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Politics clash with process over quarter-cent fund

Monday, December 21, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

The idea of dividing Capital Metro’s quarter-cent fund among Austin’s districts based on community recommendations has strong support from City Council. But just how to go about doing that raised some serious questions about process on Thursday.

In June, Council passed a resolution directing staff to identify projects eligible for funding in each district. Since then, Council offices have been working to identify which qualified projects in their districts are the highest priority, with the understanding that each district has roughly $1.9 million to spend of the $21.8 million available.

In the end, Council stuck with its original plan of allotting the funds evenly among the 10 Council districts, with Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Greg Casar voting in opposition.

Adler praised the citizen engagement that had occurred concerning the fund, calling it “one of the better things this Council has helped to initiate.” However, the wording and structure of the resolution concerned him and some of his fellow Council members. For one, Adler worried that the proposed method of divvying up funds could lead to ward politics. But he also stressed the need for the spending to come back to the full Council for approval instead of what would happen under the existing plan, which would allow Council members to make their own lists of projects and direct staff to complete them.

“The way this resolution is drafted, it actually has individual Council members giving instruction to the staff on how to spend money, and then it doesn’t even come back to Council. … We don’t even do committee and commission appointments that way,” said Adler. “It’s a hiccup for us, I believe.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo shared those concerns and worried that the process initially laid out in the resolution is not in line with the City Charter.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who pushed hard to have the resolution approved as is, without amendments, emphasized that it was not an opening for ward politics but a “one-time opportunity” to work directly with the community to address its needs. Kitchen chairs the Mobility Committee, where the resolution originated.

“We’re only talking about $21.8 million, which is a really small dollar amount. There are billions of dollars that are spent on transportation in our community,” said Kitchen. “There’s been some concern that this is ward politics. I really just don’t agree with that.”

Kitchen said the committee “wasn’t aware of any desire on the part of Council to pass on the individual projects,” and so the resolution did not contemplate bringing a final list back for full Council approval.

Council voted to change that process with Council Member Don Zimmerman voting in opposition. The spending plans will now return to Council on Jan. 28.

But the process of dividing the funds among districts remains unchanged, with only Adler, Casar, Tovo and Council Member Pio Renteria voting in favor of the mayor’s other amendments, which would have filtered the Council members’ priorities through staff and allowed them to vet the recommendations before coming back to Council.

Adler explained that the city has professionals to help determine how to spend the city’s money “in ways that will have the greatest impact on the community” and that dividing the money “equitably,” as they had agreed to do earlier in the year, may not be the same as dividing the money “equally,” given the disparate needs in different areas of the city.

“Dividing money up on an equal basis may be politically expedient, but it creates problems,” said Adler. “To take any sum of money and to divide it up by the number of districts we have is a bad precedent to set.”

Austin Interfaith’s Bob Batlan agreed with this point and spoke against the effort to allocate quarter-cent funding equally. “We know that equal does not mean equitable. … Allocation of funding equally among the districts without regard to equity is not acceptable,” he said. “And the Council action does set a precedent even if that is not the intent, and even if it is a relatively small one-time pot of money.”

Kitchen maintained that the language did not propose an equal division of funds, because the resolution states that each district gets “no more than” $1.9 million, with any remaining money to go to citywide efforts.

However, Tovo and Casar quickly pointed out that that phrasing meant that, of the $21.8 million available, $19 million was being proposed to be divided by district.

“No Council member is required to submit any dollar amount. There’s a lot of what-if scenarios,” said Kitchen.

Several Council members, including Council Member Ora Houston, focused on the positives of having the spending allocated directly by Council members instead of through city staff.

“The people in District 1 were just ecstatic that they had an opportunity to identify for themselves what some of the transportation needs and uses of the quarter-cent fund were,” said Houston. “Because although I respect the expertise of the Transportation and Public Works departments, they live in One Texas Center, and there are people who live in the district. Sometimes those two don’t mix.”

On a purely logistical note, Casar worried about using the districts as boundaries, which may not work well for transportation needs.

Casar also said he was worried about the possibility of “this ramping up into something larger,” and that he was particularly concerned about the idea of Council members giving direction to staff and the potential for political patronage. Casar noted that the mayor’s proposal would not prevent the projects he had identified from getting funded, but he had identified those projects with the expectation that he would have to make a strong case as to why they should be funded to the entire Council.

Photo by Nicolas Nova made available through a Creative Commons License

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