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Pool proud of 2017 budget actions

Wednesday, January 3, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Some of District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool’s biggest accomplishments for 2017 show up on a list of budget riders. That’s not the stuff of big headlines, but the kind of nitty-gritty details that make up the life of a government advocate.

For example, Pool worked to make sure that the city budget included $175,000 to replace Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services’ system for tracking medical records. As she told the Austin Monitor, EMS is required to share its information on patients with other medical providers upon transfer. However, its current software is outdated, making it difficult to track health data and integrate that data with other records systems. The city’s Public Safety Commission recommended the upgrade in March.

And sometimes a big item on the list may turn out to be making an argument to simply make the train slow down.

Pool noted that hers was one of the voices on City Council pushing for the CodeNEXT team to have more time before releasing its latest version of the new Land Development Code.

She said, “I had called for a breather.” One of the big problems, Pool said, is that “staff could hardly keep up with their day-to-day work,” while simultaneously trying to help consultants with CodeNEXT. She said the original timeline was unrealistic, and she is not sure how much longer the process will take. “But we will need to provide additional time” to do it correctly, she said.

From Pool’s point of view, one of the biggest problems is misinformation, and she said, “Fears in the community can be traced to the fact that the city didn’t have a communications plan.”

As for one of the biggest events for City Hall watchers, the selection of a new city manager, Pool had very little to say on the record. Needless to say, perhaps, Pool was not a fan of the process, as shown by text messages she exchanged with her chief of staff over whether she should go with the rest of Council into an inaccessible area of the airport to interview candidates. She said she is hopeful that now that a new manager has been selected this Council will not have to go through such a process again.

Returning to budget riders, Pool is very pleased that she was able to ensure that the budget included $100,000 to the Parks and Recreation Department to fund upgrades for facilities at Austin’s parks to allow them to serve children with disabilities. This includes bringing additional city playgrounds into compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, she said. The parks department is responsible for maintaining about 300 parks and 150 playgrounds, many of which are not fully ADA compliant.

According to Pool, the city’s ADA transition plan for parks has identified more than $80 million in projects over the next decade, so there is considerably more work to do in this area. However, failing to address the issue puts the city in jeopardy of being sued.

Pool said she is also enthusiastic about a program to help connect children with nature, even though not a lot of people know about it. She said the program particularly targets parents and kids in economically disadvantaged areas. As part of her budget work, Pool pushed for the funding, which includes $17,500 for marketing and media toolkits, including Spanish-language materials to help raise public awareness of the benefits of connecting to nature in Austin’s “Eastern Crescent.”

Pool pointed to a study by the RAND Corporation that found residents in low-income communities failed to access parks, in part, because of a lack of marketing and outreach efforts. In addition, Pool said that parents are sometimes afraid to take their kids to parks for safety reasons.

“With the good people at Westcave (Preserve) and the National Wildlife Federation and other groups in town,” she said, Austin was one of six cities in the nation that got a planning grant as well as an implementation grant to help the city get more people to access parks on the east side.

“Last month I went to Charlotte to sit on a panel to talk about … how we’re making a real change for areas that don’t have access or areas where people are afraid,” she said.

Along with Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, Pool pushed through a budget rider to fund an agreement with the University of Texas to study patterns of gentrification and displacement in Austin. She said the tool will allow different departments to analyze the impact of city policies on people vulnerable to displacement. Pool is not alone in noting that Austin is gentrifying at a rate considerably higher than most other major cities.

“We know it’s happening and happening fast but we are losing the information,” she said.

Pool said it is important that the city not do anything to cause displacement, referring to the Austin Revitalization Authority’s efforts on East 11th and 12th streets when African-American residents and businesses were relocated to Pflugerville under a plan the city agreed to in 1999.

“I’m hoping with the support of the rest of the Council that we don’t (displace anyone) inadvertently and the gentrification displacement study will give us the data we need,” she said.

When asked what could be done about gentrification, Pool said she was working with Tovo to slow down demolitions. One of Tovo’s ideas about requiring a $1,000 fee for all demolitions has already drawn fire, and is likely to face a legislative attempt to undo it.

As for legislative retribution, Pool said, “I don’t think the threat of legislative action should stop us from implementing policies that we deeply believe in because we are reflecting the values of our community. … We are the closest to the values of the residents.”

Another budget rider that Pool sponsored provides $240,000 for expanded hours and staffing at four city-owned cultural centers for what Pool calls “affordable creative space for arts events and performances.” The four facilities are the Asian American Resource Center, the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, the Dougherty Arts Center and the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center.

Finally, on Pool’s list of budget wins was an item to create a pilot “tree education” position with the city arborist to engage residents at schools and community events on the value of trees and the importance of conservation.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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