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Kitchen hopes for longer budget process, shorter meetings in 2017

Thursday, December 29, 2016 by Jack Craver

After two years in office, City Council Member Ann Kitchen, who represents District 5’s long stretch of South Austin, is happy with what she has accomplished for her district and the city but says that Council could stand to improve the way it operates in a few key ways.

Kitchen is the only member of Council who previously held elected office; she did a two-year stint as a Democratic state representative between 2001 and 2003 – the last session in which her party controlled the state House of Representatives. While progressives played a greater role in state politics than than they do currently, said Kitchen, she finds city government in many ways more rewarding.

“At the city level, there’s an opportunity to be more innovative and directly connect your actions to solving problems for people,” she said. “Cities are ground zero for a lot of problems and a lot of change.”

The chair of Council’s Mobility Committee, Kitchen said she is pleased with what Council accomplished in that policy arena this year. After raising sharp objections to Mayor Steve Adler’s initial bond proposal over what she saw as a lack of funding for South Austin infrastructure, Kitchen was able to get more money for her district and ultimately became an enthusiastic advocate for the bond. In the end, she said, the bond was amended to provide “significant improvements to South Austin roads and South Austin corridors,” including the addition of William Cannon Drive and Slaughter Lane to the corridor plan.

Kitchen was at the center of another major transportation controversy over transportation network company regulations that threatened to oust her from office. Opponents of the TNC ordinance that was largely crafted by Kitchen tried and failed to recall her, and a May referendum to overturn the ordinance similarly went down in flames, leading Uber and Lyft to leave Austin in protest.

Kitchen is proud of the ride-sharing options that have emerged in response to the two global companies’ departure.

“We have a city where we’re not dependent on one or two companies,” she said. “We’re an innovative city, and we have an innovative group of TNCs, including one that was created here.”

However, much more work must be done on public transit, she said, and she is optimistic about Connections 2025, the plan proposed by the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority to deliver more frequent service.

“The buses don’t go often enough for them to be reliable transportation for people,” she said, adding that she is looking into pilot programs, including potentially with ride-sharing companies, to get people who may live too far away from a route to and from a bus stop.

Trying to get people to live closer to where they work is another transportation solution that Kitchen is working on. She added an amendment to the recently approved Grove at Shoal Creek planned unit development that will establish a pilot program aimed at getting employers located near the new development to help pay for a share of their low-wage employees’ rent if the workers choose to live in the Grove. Companies might see an advantage in paying for their employees to live nearby, she said.

Kitchen, who represents the flood-ravaged Onion Creek neighborhood, said the city has also made meaningful progress on flood mitigation. The city budget provided additional staff to the Watershed Protection Department to work on stormwater management and improvements to stream beds, as well as money to buy some Onion Creek homeowners out of their flood-damaged houses.

Kitchen said she is inclined to support another increase in the homestead tax exemption in the next budget, although she concedes that it is only “one tool” to deliver economic relief to residents. The city has other tools to help out the majority of Austinites who rent, she said.

She then noted that Council still isn’t managing meetings as well as it could. There are still too many meetings going into the early hours of the morning.

Similarly, Kitchen said she and her colleagues need to reform the budgeting process. She supports Adler’s plan to begin the process much earlier in the year, but she also would like to see the city adopt zero-based budgeting, a process by which city departments would request and justify funding for all existing programs and staff. Currently, departments only submit their requested changes, including additional programs or staff. Council needs to review the “whole thing, not just what the anticipated additional needs are,” she said.

Kitchen is pleased that Council will begin planning the budget shortly after it returns in January.

Asked how she feels about the implications of the presidential election and the state of national politics, Kitchen said she was “concerned” about a number of key federal policies that could change as a result of the new administration.

In particular, Kitchen said the repeal of the Affordable Care Act could have disastrous consequences for the community.

“If that federal program is not available to people, we will see a huge increase in needs in our community,” she said.

Nevertheless, Kitchen added, “As a city, we will step up to the plate wherever it’s needed and wherever we can make an impact.”

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