Pool Interview – Details on Public Safety, Small Business, and City Budget

This is the last of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Leslie Pool on her 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?

I can remember in Austin when the whack-a-mole started, and it was on the East side. And that was where the drug markets were, and that was where the prostitutes were.

There was outcry on the East side. The leadership on the East side said, you’re not paying attention to our neighborhoods – you need to clean this up. This is wrong, and we pay for City services too. So there was a big deployment of police. There was community policing back then. That was an initiative that Spelman had pushed for. We’re not doing community policing anymore. But it made areas, except for maybe Dove Springs, safer.

So now folks like us – we drive over onto the East side, Rosewood, E 11th and 12th, and there’s a lot of new development there, it’s more lively, it’s safer, and it’s a benefit to both people who live there and businesses, a lot of them are small businesses.

But where did it go? Some of it went to South Austin, and some of it went to North Austin near Rutland. I used to live off of Rutherford, in a little neighborhood over there off of what was Loralinda Drive, and Heritage Oaks was kind of the older neighborhood, and then this newer neighborhood near the new elementary school. A very compact little neighborhood – Little Walnut Creek at the north, Rundberg, the I35 access here. Just on the other side of Little Walnut Creek was a real high crime area. And then St John on the other side of 183 was also high crime. I don’t know, I wasn’t tuned in to how they were being deployed at the time, but I read a lot of stories about what was going on, and I haven’t heard as many lately. Something happened that they were able to tame that, or they just aren’t reporting it.

But now it’s shifting further north to Rundberg. You have a lot of transient people, people coming and going in apartments. It’s a very car-centric part of town. There’s a lot of opportunity for petty theft, for burglary, for smash-and-grab. And how do you find the people. We even have that in Rosedale, car brake-ins and stuff. Police are like – “What can we do?” We had a guy going around puncturing the tires. We had the Sharpie bandit, going around defacing cars with a Sharpie. Nobody could ever find who it was. And then these things just sort of stop. That’s random and opportunistic. But up in the north east part of town, it’s endemic.

You have competing interests there. [Police Chief] Acevedo wants to bulk up and have more and more police. [Council Member] Spelman wants to keep it at 2 police per 1,000 residents. They fight over that every year.

I work in law enforcement. I understand their challenges and constraints. On the other hand, it seems like with 62% of the operational budget going to law enforcement, that doesn’t leave room for all the other things we need.

Where are they deployed? Are they there, and nobody knows it? We have commanders’ forums regularly in our neighborhood. I don’t know what they’re doing up near Gracywoods.

They’ve put a fair amount of police in the Rundberg area specifically. But now, the concern from people up in Harris Ridge on the other side of I35 is that now they’re starting to see drug dealers…

It is whack-a-mole. I guess police tends to be reactive. You’re not going to go police an area where nobody’s filing complaints.

So why did we stop doing community policing?

I don’t know.

Was it effective?

I thought it was. I think it was a budget thing. But it disappeared. I didn’t realize it was gone until I was on the 2012 bond committee. We were looking at Dove Springs. They were very concerned about the lack of policing down there. I was talking to a community leader – she wanted community policing, a little station in the strip center, have them regularly. It’s really good for young kids to see people in uniform. They look up to them. It’s really interesting. You forge those relationships so they’re not afraid of authority. You have to respect why they’re there and understand. That starts when you’re little.

I pushed to have a meeting with the people who were concerned about it in Dove Springs. We were assured that it would happen. We did everything as we could with the authority we had on the bond committee to try to get something to happen.

What was going on in Dove Springs could happen in the north part of the city. There’s no reason why it couldn’t.

I would be interested in raising community policing again. And there would be fewer miles for them to drive. At shift change, they all have to come together at headquarters, to swap information. You also have to have more parking. There’s this scrum of police. They’re also not out policing, because they’re all on shift change. But it’s necessary, really necessary, for them to have conversations. In a community model, you’d have those hubs out in the communities. Your patrols would be in that area. Yeah, you would have shift change, but you wouldn’t be going all the way out to 8th Street.

I think just the visual presence of a uniform – not just police but constables out in the county, there can be agreements. Right now the City does the city, and the constables do outside, except when they’re serving process. We have offices everywhere – Downtown, Rollingwood, down at the lake. We have Austin-County EMS. It seems like there could be more collaboration between the police agencies.

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?

Yes, it needs to be done. I understand it because I live near Shoal Creek where flooding is a risk. And then fire is always a concern.

We’ve got impervious cover – that’s key. How many rooftops, how big is the asphalt for the parking. What kind of landscaping do you have. Do you have swales and berms, French drains. What are you doing with your guttering and sewer systems, waste water systems that carry the water away.

San Antonio doesn’t have that kind of infrastructure, so the water just runs on the streets until it finds an outlet. There aren’t run off systems in the older parts of San Antonio.

Knowing how the water flows, where the floodplains are, engineers and landscape architects as well are good at knowing how to redirect the water, not lose it or wash away, but put it to good use.

As far as the fire, you just have to be really aware of where the canopies are, how close it comes to the rooftops. You have shrubbery around the foundation of your house – I thought this was more of an issue on the west side of town. But it sounds like there are some wooded areas in the north area that I just haven’t been to see.

The City should do some planning, including in CodeNext. What is the lay of the land up there, what are the hazards, where is the water coming from and where is it trying to go. Are you able to mitigate it on the way.

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?

Permitting should be streamlined and inspections timely, for sure, but perhaps the most helpful thing would be predictability in and ease of understanding the City’s processes.

The City is eager to subsidize corporations when they come to town. If we end that, then we could use the revenue saved to create a program that benefits small local businesses to drive customers to them, keep them competitive.

Something innovative would be cool – the Go Local cards were a good idea, although not widely adopted here. From what I can see, IBIZ is doing well. I’d tap into the energy at the Austin Independent Business Alliance for their expertise in helping all the fine local independent businesses specific to our area.

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?

It’s long been said that Austin has a built-in buffer to recession due to its diversified economy. Government and education being fairly recession-proof. Political stalemates – the inability of Congress to work together, the refusal at the State Capitol to fund public education adequately – have put real pressure on these traditional mainstays.

I’ve lived through many boom-bust cycles in Austin – two in just the last 10 years – and there’s no doubt it’s really hard on people to stay afloat when their jobs disappear.

You ask if Austin has the right economic development strategy: From a high level perspective, our town is ticking right along, and it would indeed appear we’ve got it right. What isn’t apparent at that high level though are the cracks that exist in the lives of low wage earners, and how the rapid pace of growth is pricing people out of their homes.

That’s why it’s important to tackle the tough issues: transit, affordability, tax reform, and environmental sustainability – quality of life issues – to preserve and protect our neighborhoods, our schools, our Austin lifestyle: all the things we most prize about our town.

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?

There are a lot of unmet needs. I know that from being on the bond committee. Our parks and our pools and our libraries aren’t sufficiently staffed. The libraries are hurting for the new stock. We needed to put renovation and repair on the bond, because they weren’t doing the cyclical repairs. That’s just wrong. I told them as much on the bond committee – this is just terrible. I advocated and got full funding for every one of those library repairs. Pools and the parks – the same thing. We’ve got existing civic amenities, we’re not spending enough money and paying enough attention to them.

We have a delicate balance between buying the watershed protection water quality conservation lands, putting that in the same bond money [competing with urban parks], that was tough. My heart was with SOS, and BCP, and watershed protection stuff. But I see around me parks that aren’t mowed, pools don’t have chemicals. They’re not even open late enough – they close before Labor Day.

I want to go back to where the libraries are 7 days a week, and they’re open the hours that they used to be before they paired them, maybe five or six years ago. People forgot about that. New people coming to town don’t even know that there was a time when Yarborough was open Sunday through Saturday. I want to go back to that. For me it’s the things that affect the neighborhoods most closely would be one of my top priorities.

Are there things you would scale back on?

I don’t understand why the water utility can’t meld the conservation with the profit side of their enterprise, when Austin Energy has been able to do that. I asked that question when I sat on water-waste water [a City commission]. Two things I advocated for there was to provide progressive tiering. At that time it was just below 2,000, above 2,000 [gallons]. I think they have four tiers now. People who use a lot should pay a premium for it.

I’m concerned about all the straws in Lake Travis, and LCRA I understand is finally going to go down and hunt down the people who put illegal straws in the lake, because they’re not treating that water. They’re just putting it on their property. We’re at 38% capacity. It’s never been that low. Not since the 1950s.

I don’t know what else you do about that. They’re going to build a reservoir, but that’s for the lower Colorado. That’ll help downstream folks so we don’t have to shove it down there. But it’s got to rain – honestly. We’ve got to be really strategic in how we educate the community, where we allow the excess water to be used. We’ve seen a huge change in how people do the landscaping, just in the last 2-3 years.

Hasn’t it been remarkable?

It has been remarkable, and it’s beautiful landscape. It’s low maintenance too, so you’re not even having to mow.

You just have to weed Bermuda.
Well if you get up early in the spring…

See also:

District 7 Candidates Page