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Council debates concerns about “ward politics”

Thursday, December 17, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Inspired by a vote set for today on how to spend the $21.8 million in transportation dollars remaining in the “quarter-cent fund,” City Council debated at a Tuesday work session about whether the proposed approach sets a precedent that could lead to a system in which funds are often divided up evenly among districts.

“I just think we’ve done an incredibly good job as a Council of sending a very clear message to the community in a year’s worth of work that we’re going to decide things based on what is best for the overall city – we’re going to look at things equitably,” said Mayor Steve Adler. “My concern is that, right at the end of the year, if we did this, we’ll be sending a contra message.”

The resolution would direct Council members to identify $1.9 million in eligible transportation projects in each of their districts by the end of the month, to give Adler the authority to commit the rest of the fund to similar projects citywide and to direct city staff to move ahead with the spending.

Council Member Ann Kitchen – chair of the Council Mobility Committee, which unanimously recommended the resolution – attempted to quell concerns about the spending plan. “There’s no expectation that this is anything other than a one-time opportunity to address some immediate needs quickly and in a way that engages our constituents with our staff,” she said.

“We are all working within the expertise of our transportation department and really appreciate the work that they have done in identifying priority projects that fit with the criteria for things like public safety, safe routes to school, access to bus stops – all of those kinds of things,” Kitchen explained.

The Austin Transportation Department assembled a list in November of transportation projects that meet the criteria of the agreement based on Council and staff-identified priorities.

Council members Delia Garza and Sheri Gallo, also members of the Mobility Committee, reiterated their support for the idea of divvying up the money. “I really think this is an opportunity to be really responsive. I don’t see this as any kind of precedent that we’re going to be splitting up funds like this. I feel like this is just a one-shot to be able to hit those small things,” said Garza.

In spite of these reassurances, Adler said that he plans to propose amending the resolution today in a way that removes the district-based, $1.9 million spending limit for Council members, puts him in the same category as the rest of Council as far as submitting lists and specifies that the lists should be “not necessarily limited by district.”

In Adler’s plan, city staff would take the lists submitted by him and each Council member and return with a new list of recommendations for consideration by the end of March.

“I hear the Council members saying, ‘Hey, no precedent here, we’re never going to do this again,’ but I think there’s a parks bill that’s coming up right after this, and people are going to want to divide that money up and spend the parks money equally, is my fear, because I think the same rationale could exist,” Adler said. “I could see us in a slippery slope. That troubles me.”

Adler was referring to a $1.5 million “block grant” for park improvements that Council included in the current city budget and will have to disperse in the coming months.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council members Pio Renteria and Greg Casar also raised concerns about divvying up funds by district.

Council should not be “taking this body of money and splitting it up among districts,” Tovo said. “I think it’s really important that we not set out on that path.”

Council Member Ellen Troxclair played down the “slippery slope” concern. “I don’t think the argument is either/or – either we’re devolving into a ward politics system or we’re addressing citywide issues,” she said. “We are clearly spending the vast majority of our money addressing transportation issues from a citywide basis.”

At Adler’s urging, City Manager Marc Ott weighed in on the issue, noting that he has cautioned Council in the past about the “notion of dividing money up equally among districts.” He used the city street inventory system, which staff employs to rate the condition of streets, as an example of a methodological way to determine when and where an investment is necessary.

“It’s that kind of information and other kinds of information that drives the decisions about where we invest money as opposed to … geography or certainly some division of the resources on a district basis,” said Ott. “I think that that kind of analysis, … in terms of where we make investments, gives us the best opportunity to optimize, to best use the tax dollars that we get.”

The quarter-cent fund was established by an interlocal agreement between the city and the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Cap Metro agreed to provide the city with a quarter of the one-cent sales tax revenue it collected in Austin between 2001 and 2004. Most of the money, which can go only to transportation projects that meet certain criteria, has been spent.

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