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Wednesday, February 17, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

State of the City: Adler pushes “big things”

It’s been just over a year since Mayor Steve Adler took office, and on Tuesday night, he delivered his second “State of Our City” address to a packed Zach Theatre.

The speech was different in tone than the one given last May, which remained focused firmly on the future. Though Adler praised his fellow City Council members individually and reflected on Austin’s many triumphs (including the city’s good-looking, if hipster-y, population), with a year under his belt, he also took time to address some of Council’s missteps before turning an eye to the future.

Adler dove right into addressing the communication issues surrounding the Pilot Knob deal, as well as the inordinate time spent on some issues (like transportation network companies). At one point, he joked about his legacy, envisioning the unveiling of the “Steve Adler Monument to Last-Minute Amendments and Innovative Abstractions” 20 years in the future. He even noted the relative insignificance of the homestead exemption – which he touted during his last speech – in comparison to the affordability crisis the city is now facing.

“I’m going to do something I’m probably not supposed to. I’m going to tell you that one of our big achievements from last year – helping to cut city property tax bills, saving the average homeowner $14 a year – was a great thing to do, but really did not mean as much as some might think,” said Adler. He noted that Austin has the second-fastest growing rate of suburban poverty in the country, and a family making the city’s median income can no longer qualify for a loan to buy a median-priced home in the city.

Against that backdrop, Adler announced a plan to conduct an “affordability audit” of city government. That audit, he explained, will look at what the city government is doing to make Austin more or less affordable. The $500,000 to fund the audit was earmarked for the creation of a sunset review process during the last budget cycle.

Following the speech, Adler told the Austin Monitor that the city manager’s Office of Performance Management is also moving forward, separately. He explained that after meeting with the mayor pro tem, the city manager and the city auditor, the “better idea emerged” to have an affordability audit instead.

“Everything that comes up before Council right now, if you want to get it passed, you say, ‘This will help with affordability,’” said Adler. “For us as a Council to really be able to make decisions and choices and set priorities, I think it would be really helpful for us to really know what it means – what are the real levers that impact affordability? … (I) think there is a good chance we will be surprised by what we are doing in terms of whether it is getting us closer or farther away from … how affordable this city seems to be.”

Adler also talked transportation, which he noted was the second-largest expense for Austin’s families. He reiterated the fact that 2016 “must be the year of mobility.” That year includes planning for a bond election, but Adler also name-checked corridor plans for roads like Lamar Boulevard and Burnet Road, more transit lanes for buses, express lanes for the city’s highways and even urban rail.

And, of course, there is I-35, for which he promised “big things” on the horizon, such as lowering lanes through downtown, which would allow for capping the road that he said “has divided the community for so long, but now unites us in frustration.”

Big things are also on the horizon for Austin Energy, perhaps. Adler said that if the utility’s business model is not reformed, the city faces the threat of the Legislature taking away control of the utility. Part of that reform, said Adler, is changing the “murky transfer of funds” from the utility to the general fund. Instead, Adler advocated for a model like the one used in San Antonio, where the city would be the owner and shareholder of Austin Energy and get “paid a dividend in a transparent and reliable manner.”

Alder also turned an eye to Council’s governance. He urged his fellow Council members to adopt an iterative leadership style that allows for “trying new things and adjusting when we receive new information.” He applied that philosophy to proposed changes to Council’s committee system, which he said was a chance to be more deliberative and to get away from the “either/or politics of the past.”

“We’re doing the right thing with the committee system, and by that, I mean we’ve tried it and are adjusting it,” said Adler. Referring to short-term rentals, transportation network companies and accessory dwelling units, Adler continued, “We spend a lot of time on three-letter emergencies – STRs, TNCs, ADUs – that seem to catch us flat-footed. These are important issues that might be best sorted in a calm fashion at successive work sessions. We can and we must, together, work through these issues in a way that does not eat up so much of our time.”

On the other hand, Adler touted some real wins since January 2015, including the approval of an estimated 5,342 affordable housing units now in the works, and the state’s first Homestead Preservation Districts.

“Over the next 10 years, it is projected that this Council will have put a combined $68.2 million dollars into the Housing Trust Fund and $5.6 million into the Homestead Preservation District, not including Pilot Knob,” said Adler.

Adler also announced that progress has been made on an Austin Affordable Community Trust, which he said would launch this year. The fund, he explained, would help preserve affordable housing stock that is rapidly disappearing and being replaced by newer, more expensive housing all around the city.

“We have assembled private, public and nonprofit sector professionals who are in the final stages of creating a funding mechanism to buy and preserve our affordable housing stock,” said Adler. “This strike fund will leverage private investment dollars, and we intend to also include opportunities for Austin residents to participate through crowdfunding and minibonds … to secure affordability now and into the future. This will, quite simply, give affordability a profit motive on a scale that no other city has imagined.”

In his 35-page speech, Adler managed to address an Austin Independent School District “tax swap” proposal, economic development in the city’s “Eastern Crescent,” workforce development, a new economic incentive policy, an equity office, improvements to the city’s permitting process and protections for the city’s music industry.

And, toward the end of the speech, a group of protesters brought up the issue of deportations. Chanting “less talk, more action,” a half dozen members of ICE Out of Austin were eventually led out of the theater after being booed by some members of the audience.

Addressing the media after the speech, Adler explained that he had been clear about his position on immigration and had spoken with the group in the past. “I think there are things we can do,” said Adler. “I’m not sure we agree on all of the strategic calls to be made to best help our community.”

Note: All quotes of the speech in this story were taken from the written version of the State of Our City address.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Mayor Steve Adler: Mayor of the city of Austin, elected in November 2014

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