Monday, January 6, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Cole cites affordable housing bonds’ approval as major event of 2013

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole lists a set of familiar responses as milestones for her 2013 Council year. And though she clearly sees the importance of such items as the start of the Land Development Code rewrite, wage floors, and the potential coming of Urban Rail, she quickly focuses on what to her was the most important item.

 

“It was quite disturbing when the affordable housing bonds did not pass,” she said. “It has been a long road to get us – and that item – back on that ballot.”

 

Cole says that she began formulating thoughts about a new bond election on Election Night 2012, the evening that a $78 million affordable housing bond question failed. She said that it was clear that much work remained ahead if a question were to pass in 2013. Still, she was one of the three Council members who emerged in the early days to embrace another – risky, should it have failed – bond election.

 

Cole served on the steering committee for the 2013 affordable housing bond campaign. She cited the broad coalition – one that included at least one key area Republican, local party Vice Chair Roger Borgelt – who worked to get the $65 million 2013 affordable housing bond election passed. She also said that messaging was a factor. “I did not want to support funding the affordable housing needs (via a mid-year budget addition) in light of the negative vote we’d received from the public,” she said. “So we didn’t have any real choice but to go out and do it again and educate the voters. And I think we did a good job.”

 

With passage, the affordable housing bonds will cover between five and six years of City of Austin affordable housing efforts. Past city practice has been to return to the voters when in need of a new infusion. Some Council members have been critical of this cycle, suggesting that a funding structure not subject to voter whim might better suit such spending.

 

Cole told the Monitor that the passage of the 2013 bonds offers Council members a better context for that discussion. “It’ll be a different conversation because it will be a different Council and I just don’t know if that Council will decide that affordable housing should be funded just like parks and libraries as a part of our general fund or that we should continue to go out for bonds – I just don’t know,” she began. “But I think that now that we’ve come off of such a strong victory the conversation can legitimately be had either way.”

 

She then added, “I really wanted us to have a strong victory so we could have that conversation.”

 

Turning to the budget, Cole was proud of the work Council did to keep tax rates low. Like some of her colleagues, she cited the successful campaign by a group of parks advocates for the inclusion of $4 million extra in parks funding as a noteworthy achievement.

 

As to the wider budget effort, she called the higher degree of involvement of Council in the city’s budget process a trend. “I think there’s a lot of reasons why – it’s not necessarily any type of negative reflection on management,” she said. “I think that as the city grows and people see so many things happening with it, whether it’s Formula 1 or the economic development agreements, they are much more concerned about their property tax rate and what we are actually doing with their property tax dollars. That makes our handling of the budget have so much more scrutiny.”

 

The successful establishment of the Waller Creek Conservancy – something she pushed hard for — was also a highlight for the Mayor Pro Tem. Cole saw the public-private partnership hatched as part of that effort as a glimpse of the future. “We simply can’t sustain our public places – especially our public parks – without private contributions and support,” she said.

 

Cole then turned to darker items. She noted that 2013 was the year of George Zimmerman’s trial in the death of Trayvon Martin, then pivoted to note the Austin Police Department’s involvement in shootings of African-American males. “Overall I think APD is fair and honest and they do a good job, but I do have concerns when it comes to issues involving African-American males,” she said.

 

Going forward, Cole said that she hopes that Police Monitor Margot Fraser is awarded more “teeth.”

 

For Cole, 2013 was also a year put into the creation of a more “vibrant” downtown region. “We saw the ground-breaking of the Central Library, Seaholm, the Green Water Treatment Plant,” she said. “We’ve seen major developments in eastern downtown…We are now going to have a medical school on Waller Creek and we’re going to have an innovation district in the same area,” she said.

 

Cole noted the passage of her resolution that orders a feasibility review of the so-called cut-and-cap option that would effectively bury I-35 between the Colorado River and Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. She said that, if it happens, the project would serve to reunite two halves of the city.

 

Like Council Member Bill Spelman, Cole also talked about simmering tensions between Council members and City Manager Marc Ott. “We have had quite a few incidents where the question has come up – not just with the Auditor, with the trails—numerous incidents,” she said.

 

Cole referenced the start of a conversation about Ott’s role that kicked-off at an executive session on Dec. 12. “We began a discussion about the legality surrounding the line between what the City Manager is responsible for versus what the Council is responsible for. I thought that was a very productive executive session and I think that we may have some more follow-up sessions like that, because, to me, almost any issue that you frame in terms of being about management, you can reframe it in terms of a policy issue. There is not a clear line so there has to be more harmony and understanding between the Council and the Manager – and also the reverse: the Manager with the Council.”

 

As for her own future, Cole declined to comment about what political turns it might take but she is widely expected to run for Mayor. She said that she would say more in the spring.

 

Cole did point to wholesale change in various regional governments a major issue for the coming year.

 

“It’s very critical because we’re going to see a change in the County Judge, one of the (Travis County) commissioners, at least five seats on the school district, at least nine seats on the City Council, and a new person acting as Mayor,” she noted. “In every sector of government there will be change and we will have to work in new perspectives but we have to recognize that we are going to lose a lot of experience.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

2012 City of Austin Bond Election: A total of seven individual requests, which included programs for Transportation and Mobility; Open Space & Watershed Protection; Parks and Recreation; Housing; Public Safety; Health and Human Services; and Library, Museum and Cultural Arts Facilities. All but $78 million in housing bonds passed, granting city officials more than $300 million in new money to work with.

Affordability: A multi-faceted discussion that centers around the relative cost-of-living in a given municipality. In Austin, this debate has returned discussions on such divers concepts as land use, density, living wages, and public transportation.

Year in Review 2013: Each December, the Monitor offers a series of interviews with local policymakers about the highs and lows of the year gone by.

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