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Thursday, January 4, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano
Troxclair continues to fight
In 2018, Council Member Ellen Troxclair will be having a baby and running for office in addition to continuing to serve as the lone conservative on City Council. Despite a crowded agenda ahead, Troxclair sat down with the Austin Monitor to take a look back at the past year’s wins and losses.
She started with the change to how Austin allocates its Hotel Occupancy Tax. Up until this year, the city was not taking advantage of a law that allowed up to 15 percent of HOT revenue to be spent on parks and preservation. Those funds have mirrored the city’s explosive growth – from about $50 million four years ago to almost $100 million today – so the change is significant, and Council now has the annual ability to put about $15 million into preservation efforts that might otherwise have come out of the budget or gone into a bond package.
“To me, that’s an important part of helping tourism pay for itself,” said Troxclair. “It was a really significant policy change and something that, hopefully in perpetuity, will allow us to provide more funding for historic preservation in parks.”
In this effort, Troxclair wasn’t alone. She built a coalition of not-always-like-minded Council members to tackle the issue. And, despite a fair bit of controversy over the switch over fears that it could derail the more-complicated “downtown puzzle” and expansion of the Austin Convention Center, the HOT reallocation ultimately won Council’s unanimous support. In the process, Council also managed to shift public safety costs for the South by Southwest festival from the city’s General Fund into the Visit Austin budget – essentially saving the city another million or so.
Within District 8, for the third year in a row, Troxclair was able to save money from her office budget for improvements in the district. This year, combined with a prize from the Parks and Recreation Department for recycling, she had more than $100,000 to spend on parks improvements. That went toward equipment compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act in Dick Nichols District Park and shade for another neighborhood park. She also celebrated the innovative land swap at Bowie High School that ultimately provided a way for a much-needed expansion of the school while preserving nearby land.
At the city level, she was able to put $420,000 toward property tax relief. She said that amount is much less than it should have been but more than what would have gone toward the effort “if it weren’t for her insistence.”
The District 8 rep has been similarly insistent about getting to solutions for those who feel that their water bills are suddenly, inexplicably high. Two years ago, that led to a change that allowed customers to quickly be reimbursed for overages that met certain criteria. This spring, an administrative decision that limited customers’ ability to dispute that reimbursement caused her to jump back into the issue with a fix and a move that strengthened the program.
Troxclair has also been down at the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, fighting proposed reductions in service for District 8. She explained her work there as “getting the board to realize that decreasing public transportation in an area that already doesn’t have much public transportation … especially around activity centers like the ‘Y’ at Oak Hill, or reducing service for disabled customers, is not the right direction.”
“We already have a park-and-ride there. … Why would you not service that?” asked Troxclair, though she seemed bolstered by recent changes that she said would be better for the district. “If it weren’t for 10-1, I think my district would be left out of the conversation,” she added.
Breaking from the official city legislative agenda, Troxclair testified on a number of items during this year’s session of the Texas Legislature – much to the consternation of her colleagues.
“There was a work session (where City Council) went around the room and they all chimed in and chastised me for going to the Capitol. They told me we were allowed to disagree within City Hall, but that outside of City Hall we all needed to advocate for the same things, which is not how politics or life works,” she said. “I believe what I believe, and I was elected on those principles.”
She backed up her beliefs to testify on state transportation network company rules that ultimately pre-empted the city’s regulations, leading to the return of Uber and Lyft to Austin. Troxclair also testified in support of Senate Bill 2, which was not successful. That legislation would have capped the amount the city could increase property taxes each year.
“It is unprecedented that we are increasing property taxes 8 percent year after year. And then, to do it in a time of booming growth where we are already getting new revenue from all of this development and sales tax and new property tax is totally out of line with anything the city has ever done … and, kind of, basic economics,” she says.
Along the same lines, Troxclair’s list of disappointments is topped by Council’s failure to increase the homestead exemption this past year. With the understanding that it would amount to 20 percent in four years, Council adopted an 8 percent exemption the first year, and barely approved a 2 percent exemption the next. This year, Troxclair was unable to find any support to increase the homestead exemption.
“I could not get co-sponsors to even put it on the agenda,” she said. “I feel like it’s a broken promise.”
She was also disappointed by the defeat of her affordability action plan, which was ultimately “indefinitely postponed” with no path back to the dais.
For Troxclair, so many of the issues Council is dealing with come back to the city’s rising cost of living: economic segregation, gentrification, homelessness, creative classes being pushed out. She worries that those issues aren’t truly being addressed.
“The people who are just trying to make ends meet … those people are the ones being pushed out of the city. I really see it as the existential crisis that the city is facing,” said Troxclair. “This impacts all of the things that make our city unique. These are the people that have made our city what it is, and they are the ones that really are being impacted the most by utility fees and property tax increases.”
Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
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.
District 8: District 8 contains three distinct neighborhoods, Oak Hill, Circle C and Travis Country. The district is bounded on the east by Brodie Lane, on the south by the Travis-Hays county line, on the north by Bee Cave road and on the west by the winding Austin city limits line. It also has the city’s biggest and most infamous traffic bottleneck – the Oak Hill Y, the convergence of US 290 and SH 71, squeezing traffic heading to and from South MoPac Boulevard and out into the Hill Country.
Ellen Troxclair: Austin City Council member for District 8