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Thursday, November 29, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Ward, Ellis offer contrasting views

Early voting starts today in City Council District 8, as well as Districts 1 and 3, for the Dec. 11 runoff elections.

Frank Ward, the outspoken Republican seeking to represent Southwest Austin’s District 8 on the Austin City Council, believes a substantial portion of Austin’s city government is broken. He also believes that the representative from District 8 should be markedly different – that is to say more conservative – than the other 10 members of the City Council, because the district is more conservative.

His opponent, progressive Democrat Paige Ellis, disagrees with that assessment. She told the Austin Monitor, “I think there is a misconception that we are a conservative district,” noting that “75 percent of the (Nov. 6) general election voters voted for progressive candidates.” Ellis bested two other Democrats in that election and they have since endorsed her. She also points to the fact that Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who chose not to run for re-election, beat the progressive candidate in 2014 by only 57 votes.

In response to a question about whether the city needs to address staffing issues in the code compliance area, Ward said, “There are many offices within the city that need to be addressed, and code compliance is certainly one of them. I think we have regulatory burdens within the city that cost us a lot of money and cost us a lot of time, and I think that reform is absolutely necessary.”

Speaking at the League of Women Voters forum on Monday, Ward added that he had been in favor of Proposition K, which proposed an audit of the entire city but failed at the ballot box. “Frankly, I think we’ve got a lot of elements of government here that are broken, that need fixing, that need addressing,” he told the audience.

Ellis answered that question quite differently. She cited the need for Southwest Austin to have “some sort of satellite office,” so that code department employees would not have to trek through Austin traffic in order to do their inspections and other duties.

Ellis acknowledged in a conversation with the Austin Monitor that the code department in particular has dealt with a number of problems and still has issues. She described meeting a man in her district who was at his wits’ end because the next-door neighbor was operating an unlicensed short-term rental and the tenants had loud parties that kept him awake at night. Ellis went by several times to talk to the man; the last time she saw him, he was planning on selling his home. He showed her a letter from the city indicating that the neighbor had gotten approval for an STR – but only after dozens of calls to code compliance.

“That’s a really hard story to hear,” Ellis said, though she did not attribute the department’s failures to any ill intent. “I think it’s just a matter of if they have enough staffing and what types of procedures they are able to follow to try to attend to all of the issues that a big city like Austin is going to have.” However, Ellis said, she thought the city was generally doing a good job.

While she is focused on affordability and maintaining existing housing stock, her number-one issue is environmental protection. District 8 is the home of Barton Springs and other sensitive watersheds as well as several endangered species.

Ellis, an environmental marketing consultant, speaks enthusiastically about watershed issues and said there are a number of projects she would like to undertake immediately.

“I would want to look at areas of District 8 where we might be able to increase our watershed protection through increasing our green spaces or otherwise handle stormwater drainage in a manner that is safer for the residents in the southern part of the district,” she said.

She gave as an example a couple of very narrow bridges over waterways that have no guardrails.

Ward said during Monday’s forum, “My number-one goal is to lower property taxes,” and expressed a hope to raise the homestead exemption – which is currently at 10 percent – first to 15 percent and then to 20 percent.

But later, in a conversation with the Monitor, Ward said he would like the city to grant additional homestead exemptions to all of the city’s first responders. He did not know what the additional percentage might be, noting that the idea should be studied to see what impact it would have on the city budget. The Austin Firefighters Association and the Austin Police Association have both endorsed Ward. He has also won the endorsement of the Travis County Republican Party, the Hill Country Republican Women and the Austin Board of Realtors. The Austin Homebuilders Association and the Building Owners and Managers Association have also endorsed Ward.

It is established Austin lore that many of the city’s police, firefighters and EMS employees live outside the city. However, city spokesman David Green said the city does not have any information on how many police, fire and EMS employees live in Austin and how many live outside the city.

When asked her thoughts on the idea of an added homestead exemption for first responders, Ellis said, “I would like to address affordability in a comprehensive way. Many people working in Austin can’t afford to live here due to lack of housing supply and how that affects property values.”

Ellis has been endorsed by the Travis County Democratic Party, the Texas Democratic Party and numerous other Democratic groups, as well as The Austin Chronicle, the Central Labor Council and individual unions. In addition, Mayor Steve Adler and Council members Ann Kitchen, Delia Garza and Greg Casar have endorsed her.

The Monitor asked both candidates whether they would continue with their current jobs if elected to Council. Ward, who works as a corporate communications consultant, said that he, like Troxclair, would continue his current employment. He cited Troxclair’s example, saying that it would help him to understand Austinites’ struggle. He said he thought he also would need the additional money to support his family.

Ellis said if elected she would quit her current job and devote all of her energies to City Council.

According to The Texas Tribune, Council members were each paid a salary of $76,086 a year as of March.

In 2017, Troxclair testified in favor of Senate Bill 2, which would have prevented cities and counties from raising taxes by more than 4 percent above the effective tax rate from one year to the next. Adler, who has endorsed Ellis, testified against the bill, which eventually died. Troxclair’s actions angered a number of her colleagues, who publicly criticized her for taking a stand against the city’s interest.

Ward said if he is elected, he would like to work with his colleagues, not against them, on legislation, although he refused to make a firm commitment about testifying against the city’s positions. He said, “I know Ellen going up to the Capitol had an adverse effect on her relationships with some of her peers. I want to avoid having that similar outcome.”

Ward served as a legislative aide to former Senator Florence Shapiro, who chaired the Senate Education Committee. Like many people, Ward acknowledges that Texas’ recapture system of school finance is unsustainable and he said he hopes the Legislature will work to fix that problem in 2019.

Ellis was adamant that she would never consider testifying against a position that Council as a whole had taken.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

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.

November 2018 elections

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