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Tovo talks about 2014 and takes a look ahead

Thursday, January 8, 2015 by Jo Clifton

As the only incumbent returning to join the new 10-1 City Council, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo could play a pivotal role this year, convincing others to share her point of view.

Then again, she could continue as a minority voice as she often has in the last couple of years, particularly in land use and economic development matters. This year, Tovo will also be representing District 9, instead of the whole city.

One question that will take the attention of all members of the new Council is whether to expand the small homestead exemption for Austin homeowners that Tovo helped usher through the Council in 2014.

Looking back at last year, Tovo said she was most proud of her role in bringing forward the $5,000 homestead exemption. Council approved the exemption in late November, and it will be available for homeowners when their tax bills come out later this year. Budget officials project that the exemption will cost the city $3.129 million in FY16.

“Getting the first-ever city homestead exemption was a good step,” she said. “I’m happy to see that in place. I expect it will be a conversation among new Council members whether to raise it, but at least we have something in place, and I was glad that we found a way to do it that didn’t provide such a huge benefit to our highest-dollar homeowners.”

She added that she was eager to see what happens with a challenge petition process the Council set in motion. Council has hired a tax consultant to advise it on whether it should challenge the Travis County Appraisal District’s handling of appraisals for commercial properties versus residential.

Tovo also sponsored a resolution to restrict companies that have entered economic development agreements with the city from challenging their property tax appraisals. However, Council largely rejected her proposal after a Samsung representative explained the possible unintended consequences of such a restriction.

The Austin Monitor asked Tovo if, while she was campaigning, she heard a lot of backlash against the Chapter 380 economic development program from citizens.

“Absolutely,” Tovo said. “I believe that despite the fact that we make your changes and have a program now that better reflects our community values … I believe we really need to rethink the economic incentives program and whether it’s appropriate to continue using it the way we have in the past.”

She said she had heard a great deal of concerns from the public about it. “And when you have a company stepping forward [for incentives]” — one that had already advertised for employees in this job market, as a tech firm did last year — “there is no way I can justify it… If we can’t even make the basic argument that they wouldn’t locate here but for that incentive, we absolutely should not be using our scarce dollars that way.”

Tovo added, “I’m also looking at our family business loan program. We recently approved a loan for a large hotel. It is owned locally, but I believe it’s operating under a franchise agreement that is national. But I also think we should make sure that our other economic programs are supporting the businesses that need it the most.”

“That’s not to say that there won’t be an out-of-town corporation that really offers extraordinary benefits,” she continued. “But for me, there’s a very high bar. And I will say, too, I think the public sense of it is that we have a lot of people moving here and companies moving here, and they’re right, we do have a lot of corporations and companies moving here without incentives. So, many people as I went from door to door asked me that question: If most companies are moving here without them, why are we using incentives?”

“It is a good question, and I think you have a legitimate answer if they are promising some sort of extraordinary benefits that wouldn’t be there otherwise. If you can’t answer that about a company, then they aren’t a good candidate,” Tovo concluded.

As far as the requirement that companies receiving an incentive pay a living wage, she was firm. “In any case, we still have a lot of companies coming to Austin. And I fundamentally do not believe that we should be incentivizing companies that are paying poverty wages. I think a wage floor is appropriate. We shouldn’t be subsidizing companies that can’t agree to that. Regardless, if that deters some companies from applying, it’s still the right step.”

Another issue that will be coming up quickly for the 2015 Council is whether to approve an agreement for Decker Lake Golf LLC to build a PGA-class golf course at the Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park.

Developers have promised that the proposed course would use less water than what is standard, but Tovo said, “Even if they can use less water than all other golf courses and suggest some strategies that might reduce water use at our other golf courses, I still believe it’s a concern, because golf courses are still water-intensive uses.” It is especially troubling, she said, in the midst of one of the worst droughts on record, adding, “I really question whether our Parks and Recreation Department ought to be promoting that kind of use. If we had no golf courses in our town, that might be another conversation.”

In a November 2000 election, Austin voters narrowly rejected a proposal to lease 400 acres of parkland at the same location, Lake Walter E. Long. The proposition said it was “to be used for a hotel, golf course, conference center and other related facilities, and lease agreement, with the land and improvements reverting to the sole possession and control of the city at the end of the term,” which was set at 99 years.

Of the ballots cast, 100,412 were in favor, with 102,360 opposed.

Tovo said she is concerned about the legal issues raised by that vote and the apparent similarity to the current proposal.

She said she had met with some of the neighbors and neighborhood representatives. “I understand they’re very supportive of it, and they had compelling reasons for supporting it. So it’s not an easy issue for sure.”

Tovo concluded: “They absolutely are right that parks should have had city resources invested in that long ago. And it is a matter of equity to see something happen there. I just don’t know that this is the right use for a lot of reasons, and I’m not sure that you will really well serve the surrounding neighbors.”

Photo courtesy of The Hall Monitor

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