2017: A Monitor year in review
City Manager search
Oh boy. City Council closed out the year by (finally) appointing new City Manager Spencer Cronk more than a year after former manager Marc Ott announced his departure. That is great news for a city that has been in a bit of a holding pattern as the position remained filled on an interim basis. However, the voyage to hiring Cronk was a bit bumpy (to say the least). In creating the hiring process, Council opted to keep the names of contenders secret in the hopes of attracting the best candidates for the job. That didn’t go so well. There was a lawsuit, there was a chase, there were vans – and eventually there was capitulation as Council released the names of the top candidates after making sure it was okay with them.
Even though the city started the year with high hopes that it would finish 2017 with three new public safety labor contracts, the only one successfully concluded was with the Austin Firefighters Association. That leaves Austin police operating mostly under state law as opposed to a contract and its attendant perks, as well as rules designed to make the force more diverse. Interim City Manager Elaine Hart sent a memo to Mayor Steve Adler and City Council enumerating some of those changes on Dec. 21. She explained that the city will not be able to continue certain items after the expiration of the contract today, Dec. 29.
The Austin Police Department will see a significant increase in overtime, she wrote, because “with the expiration of the current labor agreement, lieutenants and commanders will no longer be exempt employees under state civil service law.” Those employees are important in ensuring that senior leadership is involved in community policing, Hart said. In addition, she promised Council that she would send it an analysis of the city’s options concerning police oversight by the Office of the Police Monitor and the Citizen Review Panel after the first of the year.
As for the contract with Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services employees, it’s easy enough to explain but difficult to remedy. The city’s interim labor relations officer, Larry Watts (who has since returned to retirement), told Council in November that the two sides were simply too far apart to justify continued negotiations at that time. According to EMS Chief Ernie Rodriguez, it would have taken an additional $5.5 million to $7 million to close the gap between what the city was offering and what the association was seeking. Hart told Council that even if the union had been willing to reduce its request by a million dollars she still would have been required to dip into reserves, using “one-time money to pay for an ongoing contract cost,” and she could not recommend doing that.
One of the biggest stories around City Hall in 2017 was the battle to keep the names of candidates for Austin city manager a secret. In addition to pursuing Council and the candidates at the airport, the Austin American-Statesman sued the city over its alleged violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act. That suit is still pending. However, with attorney Bill Aleshire in hot pursuit, City Hall continues to rack up legal bills over alleged violations of the act. Representatives of neighborhoods near City Park Road who opposed variances to the number of environmental ordinances on the Champion tract hired Aleshire after they decided there was something amiss about a posting on a City Council agenda in November 2016. The Lake Austin Collective sued the city over those open meetings violations and District Judge Scott Jenkins ruled in its favor this November. Council took up the matter once again on Dec. 14, this time with the language Aleshire and the plaintiffs considered appropriate. The matter is now going to the city’s Environmental Commission. Once again, Aleshire has notified the city that the posting language for that Jan. 3 meeting is insufficient. However, this time an attorney with the city has assured Aleshire that the posting language will be corrected. But in a surprise move on Thursday, Dec. 28, the city attorney’s office filed a notice that it would be appealing Judge Jenkins’ ruling to the state’s 3rd Court of Appeals.
Downtown puzzle/HOT revenue
The Hotel Occupancy Tax was a HOT topic in 2017, as City Council tackled options for the ballooning resource in earnest. One of those options is now a done deal: The city now has the option of allocating up to 15 percent of hotel occupancy funds annually (that was about $12 million this year) for historic preservation of park facilities. Though a unanimous Council eventually approved the change, the discussion leading up to the vote was a bit intense. The HOT fund switch was pitted against Mayor Adler’s “downtown puzzle,” which seeks to use tourism dollars to fund a number of things – most notably an expansion of the Austin Convention Center and solutions for homelessness. The solution to that puzzle is another issue that will carry on into the new year.
Austin’s lobbyists breathed a sigh of relief when legislators finally went home this summer after a regular legislative session as well as a special session. It wasn’t that the city emerged unscathed, but things could’ve been worse, according to representatives for Austin and other cities. Senate Bill 4, the so-called “sanctuary cities” bill, was a priority for Gov. Greg Abbott, among others. It forbids cities and counties as well as universities from instructing their officers not to inquire about a person’s immigration status. It also forces local sheriffs, notably Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, to comply with all detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Austin joined Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, the small border city of El Cenizo, and Maverick and El Paso counties, in suing to overturn the law. The matter is now pending before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Regardless of how that court rules, the matter will likely end up at the U.S. Supreme Court. Although SB 4 received the most attention, passage of legislation preventing the city from annexing any area without a vote of the population is likely to have the greatest long-term negative impact on Austin. Legislators also took away Austin’s authority to regulate transportation network companies and to collect so-called linkage fees, which City Council hoped to use to help fund affordable housing. Finally, legislators have been attacking Austin’s tree ordinance since at least 2013 and 2017 was no exception. However, instead of eliminating the law entirely, they amended it to make it easier on developers.
After much hand-wringing, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board of directors approved in November a landmark overhaul of the agency’s fixed-route bus network. The realignment, set to take place in June 2018, will increase the number of high-frequency routes that operate every 15 minutes or less during the busiest hours. However, those improvements come at the cost of reduced geographic coverage and the scotching of several low-ridership routes. The board sat through several extended rounds of public comment that featured scores of riders who were upset with the proposed changes. And the ultimate approval of the realignment, which marks the largest implementation so far of the Connections 2025 service plan the board adopted in early 2017, showed a less-than-united board. Both Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion and Austin City Council Member Delia Garza voted against the changes. Whether the service changes will lure more people back onto Capital Metro’s buses remains one of the most gripping questions of 2018 (for some transit reporters, at least).
Aquatic Master Plan
This year also saw the release of the long-awaited report on city pools. After five years of study and countless meetings, the report was released and the news was … not good. Facing huge expenses and the threat of pool closures, City Council opted to study the issue just a little more, and formed a task force to study options now that all the problems are known. This is yet another issue that will carry on into the new year, where those options will have to be explored in earnest (along with the prospect of a bond election, probably).
2018 could also be the year that brings us a brand-new light rail proposal. Or not. The Capital Metropolitan Transit Authority’s wizards spent 2017 toiling away on Project Connect, the high-capacity transit investment planning process that originally birthed the failed 2014 rail idea. After months of interfacing with the public and particular stakeholders, the planners identified several corridors that could rate new infrastructure such as light rail or bus rapid transit (an enhanced bus service that mimics rail at a fraction of the capital costs). In several months, we’ll find out the specific recommendations for modes as Project Connect planners pivot to outlining possible funding options for a network of investments. Whether that includes light rail on the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor or BRT on East Riverside Drive remains to be seen, but it’s unlikely that BRT will be seen on Interstate 35, as the state’s plans for reconstructing that roadway are in complete flux right now. Another very important certainty about Project Connect: no gondolas.
Dripping Springs discharge permit
The city of Austin and two aquifer districts, as well as the Hays County group Protect Our Water, continued to fight against a permit for Dripping Springs to discharge 995,000 gallons of effluent into a tributary of Onion Creek. Dripping Springs argues that it will be using the water for irrigation and only rarely will the effluent go into the creek. Austin City Council rejected a proposed settlement agreement with Dripping Springs on Dec. 7. Staff at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have approved a draft permit and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which under the previous administration had questioned the permit, dropped its objections this summer. TCEQ will likely consider the matter in January and could send it to the state hearings examiner, putting the date for a final decision sometime this spring. The Austin Monitor has been reporting on this story for nearly four years, since Dripping Springs first announced its plan.
Budget and proposed AISD tax swap
City Council went through a sometimes tense, sometimes confusing and frequently – for both those watching and those participating – exasperating exercise during the three days that it considered the Fiscal Year 2017-18 budget. Because about 66 percent of that budget is devoted to public safety, and much of that, as well as the rest, to salaries, there wasn’t that much that this Council could do. Previous councils have understood and accepted that the system has already dictated how most of that money will be spent. However, several members of this Council have struggled with the idea that they really only dictate how about $5 million will be spent. Mayor Steve Adler sponsored the idea of a “tax swap” with the Austin Independent School District, a plan that at first glance seemed to be fairer to Austin taxpayers than the state’s “Robin Hood” system of funding schools. However, the plan would not have been particularly fair to senior citizens, whose AISD taxes are already frozen, and people living in other school districts, such as Del Valle. Ultimately, the idea didn’t work, and Adler accepted that.
There was a fair amount of worry leading up to the Austin Independent School District Bond election. Was the proposition too ambitious? Would vocal opposition from the east side sink its chances? But, in the end, the $1.05 billion package easily sailed to victory, winning more than 72 percent of voters’ support. Now AISD can move forward with updates, renovations and construction on campuses across the district after things got off to a bit of a rough start.
Travis County bond
It seems that every year someone tries to start a narrative about voters finally wearying of big-budget bond referendums. When such a referendum came up short in Round Rock last May, pessimism abounded and trepidation hung heavy, especially among the Travis County Citizens Bond Advisory Committee. The CBAC had been given the arduous task of whittling away $1 billion in potential transportation and parks projects into a pair of propositions for voters to weigh in on come November. Contrary to any anxieties, the total $184 million package waltzed through election day with 73 percent of the electorate’s support. “Wiser heads than mine who are real political junkies who run these kinds of numbers and statistics and surveys and whatnot are saying to me that this is a Trump backlash and that people wanted to do something locally that showed progress,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt recently told the Monitor. Now it’s up to county staff to get the approved projects through the bureaucratic process and out the door.
MoPac Express Lanes
The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority pulled off in 2017 a tremendous achievement that many of us never thought possible: It finally opened the heavily delayed express toll lanes between downtown Austin and Parmer Lane. Originally scheduled for completion in the fall of 2015, the project hit snafu after snafu, creating major headaches for commuters while also – silver lining! – inspiring a beloved parody account on Twitter. Now that both the northbound and southbound lanes are completely open, the CTRMA is keeping a close eye on how it is changing the traffic paradigm along the corridor. So far, the lesson seems to be that the end of major construction and the added capacity have induced demand along the MoPac Expressway, leading to an increase of approximately 20,000 new trips each day. The story of 2018 will be the continued nighttime work to finish the sound walls and other auxiliary projects, as well as how the CTRMA mitigates unexpected choke points near downtown Austin, not to mention how it advances its nascent plans to extend the express lanes south of Lady Bird Lake.
Obviously, CodeNEXT will continue to be a big story in 2018, but it would be remiss not to include it on this year’s list as well. 2017 was the year that Austin’s civic focus turned to CodeNEXT in earnest with the release of the first and second drafts of the new Land Development Code. So far, that has meant a lot of meetings and a lot of fear about what the new code will (and won’t) do to Austin. The release of the 1,300 (or so) pages of new code also presented some logistical problems as everyone (us included) struggled with how to communicate about such a massive undertaking. This past year also saw emerging lines drawn over the various issues contained within the code, and debates over whether the rewrite should move forward or slow down. Look for all of these things (and more?) to continue in the new year.
So if voters are engaged and ready to approve big referendums as a snub to President Donald Trump, does that mean the county is racing to put together another bond package to fund a new civil and family courthouse? Probably not, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Monitor. After the failed courthouse election of 2015, the county’s planners have been assembling a new path to securing a replacement for the aging Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse. Those efforts hit a milestone achievement in 2017 when the county struck a deal with private developers to take over the downtown property that would have been the courthouse site had the 2015 vote gone the other way. The deal, worth a total of $430 million over the 99-year ground lease, will help fund the eventual courthouse’s construction. While the location is still yet to be determined, Eckhardt hinted that big news involving a private property owner could be coming in January. As for the chances of another bond election, she suggested the nature of the deal might preclude the need for such a scenario.
The new year will feature the same old drama regarding Central Health, the hospital district created to care for the most vulnerable Travis County residents. The district’s partnership with the University of Texas’ Dell Medical School and Seton Healthcare Family that includes a $35 million transfer from the district to the school each year has drawn fire from a small band of determined activists. To them, state law clearly mandates that Central Health can only spend its money on health care for the indigent and that any of the transfer payments used by UT on things such as school administration or faculty recruitment is illegal. Relentless pressing of the issue at Commissioners Court meetings by attorneys Fred Lewis and Bob Ozer helped birth a lawsuit against the district brought by attorney Phil Durst on behalf of several residents from the east side of the county. While everyone from County Attorney David Escamilla to state Sen. Kirk Watson insists that the arrangement between Central Health and UT is entirely aboveboard, a judge’s ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would be, to say the least, a radical game changer for institutions, plans and politicians in Travis County.
Written by Jo Clifton, Caleb Pritchard and Elizabeth Pagano.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
AISD: Austin's largest school district, AISD is the Austin Independent School District.
Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.
Capital Metro: The city’s urban transportation system.
CTRMA: The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. A governmental agency created, according to its web site, in 2002 to "improve the transportation system in Williamson and Travis counties." The site also notes that the agency's "mission is to implement innovative, multi-modal transportation solutions that reduce congestion and create transportation choices that enhance quality of life and economic vitality." In addition to other responsibilities, the agency oversees a set of toll roads in the region.
Travis County: Travis County is the urban county that includes, notably, Austin.