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2016: Adler’s very big year

Wednesday, January 4, 2017 by Jo Clifton

The past year was definitely a banner one for Mayor Steve Adler, who started 2016 by calling for it to be “the year of mobility.” He was probably not thinking about transportation network companies Uber and Lyft leaving town in a snit after losing the May referendum on whether they should be required to follow city rules. But things got better for Adler after that.

With help from his colleagues and allies in the business and biking/hiking communities, Adler pushed the idea that voters would approve the biggest bond in the history of Austin, a $720 million transportation bond – and he was right.

The bond election appears to have borne fruit right away. For example, the election included $46 million for improvements to Loop 360, and members of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board have voted to direct the Texas Transportation Commission to dedicate $204 million to the project, which will eliminate all the stoplights on Loop 360.

One of the city’s projects that failed in the courtroom was reform of the state’s property tax appraisal system. Adler, along with Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and most of their colleagues, backed a lawsuit that was a long shot from the start. However, Adler noted that the Travis Central Appraisal District has done an excellent job in revamping some of its appraisal methods and that he no longer believed that the city should pursue a lawsuit.

In rejecting the city’s arguments, judges with the 3rd Court of Appeals said the city should look to the Texas Legislature, not the courts, to correct inequities in the state’s property tax system. And Adler would certainly be willing to work with legislators to do that, but he will probably not get that chance in 2017.

The mayor told the Austin Monitor, “Certainly it hasn’t shown up on any (legislator’s) agenda of items. So far, mostly what you hear is the desire to put in the cap” on the percentage increase local governments can raise property taxes without triggering a rollback election.

The current cap is 8 percent, and legislative leaders have proposed cutting that to 4 percent. Adler said such a cut “would provide very little tax relief but be very disruptive in a city’s ability to provide basic services.”

“If the Legislature really wanted to do something about the property tax load that people were feeling, they would take on school finance reform,” he said.

He pointed out that Texas school districts charge “two-and-a-half times what cities charge in property taxes.”

The Monitor asked Adler what he could do to prevent the Legislature from overturning regulations enacted by the city. “Ultimately, our argument is the level of government that’s closest to the people is the one that’s most directly representative of their interests,” he said.

“I see the Austin voter when I go to the grocery store, when I’m at a restaurant and out walking, and folks that live here are not shy about telling me everything I should be working on and when I’m doing things that are good and when I’m doing things that they think are not. The voters of Austin do not have the same contact with most of the Legislature. So I’m just a firm believer in liberty and local control.

“I also think that it’s healthy for the state to have different kinds of cities,” Adler continued. “It’s like having a diversified portfolio in a retirement account – different market conditions for different times. Houston’s economy is going to be more based on energy issues, and Dallas probably more on finances, and Austin on innovation and creative issues.”

Austin, which makes up only 7 percent of the state’s population, represents one half of the state’s venture capital and one third of the state’s patents, Adler noted. “There’s a reason for that. What is weird to some is home to innovative, creative people. Google and Facebook and Apple, those companies are here in large part because the people that they want to have working for them want to live here. So Austin and its quirks is an important part of the balanced economy in the state.

“And one of the reasons why people want to live in Austin, as opposed to other cities in Texas, is because we’re different, and those differences – that are the will of the people – take their form in the ordinances” their elected officials enact, Adler said.

For 2017, one of the city’s biggest projects will be one that has long been in the works: CodeNEXT, the rewrite of the Land Development Code. The process has already been lengthy and arduous, but the fireworks have not even really begun. Until the plan is finally unveiled Jan. 30, anticipation will continue to vie with trepidation among neighborhood leaders.

Adler said he was anxious for the CodeNEXT Citizens Advisory Group to finish its work and hand it off to the Planning Commission. He said he anticipates that the commission will hand it over to City Council sometime in October or November, and he hopes Council will be able to vote on it next December.

Also in 2017, there is a possibility of eliminating some or all of the Council committees. Council Member Leslie Pool has posted a lengthy message on the Council message board indicating that she and several of her colleagues are interested in revamping the committee system. The system, set up when the 10-1 Council took office two years ago, was initially seen as a way to eliminate some of the hours Council spent in meetings, but it has had the opposite effect.

Adler said he would welcome a total revamp, perhaps eliminating most of the committees in favor of having ad hoc groups of Council members.

For example, he said he would like a committee to focus on what should happen with the remaining unused pieces of state land. The committee would work on not only the possible uses for those properties but also a finance strategy so the city could buy them, “when and if they are offered to us by the state,” he said.

Adler told the Monitor that he has more big plans for 2017. Those plans will likely include expansion of the convention center, funded at least in part by a 2 percent increase in the city’s hotel occupancy tax, which is currently 9 percent. (The overall tax is 15 percent, with 6 percent tagged on by the state.) Plans also include an expansion of the Waller Creek tax increment financing district, or TIF, in order to finance what Adler calls the Waller Creek Linear Park.

Other parts of Adler’s big plan for 2017 include a dedicated funding stream for the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, known as ARCH; more funding and perhaps an additional TIF for the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center; and enhancement of downtown mobility and capital improvements to realign streets around the Dell Medical School. Adler laid out the outlines of his plans on the Council message board on Dec. 22.

The mayor is currently on vacation in Africa but will return in time for the installation of two new members of Council on Jan. 6.

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