Adler, Martinez highlight differences in forum
Monday, December 8, 2014 by Mark Richardson
Just 10 days away from the Dec. 16 runoff election, mayoral candidates Steve Adler and Mike Martinez worked hard Sunday to put some daylight between their positions on a number of key issues, including affordability, transportation, taxes and budgets.
KUT, KLRU and the Austin Monitor co-hosted a debate Sunday between Martinez and Adler. KUT Morning Edition host Jennifer Stayton and Austin Monitor publisher Michael Kanin moderated the debate.
Martinez, who was 17 points behind Adler in the latest Austin Monitor poll, emphasized his experience as a Council member and criticized many of Adler’s positions as pie-in-the-sky. The two clashed heavily over the issue of how the make the city more affordable.
“Beginning with affordability, we must make it a filter through which we look at everything we do,” Adler said. “It means making good decisions, it means not entering into a contract for a $2.3 billion wood-burning power plant that we purchased that sits idle most of the time and costs us $54 million a year while it sits idle. It means giving relief to property owners, homeowners with things like the homestead exemption.”
Martinez directly attacked the call for a 20 percent homestead tax exemption, which he said would put a $36 million hole in the city’s budget.
“The first thing I won’t do is make promises I can’t keep and say things just to get political edge,” he said. “Giving the homestead exemption to homeowners in Austin, Texas will do nothing to move the needle for people that are in poverty, it will do nothing for the people who need it the most, the renters and those who are on fixed incomes.
He said the city’s policies must help all of the city’s residents, not just a few.
“If I could take that $36 million for the homestead exemptions, I’d invest it in social services, and move the needle on things like poverty,” Martinez said.
Adler continued to advocate for the homestead exemption, saying Austin is out of step for not having one.
“The homestead exemption is something that Austin should do…because its relief we can give,” he said. “It would be better is we could give a flat tax or a capped tax, but the legislature doesn’t give us the power to do that. We can’t wait on the state; we should use the tools we have.”
Adler said that a homestead exemption would reach the people who need it the most.
“The property tax burden is four times greater on lower income folks than it is on the top 1 percent,” he said, adding that the city needs to work to equalize commercial and residential appraisals to bring tax fairness to the system.
Martinez countered that Adler was again promising something that he could not deliver.
“If there is one thing I have learned at City Hall in my time as a Council member, is that you can’t make a $36 million proposal in a budget year and not cut services or raise taxes,” he said. “That means that you the raise the taxes to cover the cost of the $36 million or you cut city services. The bottom line is it’s very difficult to find $36 million.”
At one point, in response to a question about the current restrictions on Council members conferring outside of public meetings, Adler said he plans to work to change that.
“I think that the rules the City Council is operating on are really restrictive,” he said. “Preventing colleagues on a panel from being able to talk with one another … to gauge the temperature and have normal conversations that any of us would have with people we were going to be making decision with.”
He said the rules need to change.
“I think that its going to be this Council working with each other to set the rules, working with the attorneys that we have … and coming up with rules that that we can come forward with that are not the same rules that we have been operating under the last several years,” he said. “I think that’s going to require us to work with David Escamilla in the County Attorney’s office but this is something that critically has to happen in the city.”
Martinez raised a few eyebrows with his comments about working with City Manager Marc Ott. He noted that when Council members get complaints or questions from citizens, all they can do is pass them along to the staff.
“We are a council-manager form of government. So, unless our citizens decide to change that, this is the environment we operate under,” Martinez said. “But I can tell you that its wholly frustrating. … I have been arguably the most vocally and openly critical of our city management, when necessary. Not everyone does everything wrong (and) there are things that the city manager has done very well. (But) we absolutely must hold the city manager accountable so that citizens can have better outcomes when issues arise.”
Another issue where Martinez sought to put some distance between himself and his opponent is the city’s transportation issues. Adler asserted that the key to solving the city’s transportation crisis is thorough planning.
“I think we need to look at transportation in the long term,” Adler said. “I think a lot of people voted against Prop. 1 because they didn’t see how that transportation solution helped them”
He said the voting patterns showed that only the people in the areas where rail was planned supported the idea, with everyone else voting it down.
‘(They) voted against it because they didn’t believe that it was going to do anything for them,” Adler said. “We have 2 million people in the Austin metro area today, and we’re going to have 4 million in 20 years and we are going to have to move those people around. So we can’t buy our way out of it and we can’t build our way out of it. It’s a land planning issue.”
Martinez conceded that the electorate clearly did not want rail, but said he had a better solution.
“We have to become the best bus city in America,” said Martinez, who is also the chair of the Capital Metro board. “We have to have a public transportation system that our citizens can truly use as an alternative choice. So the one project I think is critical now as we move forward is an expansion of our fixed route bus system and an expansion of our Bus RapidTransit system and reducing headway on the Red Line. Public transportation in the absolute key to solving the traffic congestion problem in Austin.”
Both candidates were asked how they would sustain Austin’s currently soaring economic climate. Martinez said he believes that the city should change its approach.
“We need economic equality, not economic prosperity,” he said. “When you look at the numbers, we’re No. 1 in job growth, we’re No. 1 in population growth and we’re No. 1 in GDP (gross domestic product) growth. Yet we still have 26 percent of our schoolchildren living below the federal poverty line. We have to have economic equality.”
Martinez said that as a Council member, he fought to make sure that when the city gave companies incentives to locate here, they paid their workers a living wage and provided them health insurance.
“We have to change our policies to create economic equality, not economic prosperity for just a select few,” he said.
Adler said he believes the city’s economy is on the right track, but it needs to diversify.
“I think we need to economic prosperity and economic equality,” he said. “We seem to be doing really well with prosperity. We need that to continue and we need to maintain a climate that allows that to happen. We’re bringing in more jobs than anyone else, but 57 percent of those jobs don’t pay a living wage. We need to do better than that.”
Adler said the city is good at creating high-level jobs and the low-level jobs, but is not working in for those in middle.
“Ultimately, we’re going to need to do that to preserve those prosperity numbers. When we give an incentive to companies, we need to not only look for a return on our investment but for a return on our values,” he said.
Early voting for the Dec. 16 runoff election continues through Friday.
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