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Mayor talks taxes, mobility at RECA lunch

Thursday, February 21, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Mayor Steve Adler faced a friendly crowd at Wednesday’s Real Estate Council of Austin meeting. He spoke about his hopes for the future, outlined challenges the city faces in the areas of mobility, affordability and property taxes and answered questions from RECA board Chair Patrick Rose.

Right now, Adler said, Austin is the coolest place in the country; however, he added, “There is nothing sadder than the city that used to be the coolest.”

Even though Austin is the fastest-growing large metropolitan region in the nation, only 25 percent of current growth is within the city limits, he said, citing affordability and high property taxes as the major factors forcing growth outside the city.

And while there may be 30,000 jobs in Austin for those who have the training to do them, workforce development has not kept up with demand.

Listing all the ways in which Austin excels, Adler warned his audience – and members of the Texas Legislature who may hear or read about his speech – that Austinites will suffer if the Legislature moves forward with the proposed 2.5 percent cap on local property taxes.

When Adler talked about newly appointed Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales, the audience applauded. Noting that Gonzales has a big job ahead of him, with oversight of all the departments related to permitting development, the mayor said the new assistant city manager is “up to the challenge.” Technically, Gonzales is overseeing departments related to affordability and economic opportunity.

Adler said the city is committed to mass transit, but he has not decided whether it should be a rail system or a bus system. Either way, he said, the system must have dedicated lanes that do not take space away from existing traffic lanes.

He said he was sure that adding another four lanes to MoPac Expressway would speed up traffic for a while as well as increase property values in Leander, because more people would move there if they could get downtown quickly. However, Adler said, in two or three years MoPac would be just as crowded as it is today.

Adler said Council did the right thing by rejecting CodeNEXT and Rose said CodeNEXT 3.0 represented a step backward from the current code. Adler replied that the most important thing is not to get a new code done right away, but to get it done right.

Rose, a former legislator, brought up the lawsuit Attorney General Ken Paxton has filed against the city over the number of members of the Planning Commission who have experience in or ties to real estate. Rose said, “Real estate experience is an advantage or a strength, not a disqualifier. We scratched our heads, frankly, last July,” when Paxton filed the suit, “trying to deprive our boards and commissions of real estate experience. We thought that was crazy. I observed that sometimes Austin-bashing has a decidedly negative impact on the Austin business community. That was one of those cases.”

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison had been in the audience, but departed before Rose made his remarks. He said he was sorry she had left but added, “We want to applaud (her) and support her right to appoint someone with knowledge and expertise to the Planning Commission.” Harper-Madison said Tuesday that she plans to appoint Patrick Howard, executive director of the Housing Authority of Travis County, to the commission.

Although the Legislature’s proposed 2.5 percent cap on property tax increases does not specifically target Austin, it will result in a $50 million structural deficit for the city over three years, Adler said. Because nearly 70 percent of the city’s budget goes to public safety, “If we have to cut, we will be cutting public safety,” which means no new firehouses and layoffs of current employees. Adler said he has been hearing from groups like the Texas Association of Business and other conservative groups that recognize a 2.5 percent cap will not work. He suggested that the city is willing to work with the Legislature to come up with a solution, suggesting a lower cap than the current 8 percent if that cap excluded public safety expenditures.

Photo by Jo Clifton.

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