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Garza recounts “rookie” year, outlines goals ahead

Monday, December 28, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

City Council Member Delia Garza had a busy freshman year on Austin’s first 10-1 Council, working on city issues and serving on bodies with officials from other jurisdictions to take on some of the most pressing issues facing the region. She talked with the Austin Monitor on Dec. 16 about Council’s accomplishments and challenges this year and her plans for next year.

“For a group of rookies, really, I think we went through the budget pretty well. I was proud of us for getting through that,” said Garza, a former firefighter. With the exception of Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, the entire Council was new to the job this year.

Other achievements that Garza counted for herself and Council included negotiating with developers in order to make proposals more in line with the desires of constituents in her district, providing a popular form of autism treatment as a benefit for city employees and directing Austin Energy to purchase more than 400 megawatts’ worth of solar contracts.

One of Garza’s top priorities throughout the budget adoption process was providing additional funding to support the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department and related programs, which it did to the tune of more than $6.5 million.

“Many of the services they provide help the lower-income districts, which are what everyone refers to as the East Crescent,” said Garza, who represents Southeast Austin via District 2. “Health and human services is a very important issue for me, especially being in the district that has the most food deserts and highest childhood obesity (rate).”

A recent study by the Office of Sustainability found that districts 1, 2 and 4 are the hardest hit by retail food deserts and that “significant portions” of District 2 have no access to grocery stores. The Monitor reported on Dec. 7 that another recent study has revealed “alarmingly high rates of child obesity” in Southeast Austin.

“Food access is a big issue for me. … We’ve had meetings with HEB trying to figure out how to get a grocery store to areas of my district,” said Garza. “We might be working on a policy that directs the city manager (Marc Ott) to see how we can leverage some of our public land and incentivize a grocery store to get out there to that community.”

Garza said that another one of her top priorities has been and will continue to be the buyouts of homes at risk of major flooding near Onion and Williamson creeks. She noted that all of the homes near Onion Creek that are part of the city-led buyout program are in her district, along with many of those tapped for the Williamson Creek buyouts.

“I’ll be monitoring the buyout process and see if we need to find more funding and, if we do, where that funding could come from,” said Garza, referring to the Onion Creek buyouts, which may require additional funding in order to be completed in a timely manner. “That’s a priority of mine, to get those families out of harm’s way.”

Other goals that Garza listed for next year include addressing the “gender gap” among city employees and putting protections in place relating to demolition permits in order to avoid situations similar the Jumpolín piñata store demolition that made national news in the spring.

“I think I would really like to partner with the city manager and see what we can do to recruit more women to nontraditional roles that women could or should fill,” said Garza.

In addition to serving on Council, Garza serves on the boards of two regional transportation agencies – the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization – and chairs the Regional Affordability Committee, a multijurisdictional body that includes representatives from the Austin Independent School District, Travis County and more.

Garza helped establish the Regional Affordability Committee, which she describes as “an opportunity to talk about policy on a very broad basis and learn about how other taxing entities are doing things and learn about things that we need to be taking into account or considering when we’re having these broad discussions about affordability.”

Garza said that the committee has helped her better understand, for example, what has caused the Travis Central Appraisal District to value affordable housing in the Mueller development at market rates and how to potentially avoid such a situation in the future.

The top challenge that Garza listed for the year was getting accustomed to the new committee system that Council established. “It felt like running from meeting to meeting. We were just preparing for the next meeting and then that meeting was over and we were preparing for the next meeting,” said Garza.

“I was hoping for more time to be able to sit at my desk and read about food deserts and what other cities are doing about gentrification and affordable housing, and unfortunately that hasn’t happened to the degree that I had hoped it would happen,” Garza continued.

“That was a challenge, but it’s getting a little bit more manageable. … I think we’re all learning how to manage it better,” Garza concluded, noting that several Council members have decided that their committees will meet less often next year.

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