More than a yard sign: Straddling the aisle in District 10
Friday, September 16, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT
District 10 is Austin’s wealthiest district – it boasts an annual median family income of $131,100. It’s also one of the city’s most sprawling districts, stretching from MoPac Boulevard to Lake Travis.
The race for District 10 is the most crowded among the five districts on the ballot. City Council Member Sheri Gallo is the current representative, and she faces three challengers – all who, like Gallo, espouse fiscal responsibility, but with some added twists. It’s a field of candidates who seem to straddle the political aisle: purple people, if you will.
To better inform voters, we thought we would focus on three of the big issues of the last year-and-a-half of Austin’s first 10-1 Council: the transportation bond, mandatory fingerprinting and the homestead tax exemption. We asked non-incumbents how they would have voted on these major issues. Then we added one more category: a pet project for incumbents and, for non-incumbents, what they’d like to focus on if elected.
It’s all part of a series we’re calling “More Than a Yard Sign.” The previous four installments, which focus on districts 2, 4, 6 and 7, are available here.
A former real estate broker and tax arbitrator, Sheri Gallo has been the moderate voice on Council. She toes the line between the small faction of conservatives and the majority of liberals on the dais, remaining conservative when it comes to spending but more liberal on social issues.
Gallo said it was about time Austin began spending significant money to improve its roads.
“I have been here through the many decades of this community not really addressing traffic and not addressing spending the money to build infrastructure,” she said.
Gallo supported mandatory fingerprinting when Council voted back in December. But when asked to vote on whether to accept the more lenient rules later written by Uber and Lyft in a petition, Gallo voted to accept the companies’ rules in place of putting it to a public vote.
She has since said the public’s decision to uphold Council’s rules created a huge opportunity for new business.
“We have given an opportunity as a community … for other companies to come forward and have an opportunity to grow a business,” she said.
While Gallo supported an 8 percent homestead exemption this year (up from 6 percent last year), she would have liked to have seen a larger increase. Council members last year voted to commit to a 20 percent homestead exemption over the course of four years.
“It was discouraging because I think we did have a commitment last year, and I think all of us ran on a commitment to get to the 20 percent, and we didn’t fulfill that commitment,” said Gallo.
Gallo said Austin’s biggest issues – affordability and traffic – are reflected in her district. She connects the two, saying that as more people are being pushed to outerlying districts, like her own, in search of cheaper housing (although, it’s unclear how affordable housing would be in the city’s wealthiest district), traffic only worsens when those same people are commuting downtown.
Rob Walker is a former university professor and current international tax consultant.
Because of unspecified costs and how most of the money will be spent, Walker said he would not have supported the $720 million transportation bond. City staff has acknowledged that fully funding all of the corridor plans in the bond would cost closer to $1.5 billion.
“Most of it is now going to corridor beautification and improvement, and I think that’s meritorious, but the problem is we have a serious traffic bottleneck problem now,” said Walker.
Walker said he would have tried to broker a compromise to keep ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft in town, questioning why the city felt a need to add “another level of bureaucracy.”
“Our 18-year-old daughter was working on South Congress, and she was getting off at midnight, and Uber was a real blessing to her,” added Walker.
While Walker supports increasing the city’s homestead exemption above its current 8 percent, he said going much higher might not do much good.
“I’m not sure 20 percent, given the number of renters, would be appropriate,” said Walker.
Walker said that while Council members work hard to address all of their constituents’ concerns, the result is that “we’ve come up with a number of unfunded mandates, which are pushing the spending right up against the budget cap.”
A recent University of Texas graduate, Virden was born and raised in District 10. While on campus, he worked for a student chapter of libertarians.
Virden said he would have supported breaking up the bond package so that the public could have had more of a choice when it comes to how much to spend and on what.
“If we can make little investments like that, instead of putting this one-size-fits-all, kind of all-or-nothing bond up to people, I think it would be more prudent for the City Council and a better stewardship of our taxpayer dollars,” he said.
“The name-based background checks do just as good as the federal fingerprint background checks,” said Virden, adding that the city took the wrong approach to the ride-hailing regulation discussion. Instead, said Virden, Council should have made it easier for cab companies to compete with companies like Uber and Lyft.
Virden said he’s all for increasing the city’s homestead exemption in order to provide people relief on their property taxes.
“Every year (City Council members) tell us we’re not going to pay more in taxes, but property taxes go up every year,” he said.
Virden said he often hears his parents complaining about the property taxes owed on their home in District 10.
“I am never going to vote for a tax increase if I don’t think it’s going to make the city better,” he said.
A former university professor, Alison Alter has spent much of her time in Austin advocating for park improvements. She currently works as a philanthropic consultant and previously served on the city’s Parks and Recreation Board.
Alter said that because the city has failed to significantly invest in its transportation system, this $720 million bond is greatly needed. But, she cautioned, the city needs to maintain coffers outside of bonds for larger projects, such as road improvements.
“We need to set ourselves up in the future so that we don’t have to strictly rely on bonds and that we can be ready to make the investments we need, as they’re needed, in a way that has been more efficient than we’ve done in the past,” she said.
Alter said she would have supported Mayor Steve Adler’s plan for optional fingerprinting of ride-hailing drivers. But, she said, the voters have spoken. They upheld the tighter regulations passed by Council, and that decision needs to be respected.
While she supports tax relief in the form of an increased homestead exemption, Alter said that it’s only one tool the city has to help bring down the costs for residents. And, she said, the city needs to be more realistic about the cuts needed to make something like a large homestead exemption feasible.
Alter said she would like to see more of the infrastructure costs of development, such as drainage and greenspace, borne by developers rather than residents of nearby neighborhoods.
“I want to find that common ground that is between NIMBY and density at all costs, which I call common sense,” said Alter.
Photos courtesy of KUT. This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.
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