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Austin’s continuing success biggest story for Leffingwell

Monday, January 6, 2014 by Jo Clifton

Mayor Lee Leffingwell likes to point out that Austin, by most measures, has an extremely successful economy, gets high marks for job creation and has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation—4.7 percent, according to numbers released late last month. In December it was rated the top performing city in the United States by the Milliken Institute.


”I think we should be proud of that and I’m very proud to have been Mayor during a time when we’ve achieved a lot of success on economic issues when a lot of our peer cities were suffering,” the mayor said.


When pressed, he agrees that part of that success is because Austin is a great place to live. “We have a creative workforce, the kind of cultural life and recreational opportunities people are looking for,” he said.


But Leffingwell also says much of Austin’s success can be chalked up to a positive effort on the part of the city and its partners like the Chamber of Commerce and State of Texas to recruit new businesses and create new jobs through economic development agreements.


“We have used that tool like a scalpel, not like a saber,” he said. “In the last 10 years, we’ve only done 15 agreements and not all of those are active right now. Other cities are doing like 90 agreements, but we have used it to bring in companies that will be a catalyst for other companies to bring in more jobs.”


He says Austinites should not be afraid of growth, they should prepare for it.


“I hear constantly, ‘we don’t want any more people to come here,’” he said. “But we don’t have any control over that. People are going to come here anyway. They have historically for 150 years, so our job is to improve the quality of life for the people who are here by trying to make sure they have a good job.”


Leffingwell is proud of his role in leading the Council to build the current budget with no tax increase. “We were fortunate to be able to do that – once we set our minds to it. We have a great staff and they went back to the drawing board to make enough cuts to make that happen.”


He is proud of the fact that the city has established a permanent commission on seniors. “This was one of the recommendations from a task force we set up last year,” he said “The city’s objective was to be a facilitator, to help the other organizations that deal with seniors’ problems. Now there’s going to be an organization that succeeds the task force.”


Leffingwell is also proud of the progress on the Lady Bird Lake Boardwalk, which was approved in a 2010 bond election. He said he expects it to be ready by late spring. “That will be one of those things that I think people will look back and say ‘I’m glad they decided to do that,’” he said.


He is also pleased with the progress this city is making on developing mass transit. “I have to mention (the effort to bring) high capacity transit,” he said. “I spend a lot of my time on that. We have two different advisory groups: CAMPO and the CCAG. We’ve been meeting weekly for the last four months.” He expects to be involved in a bond campaign to pass bonds for whatever route is selected.


He said he was proud of the way the city responded to the Halloween flood. “I thought overall, our people performed admirably,” he said. “We’re going to do a recap and try to figure out where things might have been done a little better.”


Leffingwell said that despite the city’s business and job growth, he finds some negative on the economic development front, particularly in the White Lodging situation and the way the Council amended the economic development program.


“I’m still very disappointed with the White Lodging situation,” he said. “I think the city did the wrong thing. A promise was given by a senior city staffer (with respect to wages),” but then city management did not keep the promise. “Then the Council had the opportunity to fix it and we didn’t. I’m disappointed that we didn’t take advantage of that.”


“I was also very disappointed in the amendments to our economic incentive matrix.” Leffingwell said. The system that we had was working very well. And what we have now, I believe will limit the success in the future.’ He said people are attracted to Central Texas, which is part of the fastest growing Metropolitan Statistical Area in the country, but that includes Round Rock, San Marcos and the surrounding areas, not just Austin.


He said because companies looking for incentives can leverage the state incentives and they still want to come to Central Texas, now because of the Austin requirements, they will pick Round Rock or Cedar Park instead of Austin. “We don’t have that tax base,” he said. “I don’t think it was good for the economic vitality of our city. I believe the people who will suffer most will be the lower wage workers. There won’t be the jobs here for them.”


Austin Energy governance


He also had strong feelings about the Council’s failure to change Austin Energy governance.


“That was a big disappointment for me.” Leffingwell said. “I thought then and I think now the independent governance is essential to the survival of Austin Energy in the intermediate and long term. It is a billion dollar plus enterprise in terms of annual revenue, and to have that managed by a group of Council members who have little or no expertise in that business is not a recipe for success. The record shows, quite frankly, that the Council has made some bad decisions over the last year that are detrimental to the long-term viability of Austin Energy and I think that trend will continue.”

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