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Riley cites heavy lifting in 2013 to get ready for 10-1 Council

Tuesday, January 7, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Council Member Chris Riley offers a broad frame for the 2013 Austin City Council. “Trying to look at it from a perspective of how this year will be viewed historically, I think the most notable thing about it may well be that it will be viewed as the last full year of regular operation of the at-large Council system,” he said.


With that in mind, Riley sees the major task of the 2013 Council as something of a clear the decks action. “This Council has been doing its best to make sure that the new Council is well positioned for the work that it will have to do – and that has meant taking care of a number of things that needed some attention,” Riley continued.


Riley cites a host of votes — including a controversial move to reign in Urban Farming allowances, a dramatic reconfiguration of Austin Water Utility impact fees that brought hefty criticism from some who thought the move might discourage growth, the beginning of what promises to be a painful rewrite of the city’s Land Development Code, and a redraw of the city’s social service contracting system – that fall in line with the clear-the-decks-for-the-next-guys sentiment.


Still, Riley also notes that he and his colleagues found room to wrestle with continuing growth issues. These were headlined, he says by the November passage of $65 million in Affordable Housing bonds. “On the housing front the most notable event was the successful bond election,” he said. “(This) was related to the growth in the sense that the growth we’ve been experiencing has been putting pressures on the housing market and raising affordability issues for more and more Austinites. Having a successful campaign to deal with that was very important to ensure some degree of affordability.”


Here, Riley pointed to what he called “buy-in from across the political spectrum” as a key factor, “especially in the wake of the defeat of the last housing bond.” Riley said he is “very pleased with the way that came out.”


Transportation too, was a 2013 issue for Riley. “There has been a lot of work on transportation, which is obviously related to the growth we are experiencing,” he continued. “We have the managed lanes underway on MoPac, we’ll be starting MetroRapid (in January), we’ve been getting ready to move forward with a rail election next year, we’ve been seeing continuing progress on our bicycle network, and we’ll (have announced) bike-share (by the end of December).”


Riley continued on to cite the creation of a pedestrian advisory council. “I think it’s fair to say that multi-modalism had more traction this year than it has gotten in a long time,” he said.


Over the busy year, Council members did not finish off the construction of a wholly independent Austin Energy governing body – something pushed for by a portion of the dais, and worried over by the rest. For Riley, lingering governance issues for Austin Energy represented a question perhaps better left for the future Council. “We’ll be expanding the geographic diversity of the Council,” he said. “I expect that Austin Energy issues will get some level of attention during the campaigns, so there should be a healthy discussion about a host of AE issues and so it will be interesting to see how that plays out – and how the candidates and the voting public feel about the way the utility is run.”


Riley also suggested that Council’s close vetting of the 2014 budget represent both a highlight and the start of a trend. “The budget was a big, big issue for us this year,” he said. “My impression is that we actually had more engagement in the budget process than we’ve had during any of the other years I’ve been on Council.”


Riley continued: “I know many people weren’t very impressed at the reduction in the tax rate that we were able to achieve, but compared to what management originally proposed, I think it’s something that the Council can rightly take some pride in.”


He turned to the robust effort on the part of parks advocates to extend the city’s Parks and Recreation Department budget. “I have to give much of the credit (for the parks budget increase) to the advocacy that took place,” he said. “This effort…was a very well thought out effort over a long period of time, and I’m very pleased the Council was able to respond to that.”


When asked if that sent a message to the rest of Austin – that if they got well-organized they too could have an effect on the budget, Riley said, “absolutely – and that should always be the case; that if you can mobilize a very broad base of support for significant change in the way that we fund city programs, than that opportunity is there.”


Still, he offered a caveat. “Obviously the city is also very interested in ensuring that we maintain some control over the tax rate – so obviously there are competing pressures there. It’s very hard to make significant upward adjustments in the budget without putting too much pressure on the tax rate.”


Looking ahead, Riley – one of only two sitting Council members likely to run for one of the new geographically elected seats – said he would make a decision about his future in the spring. “I can see a lot of appeal in running, partly because I think the campaigns next year will need to be different from those in the past,” he said. “I think there will be a lot less emphasis on fundraising for TV ads, and more emphasis on knocking on doors. I see a lot of appeal in engaging the electorate that way. For me personally, I see a lot of appeal in engaging directly with folks in District 9.”

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