they seem really committed to that population.

 

“You know they’re not just hiring them but within their organization, it sounds like they’re going to add programs and provide opportunities for people to advance…Just like when you talk about affordable housing and you want the full range of opportunities for people.”

 

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In Fact Daily’s Year in Review continues tomorrow.

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