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Council candidates argue affordability at first election forum

Thursday, February 16, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

If Sunday’s first-of-the-season City Council candidates’ forum is any indication, this year’s races are going to be heated affairs.


The forum, arranged by the Network of Asian American Organizations – Political Action Committee exposed serious ideological differences between at least two of the incumbents and their challengers over the issues of development and affordability.


The forum started off genially enough, with moderator Richard Jung, a NAAO-PAC officer and Charter Revision Commission member, asking the candidates if, as Council members, they would be committed to appointing more Asian-Americans to boards and commissions, elevating more Asian-Americans to executive positions in city government, and employing a dedicated city staff member to assist the Asian-American community’s access to social services and health services.


Unsurprisingly, the six candidates in attendance – Mayor Lee Leffingwell and challenger Brigid Shea, Place 2 incumbent Mike Martinez and challenger Laura Pressley, and Place 5 incumbent Bill Spelman and challenger Tina Cannon – all said they would be in favor of seeing more Asian-Americans in city government.


The “trouble” began when Jung asked the candidates if they would support sufficient funding to ensure successful construction and operation of the Asian American Resource Center, which is set to break ground this spring. Leffingwell said he would and pointed out that he has been a supporter of the center since before a $5 million bond package for its construction was approved by voters in 2006.


“The center will definitely be an economic asset to the city,” Leffingwell said. “It’s not just a community center … This is also a business center, where business representatives of companies from around the globe will come and have access to the people they need to meet in the Asian community in Austin.”


But Shea, who says she is running to keep Austin affordable, said she couldn’t make such a commitment without first seeing if it would fit into the entire budget.


“Because I’m so concerned with affordability and how the economy affects everyone in Austin, I want us as a city to take a thorough look at how we’re allocating our public resources,” Shea said.


Leffingwell took Shea’s argument as an opportunity to tout his and the Council’s experience in prioritizing expenditures in order to balance the city’s budget. Two years ago the Council did just that by cutting $75 million, which, Leffingwell said, they did “without laying off any city employees or curtailing any basic services.” That experience, he went on, had led him to the belief that city priorities can always be funded.


“The resource center is something we absolutely need to do and something that we need to find a way to do, and it’s my experience that when you have something you need to do you can find a way to do it,” Leffingwell said.


At this point Pressley jumped into the discussion, using the issue to raise one of her campaign’s central claims: that the current Council (including her rival, Martinez) squanders tax dollars by giving subsidies and tax breaks to construction companies and developers that don’t need them. She pointed particularly to the development of the future 1,003-room Marriot Marquis hotel on Congress Avenue, which Council granted $4.3 million in fee waivers back in July.


“Those monies could be better spent on a resource center instead of giving it to developers who would have been there anyway,” said Pressley.


Both Martinez and Leffingwell, who voted for the fee waivers, took issue with Pressley’s description of events. Martinez said such economic development agreements are necessary to fund city services and keep the city affordable.


“It’s really easy to say things like ‘stop giving subsidies,’” said Martinez. “This Council has not signed one single economic development agreement that will not be cash-positive to the city. The $4 million were waived fees for right-of-way closures; it was not a subsidy. It’s absolutely critical we have a vibrant economy to pay for all the services necessary for the community.”


Leffingwell applauded his colleague’s defense of the Congress hotel deal and argued that the $4 million in fee waivers will be more than offset by the tax revenue the hotel will bring in every year.


“There’s a reason why Austin is recognized worldwide as basically a recession-proof city during this worst recession we’ve had since the great depression: Because of our efforts to continue to grow our economy and create jobs for people who live here,” said Leffingwell. He said the dozens of magazines and reports touting Austin as the best place in the country to do business are proof that the Council’s incentive-based approach to luring business and development is working.


Shea jumped all over that claim, however, saying the fee waiver was, in her estimation, a subsidy, and one designed to lure big corporations downtown at the expense of Austin residents.

“We have got to change this paradigm,” she said. “We are using an old-school model where we’re giving way city assets because we think we have to pay people to come here. Well, if we’re number one on all these lists of the most desirable places for businesses to come, we’ve got to reexamine how we’re using our resources.

“Let’s be smart about it. Let’s have a thriving community where businesses prosper but where our grandchildren and our grandparents can still afford to live in the future.”

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