2015: An Austin Monitor review
Thursday, December 31, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano
In 2015 the shift to single-member districts was finally realized, leading to big changes at City Hall. Now, almost a year later, the Austin Monitor is taking a look back at the past 12 months from our admittedly selective point of view.
10-1 takes the dais
In terms of local politics, there was no bigger story in 2015 than the new City Council. In January, Austin welcomed the single-member district system, a new mayor and nine new Council members. Only Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo had served before. To say that transition dominated the year would be an understatement. In fact, for the first half of the year, the transition was basically the story at City Hall, as Council took several months to take “deep dives” looking at their responsibilities, hired more staff for themselves and, of course, created a slew of new committees with the promise that these committees would increase transparency and lead to a system that invited more public participation while shortening Council meetings. Is this what happened? Not at all.
Almost a year later, Council has nearly completed the work of its “committee on committees.” The report from this meta-committee has yet to be released, but it has recently been held up as a fix to ongoing problems with over-scheduling and a system for ordinances that has been confusing to follow and somewhat inconsistent up until now. As the year closed out, many of the Council members that the Austin Monitor spoke with expressed a desire to tone down the aggressive committee meeting schedule, which has contributed to very long workweeks at City Hall. And though the committees and now-weekly regular meetings were intended to reduce the length of formal Council meetings, that hasn’t happened, either. Council’s last meeting of the year ended after 1:30 in the morning, despite a promise 12 months earlier that meetings would no longer go past midnight.
So, it’s fair to say that there have been some procedural bumps and that things took a while to get started. And though it also might be fair to say that questions about process dominated the discussion last year, Austin’s new 11-member Council also made its mark in several other real ways, making progress on issues that had been stalled for years (such as Homestead Preservation Districts), finding $6.5 million for Health and Human Services funding that had long been sought, zooming ahead with solar buys, (eventually) getting rid of some of the aspects of the Short-Term Rental Ordinance that had helped impede enforcement and even moving forward with a lawsuit against the Travis Central Appraisal district over commercial appraisals.
Heck, the city even managed to reach an agreement with the Austin Firefighters Association after Council passed a resolution that restarted negotiations with the union after years of fighting.
City Council spent a huge amount of time on short-term rentals in 2015 and made some real progress on several issues that have been thwarting enforcement since the STR Ordinance was put in place in 2012. To date, those changes remain incomplete, and Council will be taking up the issue again at its first meeting in 2016. Still, the few concrete reforms made are worth noting, as well as what appears to be shifting public sentiment on the topic. In 2015, Council got rid of the “testing the waters” provision that allowed STR operators to advertise without a license. That provision, which was added at the last minute under the old Council, had made it especially difficult for the Code Department to enforce the city’s ordinance and find people who were operating rentals without proper licensing. Council also imposed a moratorium on Type 2 STRs in residential neighborhoods. Though that moratorium is temporary, the discussion at the Planning Commission in December seemed to indicate that the change might become permanent. While there were very few complaints about owner-occupied short-term rentals, Type 2 short-term rentals may be on the way out, if all things hold. (Which is, admittedly, a very big “if” indeed.)
For Austin Energy, 2015 was a year of several changes. To the relief of many, the utility lowered its residential rates for the fiscal year that started in October, reducing the 1,000 kilowatt-hour monthly bill — used to illustrate what a “typical” customer pays — by $3.33 over the previous year. However, Austin Energy is no longer complying with its affordability goal of keeping rates within the bottom 50 percent of all Texas utilities, frustrating many large commercial and industrial customers.
At the same time, City Council let most of Austin Energy’s long-term commercial contracts expire — rolling those customers on to the current rate structure — while creating special tariffs for three of its largest customers that appeared to satisfy one, Cypress Semiconductor, but not the other two. Council also directed the utility to enter into between 400 and 450 megawatts’ worth of utility-scale solar energy contracts — 288 of which it has already signed — and change its “demand charge” policy for small commercial customers. Austin Energy also released the results of its cost-of-service analysis in December, kicking the current rate restructuring process into full gear in anticipation of having a new structure in place for the fiscal year that will begin in October.
While there were other policy and budget changes, major executive staff shakeups also grabbed the attention of utility wonks. General Manager Larry Weis announced in November that he would be leaving his post to head up Seattle Power and Light early next year, and City Manager Marc Ott later announced that Chief Financial Officer Mark Dombroski would take over the responsibility starting on Jan. 1 while the city searches for a permanent replacement. Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Mele left the utility in late December to work for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
The “two tacos’ worth of savings” offered by Austin’s Homestead Exemption probably got the most ink this budget cycle, but that’s not the only thing that happened in September. Most (if not all) of City Council members were elected on a platform that concerned “affordability” and the increased cost of living in Austin. However, once they were elected, it became clear that there was no definition for affordability that applied citywide. That came to a head, somewhat, in the waning hours of the budget adoption meetings, when Council Member Ellen Troxclair pushed hard for a reduction in property taxes against competing interests that other Council members advocated for on the grounds that allocating money on areas such as an increased Health and Human Services budget would mean a more affordable Austin for those who need it most. In the end, Council approved a budget that is expected to lower the average homeowner’s city taxes by about $14, which will be canceled out by increased utility fees. Austinites will ultimately pay about $48 more each year, on balance.
For years, Austinites have complained about the way in which commercial properties are appraised. This year, the new City Council filed suit against the Travis Central Appraisal District over the issue. In November, the city lost that lawsuit. However, Council continues to push forward in its challenge to the accuracy of the current appraisal system’s commercial (and vacant) properties and hope that portions of the Texas Tax Code will be declared unconstitutional. In early December, a seven-member Council voted unanimously to move forward with a new trial or appeal.
In March, after months of speculation, the city finally released the Zucker Report, and it was a doozy. In short, the report called for immediate change in the city’s Planning and Development Review Department on a number of fronts. Almost immediately, the department was divided into two departments: Planning and Zoning and Development Review. The city has also raised fees and given cell phones to the Code Department. Though there is an action plan in place to address the 400-odd recommendations in the report, like so many other things this year, this is an issue that the Monitor predicts will be back in 2016.
Transportation network companies
City Council closed out its last meeting of the year with one of its biggest issues: approving regulations for transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft. The discussion about these regulations dominated Council’s Mobility Committee for almost a year, and as Council approval grew near, the rhetoric surrounding the issue only grew more heated. In the end, Council established parameters for background checks that included fingerprinting, and both Uber and Lyft threatened to walk when the new regulations go into effect. But then, like so many other big issues this year, it turned out that it wasn’t the end at all. Earlier this week, a group calling itself “Ridesharing Works” announced that it had started a petition drive. If it is successful in getting the required 20,000 signatures, the petition will force Council to implement the city’s previous set of regulations (which were adopted by the old Council in 2014) or put the issue to a vote in November. In other words: This story isn’t over yet.
2015 was a mixed bag for Travis County government. The year began with high hopes of fresh leadership but ultimately ended with the deep bruise of a failed bond election. Interspersed throughout the operatic arc was a parade of side sagas, including a few black eyes from Mother Nature, significant reform at the county jail and a successful showdown with a concert promoter.
In January, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt became the first woman to wield the gavel at Commissioners Court. Her previous experience on the dais, as well as that of commissioners Ron Davis, Gerald Daugherty and Margaret Davis, ensured that the county’s ship of state would weather the transition far more gracefully than did Austin’s brand-new City Council.
However, the early goings weren’t without a rough patch or two. In March, the court — skittish over the massive civil courthouse bond proposal that was then still receiving its final touches — nearly derailed plans to build new headquarters for the District Attorney’s Office. Eckhardt was able to overcome the opposition, and today preliminary construction on the Ronnie Earle Building is underway.
Eckhardt’s progressive vision of an active and responsive government also led to one of the more overwrought storylines of the year. After hearing repeated complaints from several neighbors about a rural concert venue, Eckhardt initiated sweeping reforms to the process by which the county permits mass gatherings. What was largely proposed as a bureaucratic streamlining ended up mushrooming into a larger discussion of property rights, state law and the endangered viability of live music in Central Texas. After months of discussion, a crowded public hearing and an unsuccessful legal challenge, the reforms managed to survive 2015, but safe harbor in 2016 is no guarantee.
More secure, however, is the restoration of in-person visitations at Travis County jail facilities. For years, inmates and their families have been able to communicate only via remote video commlinks. Late in the budget-writing process, prison-reform activists began publicly pressing the court to find a way to bring back face-to-face visits. The last-minute push resulted in a decision to provide extra money to the Sheriff’s Office to hire the staff necessary for the reform. In-person visits are set to resume in April.
The big question mark for 2016, of course, is how the county will pivot from November’s narrow defeat of the $287 million Civil & Family Courts Complex bond proposal. Eckhardt inherited the proposal in January just as it was beginning to emerge from a planning process that had lasted more than 15 years. Armed with innovative ideas to minimize the courthouse’s cost, the unanimous support of the Commissioners Court and the deep pockets of the Austin Bar Association, the proposal couldn’t survive unease over the project’s proposed location nor a last-minute opposition effort from fiscal conservatives led by Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman. Eckhardt framed the defeat as a minor setback and pledged to immediately return to the drawing board. So far, however, she and county staff have remain relatively tight-lipped about potential alternatives.
As the echoes of one major election continue to roil the county’s political landscape, the roar of yet another approaches on the horizon. No fewer than five Democratic candidates are seeking to replace outgoing Sheriff Greg Hamilton in the March 1 primary. In the District Attorney’s race, Gary Cobb, once assumed to be able to run unopposed for retiring Rosemary Lehmberg’s seat, drew two late challengers thanks to discomfiting headlines about his finances. And at Commissioners Court, Daugherty is fending off a Republican challenger on his right while four other men are vying to replace Davis, for whom 2016 will be the last of his 18 years on the dais.
This story was written by Elizabeth Pagano, Tyler Whitson and Caleb Pritchard.
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