Monday, December 30, 2019 by Elizabeth Pagano

2019: Austin’s year in review


Homelessness


If there was one topic that dominated local news coverage this year – and there was – it was homelessness. In June, City Council voted to lift ordinances that essentially criminalized homelessness in the city, and most significantly, prohibited camping in public places. Council also announced the city would be building a new shelter in South Austin (a plan now scuttled in favor of converting hotels to serve that purpose). The timing probably could have been better – the vote to change the ordinance took place before the city’s summer break. In the month that followed, the city (and the governor) proceeded to freak out about the more visible presence of those experiencing homelessness in the city, and by the time Council convened to address the impact of the change, the conversation was at a boiling point. That vibe has carried on through the end of the year, with threatened action from the state, lawsuits, forums and countless meetings on the issue. It has been a heated year that has, at times, brought out the worst in our city, but it’s clear that all of the attention has resulted in galvanizing the resources aimed at helping some of Austin’s most vulnerable residents. During the budget process, Council voted to add a historic $62.7 million to address homelessness in this year’s budget, private entities have joined in on finding funding, and the city has increased efforts to find ways to help – a trend that will likely continue in 2020.


Land Development Code Rewrite


In late 2018, City Council made the surprising decision to abandon the costly, laborious, yearslong process to rewrite the city’s Land Development Code. That process was known as CodeNEXT (there were even koozies). In 2019, about a year after the old process collapsed, a new draft code appeared. And while there is no consensus on what that new process will be called (NEXTCodeNEXT? Son of CodeNEXT? Code Kronk?), and while there are no koozies this time around, the new months-old draft has already moved further than the previous process, with one vote of 7-4 at City Council already on the books. Though 2020, no doubt, promises a lot more discussion about the code (those four opposing votes from Pool, Tovo, Kitchen and Alter aren’t going anywhere in the new year and there is already a lawsuit), Council seems determined to stick to an ambitious timeline that would have the code approved by March, well ahead of the 2020 local elections that are right around the corner.


Property Tax Cap


Of late, most every Texas legislative session includes the looming threat of property tax caps for municipalities. Local governments and law enforcement almost uniformly warn that such a limit would kneecap cities, but this session the Legislature finally followed through on its threats and instituted a tax cap that lowers the amount the city and county can raise taxes (before requiring voter approval) from 8 percent to 3.5 percent. The impact of that change will hit hardest this budget season, when the municipalities must operate under the cap, with predictions that funding gaps will grow to more than $50 million by 2024 for the city. Travis County, too, is trying to figure out how to work under the new rules. For a region that has seen so much growth for so long, the idea of budget cutbacks is new territory and will likely shape the year to come.


AISD School Closures


After a successful bond election and a legislative session that featured school finance reform, the announcement of a plan to close 12 district schools caught many parents off-guard. Since then, the plan has been slightly revised to allow more time to consider the fates of Ridgetop Elementary, Maplewood Elementary, Joslin Elementary, Dawson Elementary, Palm Elementary, Pecan Springs Elementary, Webb Middle School and Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy. However, Sims, Metz, Pease and Brooke elementary schools are scheduled to close, after a vote by AISD trustees. This year, the plan moves forward with an official report calling the decision inequitable and short-sighted, a point sure to be raised in discussions to come.


Blue-Green Algae


Austin is one of the most dog-friendly cities in the country, so it was a shock when five dogs lost their lives this summer after swimming in lake water that contained toxic algae blooms. The city acted quickly to make sure everyone was aware of the problem and to limit access to the water. But the blooms are a product of climate change and are increasingly likely to occur, with no easy fix in sight.


Public Defender’s Office


Travis County finally approved funding for a public defender’s office in July. The office will handle about a third of all indigent cases, and will help ease the caseloads of private attorneys who have long complained that they are overburdened and underpaid.


Domain on Riverside


Every year seems to have a contentious zoning case, but few have reached the heights of conflict seen over the zoning of the 97-acre development at 4700 East Riverside Drive, dubbed the “Domain on Riverside.” The project, which will mean the demolition of a large swath of some of the last close-in affordable housing in the city, was widely criticized for its role in hastening gentrification on South Pleasant Valley. Despite the emotional testimony inside chambers, and the clashes with police outside of City Hall, Council approved the change in a 6-3-1 vote, with Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council members Leslie Pool and Greg Casar voting in opposition. Council Member Kathie Tovo was absent for the vote, and Council Member Alison Alter abstained.


Convention Center Expansion


The city continues to move forward with plans to expand the Austin Convention Center with a complicated plan that includes a 27-page resolution and an increase in the Hotel Occupancy Tax. The plan has also pitted the city against the county – which is unusual – over preservation of the Palm School, which is owned by the county but valued by the city, and the use of local hotel taxes toward the expansion of the convention center instead of the Travis County Expo Center.

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