Tuesday, January 7, 2014 by Jo Clifton

Morrison calls Austin Energy governance debate top 2013 issue

Though, in her estimation, it “wasn’t so much an event as it was a long, drawn out conversation,” Council Member Laura Morrison puts the Austin Energy governance discussions toward the top of her list of major 2013 events.

 

She says the discussion between the Council and the community about the utility’s oversight was important, leading to a very positive outcome. Morrison says that though there are many positives in the city‘s economy, including a low unemployment rate, she also knows that there is a growing need in the community.

 

“You can look at numbers like the unemployment rate, and those look rosy, but there are still a lot of people that are in need. Many of those that are employed are working low-wage jobs,” said Morrison.

 

Morrison says that City Hall got some new tools to address the problem this year, including a newly-passed affordable housing bond, and new density bonus programs. From Morrison’s perspective, those bonus programs allow developers to share their increased entitlements with the rest of the community through things like affordable housing.

 

“We made some progress with CURE and some other density bonus programs. On the other hand… the rewrite of the PUD ordinance, slashing affordable housing portions of that, was very unfortunate,” said Morrison. “They were slashed.”

 

Morrison is optimistic about the “next generation” of incentives offered to companies. She feels City Council has taken some positive steps over the past year, in terms of aligning the values of the community with the business deals they are doing.

 

Is she worried about the new incentive requirements driving companies to places like Round Rock? Not really.

 

“I don’t want to disparage anyone who would do that, but maybe that wasn’t a good fit for the City of Austin,” said Morrison. “If they don’t want to adhere to the values of the standards that we set, maybe that just wasn’t a good fit. Would it be the end of the world? I don’t think so.”

 

Morrison also points to this year’s budget process as a year highlight, particularly the success of not raising the tax rate while, at the same time, exercising their ability to shift additional funds to Parks and social service programs.

 

“Our process for budgeting has really come along in terms of Council deliberation… I think that even this year got a boost because we had an even larger number of Council members diving deep so we could have some larger, more intricate levels of conversation about how to move things around,” said Morrison.

 

There are several smaller things that Morrison has on her list of the year’s highlights as well. These include the redesign of Bartholomew Pool to include more community input, and “sorting out a consensus resolution” for the renovation of Barton Springs which gave her a chance to “sort of tap into my maternal tough-love experience.”

 

Like others, Morrison points to ongoing affects to the community of the Halloween floods, and praises the work of staff while recognizing it as an opportunity to look at how the city can better respond to emergencies.

 

Some of this year’s progress is groundwork, says Morrison. For example, Morrison says that next year is going to be “huge” in terms of moving Project Connect forward.

 

“That work was really important,” said Morrison. “I’m an absolute believer that we need to present to the community how this is overall going to be a solution for transportation in the region. I’m a complete believer in that, because we need to have everyone understand how this will serve them. Otherwise folks might question why they need to support it.”

 

Morrison says that though laying out the new Council districts wasn’t something they were involved in, establishing them was an “absolutely significant step in the transformation of our city government.”

 

“It was most significant that Council was not involved in it,” said Morrison.

 

Morrison has already gotten a jump on the new system, asking for a map of off-leash dog parks by district, and noticed that there are some districts with none at all. Though she says it didn’t make much of a difference in the discussion at hand (which was about Auditorium Shores), it is the type of discussion that the city will start to have moving forward. She says that more emphasis will be placed on the geography of the city, which is “one of the great things about going to districts.”

 

Morrison is also excited about several technological advancements on the horizon, namely the approach of Google Fiber, AT&T’s Gigabit and the hiring of a new city Innovation Officer.

 

“You put all that together, and I think there is the opportunity for some really exciting movement forward, and inventions and collaborations and innovations to serve a lot of people in the City of Austin,” said Morrison. “We’re kind of on the cusp of that.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Energy: As a municipally-owned electric utility, Austin Energy is a rarity in the largely deregulated State of Texas. It's annual budget clocks in at over $1 billion. The utility's annual direct transfer of a Council-determined percentage of its revenues offers the city a notable revenue stream.

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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