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Mayor Pro Tem Tovo reflects on an “interesting” year

Tuesday, January 5, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

As the sole returning member of City Council, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo is able to offer a unique perspective on the past year. Tovo was re-elected to represent Central Austin’s District 9, which includes downtown, and was later elected mayor pro tem by her fellow Council members.

“It’s been an interesting year,” said Tovo.

Tovo said that she hasn’t changed how she interacts with her constituents under the new system per se. However, even though her focus has been reduced to a smaller geographical area than when she served as a Council member in the at-large system, Tovo said that she hears from “many more” constituents now.

“I believe the transition has done exactly what people hoped it would. Changing to a geographic system has definitely gotten many more people to the point where they feel comfortable picking up the phone and calling their Council member and asking for help where otherwise they might not have taken that route,” said Tovo. “We’re just hearing from more people, and that’s a good thing.”

In looking back over the past year, Tovo first singled out the TCAD challenge petition as a major accomplishment. Though that issue is not yet resolved, she points out that there is a lot more discussion about the issue, even at the state level, and hopes that there will be changes in the near future.

“I think it’s a very important issue,” said Tovo. “We’ve had a property tax system that many have said is broken, and they’ve repeated those arguments for years. We are finally as a municipality standing up and seeing if there is anything we can do to kind of right that balance between commercial and residential property valuations.”

Tovo also said she was happy that Council was revisiting some issues from the previous Council, like changes to the city’s Short-Term Rental Ordinance. She told the Austin Monitor that she was particularly happy about a push to remove Type 2 STRs from residential areas.

“I think we want to create communities where in our neighborhoods we have housing. Especially if we are talking about the scarcity of housing, the cost of housing, the fact that a lot of our central city schools are under-enrolled, … then we ought to be looking really carefully at our policies that are allowing the conversion of housing for residents to hotels for visitors,” said Tovo. “It’s illogical to have that policy on the books if we’re really serious about those housing goals.”

“I sense a change in public opinion. I think part of it is the escalating cost of housing, but I think, too, more and more of these have been built, and not just in the central city anymore,” said Tovo. “People started seeing this is a phenomenon not just in certain neighborhoods but a lot of neighborhoods. … I think that’s what started really capturing people’s attention.”

Tovo is also pleased with several policy decisions that could require on-site affordable housing for planned unit developments and in city density programs, instead of allowing developers to pay fees-in-lieu. In general, Tovo said the new Council had “taken some good steps” in regard to affordable housing this past year.

Switching focus to Austin Energy, Tovo lauded investment in solar energy and highlighted the work of the Low-Income Consumer Advisory Task Force. That work, she said, led to recommendations that will not only help reduce energy usage but also “help people stay in Austin” by offering help to those struggling to pay their bills.

There were some disappointments as well. Tovo said that she still thinks about the alcohol waiver granted to a business near the Texas School for the Deaf. “I am concerned because there is another restaurant down the way that was moving forward (with a similar waiver request), and then they pulled back. I think they will regard that other one as a precedent to move forward,” said Tovo. “It was not a major item on our agenda, but it concerns me.”

Tovo told the Monitor that neighbors have been clear that they do not want South Congress to become a bar-heavy entertainment district. “I think that’s one of the reasons that vote kind of rattles around in my brain sometimes. Our great spaces are great because we think thoughtfully about how we want them to develop,” said Tovo. “(Sixth Street) should be our cautionary tale about the kind of businesses we allow in some of these other areas.”

And, though Tovo said that, in general, she saw the changes to regulations for accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, as a positive thing, she was less keen on the details of those code amendments and how they came about.

“I found the changes that were made toward the end of that process, including on the last day, very distressing,” said Tovo. “Generally, I think we should have been more respectful of the neighborhood plans that are on the ground. We had some provisions before us that would have loosened the restrictions in a way that I think were more balanced, and I think we should have moved forward in that direction rather than take more dramatic action and take that dramatic action in a very limited amount of town, most of which happens to fall in my district.”

In the next year, Tovo is looking forward to collaborating with Travis County on the creation of a sobriety center that has been discussed for more than a decade. She also says that upcoming plans for the Palm School are a “major priority” for her. Tovo will be working with the county on the project and says that she hopes Travis County will take a look at the potential of the building. “And,” she said, “if they decide to sell it, I hope they make it available to other entities, especially including us.”

Tovo also hopes to iron out some of the kinks that still exist in the newly introduced Council committee system. She, like her colleagues, is looking forward to a less-intense schedule of committee meetings. She also told the Monitor that she plans to propose that the full Council consider holding public hearings for citywide issues, like ADUs, in which members and constituents have shown a strong interest, so that members have an opportunity to hear from the public.

“We’re retracing some of the same steps and some of the same points and some of the same discussions at committee and Council,” said Tovo. “It’s hard to figure out what the best path is.”

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