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Cole worries about the homeless, low income folks, as 2013 begins

Thursday, January 3, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

This past year was a mixed bag for Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, who took time to reflect back on a year full of changes for Austin.


Cole said she was excited about progress for the Waller Creek conservancy, which successfully completed its design competition this year. Cole says that she was pleased with the winning designs by Michael Van Valkenburg & Associates, Inc. and Thomas Phifer & Partners, and excited about the recent addition of several new board members and a project manager.


“The medical school is slated to go on Waller Creek, so we anxiously await that added amenity,” said Cole who was quick to add that the University of Texas medical school would bring diverse jobs to downtown.


Cole also referenced the Austin Energy rate hike, which the city managed to wrap up this year.


“It was very labor intensive, but we ended up with a very good product,” said Cole, who singled out Council Member Bill Spelman as doing a “bang up job” in helping to put Austin Energy “on sound fiscal footing.


Cole said that the city was still trying to decipher the meaning, and impact, of successfully-passed charter amendments that will move City Council elections from May to November and institute single-member districts.  “But we will,” said Cole. “It will be fine… It’s what the voters wanted.”


However, she was much less accepting of voters’ rejection of $78.3 million in affordable housing bonds, a move that Cole fears will be devastating to the city’s affordable housing stock.


“It’s housing that would have gone to help seniors, veterans, women and children and the chronic homeless,” said Cole. “And we are going to miss out on significant leveraging opportunities from the federal and state governments.”


“We can’t make up for $70 million. Not in Austin. We have a problem. We have a big problem,” said Cole.


“Most of our affordable housing went to assist (low income people). It wasn’t a handout,” said Cole. “This is not slacker money. It was just about helping people who need help. And the cost of that help is much cheaper than providing for the spiral downward that happens when they have to live on the streets.”


Homelessness is something that weighed heavily on Cole’s mind this past year. A trip to Miami with several other Council Members to look at how that city had dealt with their homeless population left her inspired.


“There were a lot of lessons learned,” said Cole. “They have a model that’s based on social services, business cooperation, faith-based organizations, and government, and they have reduced their homeless population by 91 percent.”


Right now, she sees a lot of differences between the approaches of Miami and Austin, and finds Austin wanting. She pointed to Miami’s permanent funding structure and transitional shelters as examples.


“Unlike the ARCH, people are there long enough to reach some level of self-sufficiency,” said Cole. She thinks that Austin can learn from that model.


On a more positive note, Cole is proud of a resolution she sponsored supporting marriage equality. City Council passed the resolution unanimously, making Austin the first city in Texas to do so.


Cole is happy that Formula One was a successful event, saying, “I think it was a positive thing for Austin. We came off well, in the national and international media.”


“The traffic ran smoothly, as well as the events. They were on time, on schedule, and I think the tourists enjoyed themselves. I think the businesses benefited from the tourists, and I think it’s good that we’re annexing the area so we’ll be able to get even more revenue. And I’m glad that we didn’t have to put any upfront money in the deal.”

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