This is the last of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Jeb Boyt on his candidacy and the issues identified in the AustinDistrict7.org candidate scorecard. The interviews are organized as follows:
* Top Priorities, Experience, Community Involvement
* Livability, Affordability and Housing
* Transportation, Open Space and Infrastructure
* Public Safety, Small Business, and City Budget
Residents in far north and northeast Austin have complained repeatedly about insufficient police resources. Crime in northeast Austin is like whack-a-mole, shifting from area to area in response to where police resources are currently focused. Yet police/fire/EMS is expensive, taking up 62% of the City’s operational budget. Any answers on these challenges?
Community policing is very effective. It can be expensive, because it requires bodies.
One of the big challenges is looking at the location of the ratio between police officers to residents. In looking at the appropriate ratios, that’s one of the questions every year in the budget. Police department’s always looking for more manpower, more folks.
One of the questions is what is the actual time in the street. You can look at alternatives like the sobriety center. Rather than taking someone and booking them for public intoxication, and having an officer be off the street for an hour or more while they fill out paperwork and drive someone around, with the sobriety center they drop someone off, and they’re back on the streets in minutes. That’s one example of ways to get more out of our existing resources.
Another question is looking at the jobs that are done by uniformed police officers that could be done by someone else. One of the big questions is all the special events – people are rightly concerned about officers being pulled from neighborhoods to cover some of these public events. There’s a big review of that going on. One of the things they’re trying to do is agreements so we can get officers from nearby communities so we don’t have to pay so much overtime, or that we don’t have to pull officers out of the neighborhoods to the extent that has been occurring.
All of those are worth a look. I particularly like the idea of trying to work more regionally – regional government has lots of opportunities. It’s a challenge in Texas because our governments are so balkanized.
But sharing resources across communities…
An example is the APD – AISD interface. AISD has to pay to have a police officer in a stadium. But APD has officers across the street. Someone leaves the stadium – AISD can’t do anything. Are there ways to negotiate where those jurisdictional lines are between AISD and APD. Mostly that’s a question of shifting the cost from AISD to APD.
But the core opportunity is using resources more efficiently because you’ve already got a policeman there covering the event – why use two?
A lot of land in District 7 subject to development or redevelopment is on flood plains subject to flash floods, or in areas subject to wildfires. Some suburban communities have only one or two evacuation routes in the event of a disaster. Climate trends could make these risks worse. But taking away property owner entitlements is always tricky. What tools, including land use requirements, should be considered?
We need to do a much better job of improving new development, to make sure that there are evacuation routes. One of the primary goals of Imagine Austin is compact and connected. The connected aspect doesn’t just mean having multiple routes to walk to school, or that the traffic doesn’t get dumped out and funneled onto arteries. It also means having routes to get out.
There are some new subdivisions going in to District 7. There is the larger question of the coordination between Austin Fire Department and the emergency service districts. Should we go to a county-wide fire department? All those are worth looking at. One of the things I hope that we will be able to do with the new Council is, having more Council members so we can actually work more cooperatively with the county – just have the bandwidth to jointly assess some of these options.
The wild fire concerns are a bigger issue west of Mopac. The real danger – the fuel loads and the difficult terrain – are west of Mopac. We’ve got a real balkanized situation out there with West Lake, and ESDs and the city – income from different areas. Progress has been made at least as far as trying to establish emergency access roads, if not trying to improve connections overall. But we’ve still got problems. Like Steiner Ranch still has the one road in, which is a problem – something they never should have allowed to happen, but now we’re having to deal with in retrospect.
We’ve been lucky. But we could easily have a fire that would be worse than Bastrop in the West Hills. We need to be cognizant about that. Homeowners need to be able to easily cut the trees around their houses to reduce the fuel load as appropriate.
I have a letter from the owner of Dan’s Hamburgers, a local small business, describing the pain and expense of doing a simple remodeling. Other small business people have complained about sky-rocketing utility rates or other forms of red tape. What are the top 3 things City Council can do to help small business?
The CodeNext – improving the building area is first and foremost.
Other aspects – tax rates, utility rates – keep an eye on those. One of the things we’ve heard in the past that’s been a concern are subsidies that go to big business, that small business can’t take advantage. They’re unable to function at a competitive advantage. We definitely need to make sure that we’re ensuring a level playing field between parties.
Local economist Brian Kelsey recently described Austin’s business incentives policies as wildly successful, contributing to a soft landing after the 2008 recession and robust growth since. Other commentators claim the policies favor big business and fuel gentrification. According to the City Budget, Austin has allocated about $43 million for FY 2014 in business development and incentives. Some of this goes to support local music and cultural assets, and to create blue collar jobs. Most of the $13.2 million in economic development funding targets a few strategic sectors: clean energy, biotech, digital media and wireless. Does Austin have the right economic development strategy?
Well it’s been working pretty well. But again – the question of the cost. The big change that we’re going to see in economic development, is that Austin has been very successful at capturing state money. Many of these deals, who is the medical technology company that went into Seaholm recently? Looking at the city’s portion, it looks like, “Is this really worthy investment.”
But the state was bringing so much money to the table, it was like the city would be crazy to turn the deal down. That has been the economic reality under Perry. We’re going to have a new governor. There’s been a lot of questions about the way that money’s been spent at the state level. The funding for the Chevron headquarters, the recent acquisition of the Toyota headquarters up in Plano.
I suspect the legislature might be really – assuming there’s a functioning legislature – they may take a more critical view of how those monies are spent.
So changes at the state level…
I would only anticipate that we’re going to see a real reduction in the amount of state funds available. So there may not be the same opportunities for matching on the local level. It may be harder, more closely examined what we’re doing with these funds.
There may be cases where you need to look to make sure – in an interview in the Chronicle this week, Mike Martinez had a really good examination of the incentives provided for JW Marriott that we’re now in litigation over. Marriott’s gone forward without our incentives, they’re going to be opening ahead of schedule. That deal was messed up for a variety of reasons. From the design to the execution. But it raises a good question – why are we so eager to provide incentives for that project?
There’s also an argument that having that large convention center hotel, we can have much bigger conventions. A hotel that is already booked up for most of its first year – that that hotel will actually trigger development of other hotels that we’re seeing. We’ve got six downtown hotel projects on the board. It’s kind of amazing. We’ll see how many of them actually build out. It’s more money into city coffers, more people coming, bigger conventions. Increased real estate values. Lots of opportunities.
And the question of sometimes granting incentives for a project. When you’re granting upfront costs – waiving fees, foregoing revenues that the city would never have gotten if the project didn’t go forward. We’ve got to make sure that it actually does happen – the larger economy. There’s concerns about whether these projects are creating new jobs or just creating jobs for people who live elsewhere and are moving to town. That was a criticism of Perry’s Toyota proposal. Doesn’t create new jobs, just shuffles jobs around between the states.
Here in Austin, the question is whether we really need to be encouraging people to move here. That gets into the issues of the importance of encouraging people in incentive packages to make local hires. And we’ve got to work with AISD and ACC to make sure the job training programs are in place – that we’re fulfilling the technical skills.
Are there examples of encouraging business to make local hires, in a way that’s effective – does that work?
The Apple deal includes a good portion of that.
And how would you even monitor that?
The company has to submit an annual report that’s reviewed by city staff. There’s a process.
The other big one was – Visa? A call center or something like that. They were looking to do call center jobs. Those are nice entry level jobs, but they aren’t high value jobs.
I think we need for multiple reasons to look at our incentives program – we need to do a better job of understanding it. I don’t think the public review, and the public understanding of it is where it needs to be.
One of your most important leadership roles in the City of Austin was serving on the Downtown Commission. I believe you were chair of that commission at a time when the Downtown Plan was being put together. How does Downtown play into the City’s budget strategy, and what are the lessons for North Austin?
One of the key things about Downtown is that Downtown exports revenue. It generates far more revenues than we spend in the city budget.
I was in the early phases of the Downtown plan. It was definitely during the time when Mayor Wynn had issued his call for 25,000 housing units in downtown, a goal which we are not even close to hitting even with all the construction that we’ve seen.
How this is relevant for North Austin – the great thing about the Downtown Commission is how it was a really diverse range of folks – we had folks from the Arts Commission sitting with developers – parks – I was there from the Parks Commission. Saying, how can we make Downtown work better. And we looked at all those issues – sound from Stubbs, for instance. That experience of having to really work with broad coalitions, to look at the impacts, because one of things you get Downtown, is lots of great projects that people want to do Downtown that have big impacts on other people, whether it’s traffic impacts around SXSW, sound impacts, cost of living impacts, hosts of other issues. How the park revenues are spent downtown. How are we going to use Waterloo Park, now that it has this large flood control structure in the middle of it. AND the experience I got from dealing with specific issues like the traffic issues downtown.
Those are experiences I absorbed, that extend to issues in North Austin. And one of the aspects we have – this whole Arboretum-Domain-Metric area – various people have said it has the potential to be another Downtown. I would look forward to the opportunity to make that area work better as a cohesive whole, as opposed to a very disparate set of entities that operate on a suburban model. Really make it into more of an urban region.
Assuming you were able to implement your policy goals, what structural changes could one expect in the City budget? Where would spending increase or decrease?
Funding parks would be my focus. Keeping a cap on increases to public safety spending. Making sure that we are effectively using all of our funding opportunities.
There’s been discussion of TIFs – tax-increment finance. We have a number of TIFs already in place – one for Waller Creek, one for Seaholm. I think there’s one around Mueller. You set a baseline, and then bond off the increase – use the increase in revenue to support and pay off bonds. Some people have said we’re not doing enough with TIFs. I’m concerned that we don’t know what we’re doing with TIFs. I’d like to see a global picture – all of these TIFs – there’s an annual report on each TIF. I’d like to see a comprehensive report on all these projects. Because all these have payoff periods. There’s a point where the TIF is going to stop paying the bonds, and then all that money’s going to go back into the general fund. I want to make sure we have a clearer picture of how much money is not going into the general fund. I think we have too often a perception that TIFs are free. The cost though, is that those funds are not going into the general fund anymore.
Several candidates have talked about TIFs. People are always looking for creative ways to fund stuff. One of the concerns I’ve heard about TIFs is you have to have a certain scale to make it effective. You can’t just put a TIF on a random piece of property – it becomes inefficient. So when you talk about TIFs in North Austin, what would be an example of a district that would be large enough to support a TIF? And who would be paying?
You migh establish a TIF district around a Lone Star rail station to pay off bonds on the transportation infrastructure. So say the area around, say the Domain, you have a baseline tax year, I think 2014 is the baseline. Basically any new appreciation in value on those properties, the incremental revenue would pay down that bond fund.
The property owners are paying the taxes, and then as those funds come in, they are allocated between the base value – what was paid up till now, that still goes in the general fund. The increase goes into the fund to pay for the transportation bonds for that area.
So would the entire North Burnet Gateway be in the TIF district?
I think it’s about a quarter mile around the transportation station, and I think we’ve talked about that for Kramer as well. Those are two of the big opportunities in North Austin. Robinson Ranch is potentially another one, which is sort of in District 7. More in District 6. What exactly happens to build out on that – big question.
So a big risk of ‘urbanizing’ suburban areas is you’ve got to add all this expensive infrastructure. But people think taxes are already too high…
Partly that recognizes there’s limitations on how much we can increase taxes. There’s always way more ways to spend money than the money comes in. We have to look at our existing revenues and see what is in our means, and what is an appropriate schedule for building this stuff out?
And also important to have a council member who can build coalitions with other council members, which is going to involve some horsetrading, so that we can get these projects funded.
It’s going to be very interesting to see the dynamics of how this shapes up. There are few races right now where anyone has a strong commitment, maybe only two, where you have a good idea that that person is going to be on the Council. One of the interesting things about campaigns is that you start building the relationships and the understanding of issues that you will take onto the Council. So as we move through this campaign, and as the races start to focus down more on the likely candidates, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.
It’s funny I looked up the other day, I was talking to one of the District 6 candidates, I said, “You know, if we win, I think I’m going to be sitting next to you for the next two years.” [Laughter] Six, seven eight, I think that’s how it’s going to work up on the dais.