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Tovo’s first full year on Council came with many changes, challenges

Monday, January 7, 2013 by Jo Clifton

Kathie Tovo sat down with In Fact Daily at the end of the year to recall some of the achievements of 2012, including Austin City Council’s single most labor-intensive action of the year, adoption of a rate hike for Austin Energy customers.


“We devoted a lot of time to sorting through those issues (and) the customer charge rate was a little higher than I thought it needed to be,” said Tovo, who was elected to Council in May 2011. “I know that will have an effect on ratepayers. But I think we crafted a good solution overall and a fairer rate increase than he had a year ago at this time. I think it was an important process to go through because we showed to the community that we would stop and really evaluate their concerns—across the board.”


Questions about Austin Energy will come up in 2013 also, with a rate case brought by non-City of Austin customers at the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the possibility of state legislation that could affect the city’s decisions about the utility. Mayor Lee Leffingwell has made it plain that he would like to see a change to the governance structure of Austin Energy, perhaps modeled after San Antonio’s CPS Energy, which has a five-member appointed board, including its mayor.


Tovo said, “I’m still sort of evaluating all of the information we have received,” noting that she has reams of information on the topic, including “a huge binder from Shudde (Fath, Electric Utility Commission member).”


She is willing to consider an additional advisory board to oversee Austin Energy, but Tovo does not support “an independent governing board that would have final authority on Austin Energy issues. I think the people that make those decisions need to be directly accountable to the public, which the City Council is, in any configuration.”


“I know we have concerns from the out-of-city ratepayers but right now the EUC has three who live outside the city.” So, with three of seven members, those non-City of Austin ratepayers are in fact overrepresented on the advisory board, she says. That probably will not satisfy those who live in West Lake Hills, for example, who argue that they have no vote on City Council members, thus no authority over their rates. 


Like her colleagues, Council Member Kathie Tovo points to charter revision approved by voters in November as the most dramatic and far-reaching event of 2012. The voters’ decision to change to a 10-1 form of government will mean “a very dramatic transformation of city government going forward…I think it will be an interesting situation to watch,” she said.


Because of term limits, Tovo is the only member of the current Council who can run for a district seat in 2014. If she decides to run in a district in 2014, Tovo will be the only member of the new Council with experience. However, she notes, “We may see some current Council members run for Mayor.” Three of her colleagues have expressed strong interest in that job, including her best friend on the Council, Laura Morrison, along with Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole.


“So we may see some experience in the Mayor. But just that fact alone, to have an entirely brand new Council, would be a big change. Then you add to it an entirely new system of representation, it will be …I think it will be a good thing. Certainly there are some challenges to work through, and if I do run again, changing from an at large perspective to a district will be a little bit of a shifting. But I think the voters will identify great candidates…we have to make sure we have great candidates from all over the city stepping forward and we’ll have great people on the Council.”


Like her colleagues, Tovo was disappointed by the failure in November of Prop. 15, the proposal for $78 million in bond money for affordable housing. She said perhaps the item was not well explained to the public. “We just need to convey what affordable housing is and why it’s a benefit to the community,” not just for moral reasons but for economic reasons as well, she said. 


“Our programs like the home repair program do an enormous amount to allow people to stay in their homes,” which benefits the city economically, she said. She pointed out that the city is losing out on federal dollars earmarked for affordable housing when there are no local monies to match it. Affordable housing “brings in millions and millions both of resources and jobs to our community. So, investing in affordable housing really is an economic development strategy,” she concluded.


A part of the affordable housing problem involves apartment complexes like the safety-plagued Woodridge Apartments. Tovo said she would like to “look at what we can do about property owners who are not keeping their property up.” In addition, she said, “We’ve been working on some things related to making sure our city staff are working with stakeholders and there’s a very clear relocation plan when that’s necessary.


She is also interested in continuing to work on making sure that families with children can stay in the central city and pointed to a stakeholder committee that will be working on those issues in 2013.


Tovo and Morrison voted against city sponsorship of the Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix with the local committee for the Circuit of the Americas. However, she said she is not opposed to the F1 track being here. “I had no concerns about them coming…bringing visitors. My problem with it was that they were seeking public funds to help support it. I hope it will continue to be successful. There certainly are some challenges to be worked out,” she says, citing noise in South Austin generated by helicopters. “But that wasn’t the Circuit of the Americas. … It was a sidebar issue,” she said.

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