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Mayor Steve Adler says it was a very good year

Wednesday, January 6, 2016 by Jo Clifton

One year into his term, Mayor Steve Adler says there are so many things to do that being the top elected leader of the city requires his attention 18 hours a day. He took one of those hours – on a Sunday – to talk with the Austin Monitor about 2015 and some of his plans for 2016.

One of Adler’s top priorities for the coming year is to work with other regional leaders to improve mobility, particularly on I–35. He is not alone in thinking that November 2016 would be a good time for Austin to have a transportation bond election. But his vision of that election is much broader.

Adler said he would like to see the same bond proposition on the November ballots in several Central Texas jurisdictions, each authorizing a different amount of money depending on the jurisdiction but all working toward the same goal of improving mobility on I-35.

He said discussions with Hays County Commissioner Will Conley and Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long, who are the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, have been positive.

From Austin’s perspective, Adler said, he would like to see a focus on a managed lane system for I-35, “hopefully a proposal that has the lanes depressed” – a scenario Austin transportation planners have talked about for years.

Adler said, “If everybody in Central Texas had the same I-35 proposition on their ballot, recognizing that each taxing entity’s contribution would be different, that would be the first time that’s ever happened. I think it would give us real considerable clout in pulling down state dollars, and we might be able to pull down some federal dollars that we might not otherwise get. I think if Central Texas was joining together on something, it would carry great weight.”

But he added that Austin has many other transportation infrastructure needs that the city must take care of, including acting on the corridor studies for Lamar Boulevard and Burnet Road, for example.

What to do about mobility is just one of many regional conversations that the mayor finds exciting.

City Council approved an item on its Dec. 17 agenda directing staff to ask the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to enact a new wastewater dispersal rule that could help protect Barton Springs and other environmentally sensitive sources of water.

After months of work by the city’s environmental staff – as well as by Adler, Mayor Todd Purcell of Dripping Springs and that city’s much smaller staff – both mayors are now ready to ask the TCEQ for a new rule that would allow Dripping Springs to get credit for spraying its effluent in areas, such as rights-of-way, that the city owns. Under the current rules, Dripping Springs would not get credit for that and would not do it.

Austin and the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District have been concerned because Dripping Springs plans to discharge nearly 200,000 gallons of treated wastewater each day into Onion Creek and its tributaries by 2023. If the TCEQ approves the rule, it is no guarantee that Dripping Springs will give up its discharge plan, but it might help to at least give the city another way to manage its effluent.

Additionally, other entities that need to manage wastewater might find the rule beneficial, and it could help cities and water districts save water being used for irrigation. Adler said he did not know exactly how long it would take before the rule is enacted, but it would be a win for everyone involved.

He noted that another reason it was important to help Dripping Springs with drafting the rule is that the Legislature passed a law making it more difficult for cities like Austin to challenge discharge permits of other entities at the TCEQ. However, if Dripping Springs does decide to pursue the effluent discharge permit, Austin may still file an objection.

Still along the lines of working with another taxing jurisdiction, Adler noted that the city has been working with the Austin Independent School District on an idea he called a “tax swap.” That means the city may begin paying for some services that the school district has traditionally paid for, such as providing school crossing guards, he said.

If that were to happen, Adler said, the city would raise taxes to pay for the guards, but the school district would lower its tax rate by the same amount that the city raised its rate. That way, taxpayers would be paying no more than they had before. The difference, of course, is that the state would not be taking away part of the money as it does now under the school finance plan known as “Robin Hood.” He stressed that this plan needs considerable vetting and would not move forward without assurances that it is legal.

When the 10-1 Council took office in January, it was determined to do things in a more effective and inclusive way than its predecessors. Adler, among others, has not been reticent about saying the new system is better than the one it replaced.

Adler told the Monitor that he believes the new system, with committees doing early work on a wide variety of issues, worked well, although it could use some improvements. He is clearly proud of the work they have done.

“This was a good year. We hit some really tough issues, and the processes that we set up at the beginning of the year, I think, helped us be able to deal with those issues constructively,” he said.

Referring to the committee structure, he said, “It hasn’t been perfect, but I think it’s been better” than what past councils did “in terms of making sure that some of the things that have gone to committees have been vetted more, (and done) more publicly, than they might otherwise have been,” he added.

Adler referred to the long series of policy “deep dives” that the Council went through at the beginning of 2015, saying that he thought that those briefings and discussions paid dividends later in the year as Council members were grappling with various issues. For one thing, they learned more about each other and gained a baseline level of information about the city, which they might not have had otherwise.

He also bragged that Council’s new budget process – which was spread out over a matter of weeks, rather than days – was superior to the old model. At the time, a lot of staff members complained privately that the new process was simply confusing.

Overall, Adler said, “We did several things that were structure-oriented. I think it was good to have (Council members) chairing committees where they had a citywide responsibility. I think that worked well so that people can’t just focus on what was important in their district but were forced to deal with things on a citywide level.”

However, he added, “There is nothing we did this year that couldn’t get better and shouldn’t get better. But I’m real pleased with what we did do.”

In 2016, he said, “It will become important for the Council to learn how to be more proactive, as opposed to reactive.” The Council agenda, which often includes more than 90 items, is part of what he sees as reactive, refereeing disputes and making decisions that are put before Council by city staff. All of those are necessary but do not fall in the category of the big things he would like Council to
tackle – such as affordability and mobility in Austin.

“Great cities do big things, and we need to do that,” he said. “We are a great city.”

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