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Martinez reflects on 2011 as big year for ‘major metropolitan’ Austin

Wednesday, January 4, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Austin took important steps in 2011 toward becoming what Council Member Mike Martinez calls “a big, major metropolitan city with big, major metropolitan issues to deal with.” Those issues, he told In Fact Daily, touch on every aspect of the city’s political and social life, from economics and affordable housing to election turnouts and animal welfare.

At the top of Martinez’s list of significant events from the last year lies the city’s rather remarkable ability to weather the ongoing economic downturn that began in 2008. With the country stuck at a 9 percent unemployment rate, and unemployment averaging 8.5 percent statewide, Austin has a relatively low unemployment rate of 7.3 percent. And outside investment in the city has remained steady.

“As a city we fared much better than most cities in the economic downturn,” said Martinez. “It’s extremely significant that we didn’t lay off city employees, that we are coming out of the recession far better than most cities. We’re still very successful at recruiting companies to come to Austin, which allows us to keep generating that economic development we need as a city.”

That relative economic success, coupled with the rapid growth of the city, both in terms of population and development, has put Austin in a curious position as a city on the cusp, said Martinez, one that still has an undeserved reputation (even among some of its citizens) as a sleepy college town.

“I think those days are long gone. I think there are a whole lot of people in this town who would like to hold on to those days, but it’s just not the case anymore,” said Martinez.

The Council member, who voluntarily stepped down as mayor pro tem after the May elections, points to a number of 2011 incidents that highlight both Austin’s growing stature and the conflict over its identity, with some Austinites pushing for growth, development, and change and others pushing to keep Austin the way it has been.

Included among them is the Council’s decision last month to vote against moving municipal elections from May to November. Whereas the four Council members who voted against the move felt that decision should be left to the voters, Martinez believes the vote was an opportunity for the city to increase citizen involvement in the political process; make Austin a more inclusive, more progressive, more engaged city; and tie the city’s municipal elections into the national political dialogue.

“I think there were some valid points by my colleagues on the Council, that this is something that should be decided by citizens. I don’t disagree with that,” said Martinez. “But the Texas Legislature clearly decides about things without citizens’ votes, and we as a Council clearly decide about things without citizens’ votes, so granted that authority by the Lege, it was important to take advantage of that opportunity and increase voter turnout. That was the question in front of me: Do I want more voters voting in municipal elections or not? And the answer still is ‘yes.’ Who doesn’t?”

Meanwhile, with the city hitting its goal of a 90 percent live outcome rate for sheltered animals early in the year, Austin not only moved into the national consciousness but also claimed a spot as the largest No Kill city in the country.

“No Kill is a huge accomplishment,” said Martinez. “We’re talking three years of work for this. People stuck with it. There were a lot of fights and disagreements. We all wanted No Kill, and people had their own opinions about how to achieve it, but the bottom line is we achieved it.”

However, once the city opened its new shelter in East Austin, some members of the public decided that it was acceptable to drop off the unwanted adult dogs they might have otherwise kept. That led to overcrowding among medium and large sized dogs. Now, the city says it has to adopt out those animals this week in order to avoid euthanasia

While acknowledging the city’s successes, Martinez believes Austin’s growth is presenting its citizens and its government with big-city challenges that, he said, require the same kind of passion and commitment that allowed the city to get to no kill. He points particularly to the issue of homelessness.

“When we see homeless people on the streets of Austin we should be embarrassed as a government. I should be embarrassed as a Council member that we haven’t done enough,” said Martinez. “There are 4,000 people living on the streets. I want to transfer that community passion for animal welfare toward that issue as well. It’s a testament to the health of our community.”

Martinez believes the burden of ensuring the health of the community will have to be shared by the entire city, both in terms of political involvement and shared sacrifice.

He points specifically to the issue of affordable housing and, in particular, Permanent Supportive Housing, which Council has been charged with spreading throughout the city.

“We need PSH everywhere. Period,” said Martinez. “The burden has to be shared by all parts of our community. There is not one specific area of town where it should go.”

Still Martinez acknowledges PSH can be a tough sell, particular in communities where many homeowners believe the appearance of a PSH complex will drive down property values and drive up crime rates.

“The bottom line is, if we do it right, none of that happens,” said Martinez. “PSH builds communities; it doesn’t tear them down. We have to keep fighting that mentality out there that this isn’t right for our community. It’s more than right; it’s necessary.”

In Fact Daily’s Year in Review continues tomorrow.

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