Mayor Steve Adler: Reflections on a challenging year
Friday, January 8, 2021 by Jo Clifton
At the start of 2020, Mayor Steve Adler was thinking about how to convince his colleagues to pass a new Land Development Code and how to convince the public to vote for a $7 billion mass transit bond proposal in November. He was not thinking about news from China about the deadly new coronavirus, and he was certainly not contemplating canceling South by Southwest, the multi-industry festival that brought 400,000 participants and $56 million to the city in 2019.
As the Austin Monitor reported on March 4, public health experts were not yet advising that the festival be canceled. But two days later, their advice changed and the mayor told SXSW sponsors that the emergency meant their gig had to be canceled.
“I think that it saved lives here, and frankly probably helped save lives around the country,” Adler said, during a conversation with the Monitor in late December. He pointed out that his role in the community changed when Covid-19 arrived in the country, forcing him to deal with events as an emergency manager. That was a new role for the mayor, who most often likes to work with others to achieve consensus. This time, the burden was on Adler and County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, followed by her two successors in office, Sam Biscoe and Andy Brown.
Adler said he was most proud of the work that Austin and Travis County did to prioritize saving lives, pointing out that Travis County has the lowest Covid death rate of all the big-city counties in Texas. “We have done well. The community has done well. That’s what I’m most proud of this year and what I think the community should be most proud of.”
Adler acknowledged that even though the city set up multiple shelters for the homeless and for people needing to quarantine away from their families, there was still not enough shelter for everyone. “The fact is that in the city we don’t have enough places for people to go that are otherwise unsheltered … and that challenge this year was exacerbated by the virus. That story is part of the larger challenge of homelessness.”
Although state and local governments received funding under the federal CARES Act, there is no provision in the $900 billion Covid relief package approved by Congress on Dec. 22 for helping cities and states.
Adler’s first response to the lack of appropriation for local governments was simply, “Outrageous!” He added, “I think (Sen. Mitch) McConnell is trying to punish Democratic states and cities,” but “they threw out the baby with the bathwater. It just seemed to be a very political call when all the states and cities need that relief and are best positioned” to provide it to communities.
Adler said the second thing he was most proud of was “how well the city did as trustee of the CARES Act funding that came to us as well as funding of programs outside that legislation to help people” through the pandemic and the economic chaos it caused.
“Within a day of closing down SXSW,” he said, “I was talking with the Austin Community Fund and the Entrepreneurs Foundation,” about getting immediate help for private nonprofits assisting small businesses and individuals hardest hit by cancellation of the festival. The fund, called Stand With Austin, awarded $687,500 in grant funding to 15 nonprofit organizations, according to its website.
Adler is also very proud of Austin’s work to combat the climate crisis. Austin Energy is a big part of that mitigation effort. But the most important step that Austinites must now take revolves around getting out of their single-passenger cars. “We have to have a mode shift from people driving downtown alone in their cars. In order to do that we have to give people options that are better, cheaper, faster,” he said.
Toward that end, he devoted energy and time last year promoting the passage of propositions A and B. Adler said Project Connect will be transformative for Austinites, with improved and expanded bus lines as well as improvements to the Red Line and the addition of two more rail lines.
President-elect Joe Biden has selected Adler’s friend, Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, as secretary of transportation. This inevitably has led to speculation about whether Adler would like to join Buttigieg at that agency. Adler said that would not be the case, insisting that he wants to be in Austin. “I’m real keen on staying here, helping with homelessness. When I ran, I ran because I love this city.”
Having said that, Adler acknowledges that he has spoken with Buttigieg about Project Connect and hopes Austin will get some federal money to move that train down the tracks. He points out that a number of cities had transit projects on the ballot that failed, which means Austin has a better chance of getting federal money for new transportation projects.
Finally, when asked about Gov. Greg Abbott’s proposed legislation to put the Austin Police Department under state control, Adler pointed out that Houston has a higher crime rate than Austin. And despite all of the heated rhetoric around Austin’s police budget, Adler said neither he nor other city leaders want to “defund the police.”
Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, which is the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.
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