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

This is the last of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Melissa Zone on her candidacy and the issues identified in the 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?

It’s tough in those areas. We need better coordination, because sometimes our city services are put into the ETJ [areas just outside the city limits]. Are we being reimbursed for those? Do our interlocal agreements need to be stronger and do they need to be enhanced to make sure that we’re being reimbursed, so that the money goes back to provide services on the ground?

Those are areas where we have to start looking to do community policing. Rundberg area, Braker, that Lamar corridor, we could start working with crime watch programs. In Cleveland when I was doing my non-profit community planning work, we would do what they called ‘Dear John’ letters. They’re postcards. The community would see someone coming in who was picking up a prostitute. You’d take down their driver’s license. You’d give it to the police. The police would look up their driver’s license and then they send a postcard to the registered person that says, “Dear John. Your vehicle was seen at this time at such and such, engaging in unlawful activity with a prostitute.” Please be aware this is not a safe area and that there are diseases, and you might want to check…” It was like providing this person a community service by saying, you might want to get a check. You know what it was doing was tipping off the person’s partner, telling someone in the household. Deterring the activity.

We were really concerned because at the time, now maybe it’s not as prominent, but the Crips and the Bloods had come into Cleveland. They picked this area to sell crack. So this was one of our ways to … and there’s safer ways. We had to be out there at night with flashlights. We were called bumblebees, because we would wear yellow baseball hats, jackets, yellow flashlights. We would work three in a group, and when we would see the activity, we’d write it down.

Those are things you can do. We have a muncipal court here start pushing these absentee landlords where there’s crime activity, and start looking at ways to beef it up, and hold it to it. Don’t give them so many waivers. There’s that three strikes you’re out kind of deal. Let’s start doing that. Those are things that, without spending … you aren’t going to use as many resources as if you added more cops.

Would you propose adding more cops?

We have a really expensive budget right now. 62% [the amount spent on police/fire/EMS in the city’s operational budget] makes sense because we’re putting a lot of it towards computers, this new software. I’d like to see the software working. But if it is, then do we need more cops. We have to see what those tradeoffs are. We’re not really privy to that data as much.

There’s a woman, Linda, in Gracywoods, who has been working with some cops on doing a performance measure of where activity is. It’s a great program, because you can determine where the concentration of crime is.

I know that where we lived in Cleveland, there were certain areas like Monday nights – don’t bother coming around. Because it’s not as bad. Starting Wednesday to Sunday, and Sunday it was heavier. So beef it up more in those areas. Engage more community outreach to tell people how to protect their homes. You can have somebody who is not a police officer provide that.

There are federal programs with community policing where we could get funds to put a lay person in the police department, where we can have that person be crime watch program. And they do them. We even had it in Florida in our little community, we used that money for that. They’ll work with code enforcement. They act as a liaison, informing the public and are there all the time, you can call them. Every public meeting that is their job. Those little things cost less, but are effective. I’d like to explore more of that.

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?

If we don’t take these measures, we’re in jeopardy of losing our FEMA insurance. We use that to get FEMA money if we do have a disaster.

There are going to be properties that we will have to grandfather in. The new development should think about Steiner Ranch with those fires.

I was at the County when that happened. We didn’t want them to have just one access road. You need more. At work, now we say “This could be a Steiner Ranch.” We’re constantly telling the commissioners, “You don’t want another Steiner Ranch on your hands.”

The other things – certain plant material around your house. You need trees. But you don’t need to have the bushes right on top of your house. You can have cute plant life that’s not going to burn like Mexican juniper. Those are things you can have in CodeNext that guide your landscape plan, in those areas.

Another matter is routes for evacuation and for flooding, make sure the roads are graded properly. Every jurisdiction has its own grade to build roads. County has one standard to build road. City has their standard. If it’s a private development, they build it however they want, which means the roads aren’t graded properly. When there’s run-off, is the run-off just laying there? Or are we making sure it goes into a drain-storm system to protect for flooding. A lot of times they’re not. Where we share development review with the city and county, enforce that in our ETJ and say, if you’re going to do this, this is the type of development we’re going to require. If they don’t do it, then don’t annex it.   Require a sale disclosure, so when somebody goes to buy, they see that the roads were not built for this safety reason, and there could be a flood hazard. That could deter people from buying, if it’s in a disclosure.

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?

You know, we have an economic development department that is a chunk of money in our budget. They don’t bring in any money. They just spend. But it’s not on small businesses, although small business is a big chunk of what the Austin economy is. It’s the mindset. You need to change that, and say, from this point on, sure you need some incentives for big businesses, but really let’s look at the numbers and what’s driving this economy. It’s small businesses? Ok, so now we need to furnish them and take care of them.

The permitting process down there is a disaster. I know some candidates went and took tours of the permitting department. I’ve seen it. I didn’t go on the tour, because I see it all the time. I know what a permitting department is.

You could do things like – expedited reviews, where staff is strictly there to do certain things. You help the small businessman. You get them through the processing. You return a call in 24 hours. You set up a small business office with current staff. We’re not making it a bigger department. We’re just taking one person who’s maybe been there a long time, who’s smart and knows the review processes. Their sole job is to make sure the plan review process gets through. You go to those people, and the plan reviewers know – you have 10 days. That person stays on top of view. That’s common in some places. Florida has them. Cleveland has them.

You do it for different things. I’d like to see it done for affordable housing, as an incentive. We don’t have to give them land or money to build affordable housing. But if you’re going to put affordable housing on site, we’ll put you through the expedited review. This is what we want, and you make it real clear – you need this, this and this.

Small businesses getting priced out, affordable housing. Those are not perceived problems. Those are real problems. Other places are writing about Austin and the problems we have with those issues. It’s well documented. It is defendable in law. These are the types of incentives you do.

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?

Economic development today is not what economic development was in the eighties. Today, you provide services that these big companies want – music, a university town, the culture, climate. That stuff is already in place. If we’re going to take that eighties model where we have to give incentives to bring you here. That works in Detroit. Cleveland does it, but they don’t even do it that much. They have big companies there that have their own synergy. Those incentives could be divvied up and given to small businesses. That’s a great way to do it.

I would rather use our economic incentives to create a technology hub, and concentrate development there, get those people off of our roads, coming into the city center.

You would make conditions for the incentives more granular?

I don’t even want to say which ones I would use. But if this is Austin, we’re supposed to be so great, the businesses coming in should be capturing their rainwater, maybe having solar. Was it Apple in Washington that was zero-net? They capture their rain water, use solar and wind, to keep the computers cool. It’s a lot of money upfront. But they’re giving back to the community – not using up all our resources.

You’re having a business here – you’re going to put in this sea of buildings. Why don’t you have a rooftop that’s green? Insulate – it’s cheaper for you to keep it cooler, help stay warmer. Incentivize by using clean energy or environmentally friendly types of work. That’s conservation development, where you incorporate those things.

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?

I’d look at the economic development budget, which is about 1% of the combined City budget. I’d look at Austin Energy. They contribute a lot into the general fund. But is that for city employees, and is it going to benefits? Personnel costs – fortunately Marc Ott agreed to do it, and maybe it was pushed by Council – no more full-time employees in City budgets. A lot of times directors will pad their budget for more employees. It’s not just pay – it’s benefits and everything tied to it. They do that because they want to have a bigger budget. And then they play with it. I would want to make sure – I know they did it this year – no more full time employees.

Muni court. Why aren’t we taking in more revenue? Planning department. I bet our fees are pretty low for our plan review. So we pay more. I bet if our fees went up in planning, it would offset that one percent. Those are little increments, I know. But it would work. Look at our property taxes. Just with our property taxes, with commercial going up we could get more revenue.

A big drain on us at Austin Energy is antiquated meters. Same with water utility. We probably waste a lot of water with these old meters. If we spend money to upgrade them, the cost ends up being displaced on the homeowner.

I like that they have the home energy audit. I think those are wonderful programs.

Police and fire – it’s tough. They’re 62% of our operating budget. I don’t think it’s a big chunk, but I’m curious what our legal fees are. Why are we not doing a combining fire and EMS. There’s a big loss in retention. We lose a lot of money. If we combined EMS with fire, then maybe the fireman who’s a little older now, he might want to go into EMS. We don’t have to retrain him – he’s already in the system.

They don’t already do that?

No, they’re totally separate. But if we could combine it – EMS and fire would like to do it. Because there are overlapping services that they both provide. That would cut down costs. Even the equipment, the structures. They could be housed in the same area.

Parks. I don’t think their current expense is much. I think libraries, and I mentioned it before, but combining parks and recs and libraries together. Schools – developers when they come in sometimes they give free land to the school. Let’s get a park and a library and put it all together. Senior centers. We could start getting some federal funding for a senior center there. Let’s utilize what we have. We’d get more space, and we’re serving more population.

Transportation – I think our fees, impact fees would help offset this cost. We’d be taking in more than we’d be spending.

Austin Energy – they’re about to go to a new building because it’s going to be LEED [an environmental building standard]. But sometimes if you’re making people travel farther, you’re putting more carbon emissions on the road. You’re building a new building when you could have possibly retrofitted what you’re in. How green were you?

You sound a little skeptical about it.

Because I don’t know how “clean” it is. I’m not sure where it’s going to go. I’m not privy to all the information yet, but I’d be asking tough questions about it.


See also:

District 7 Candidates Page