5 biggest City Council issues in 2019

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A Convention Center expansion to fund homelessness services. This will likely be the first big fight for the new Council. Basically, the hotel industry is pushing a political deal aimed at wooing liberals to support an expansion of the Austin Convention Center. If Council will approve an expansion (most likely funded by raising the hotel occupancy tax), hoteliers have said they will submit to a Tourism Public Improvement District, which will levy an additional tax on hotels for the purpose of funding homelessness services. The mayor has been pushing this plan for a couple years now, and it’s one of the things he claimed his landslide election gave him a mandate to do.

The next CodeNEXT. This is the big one. Council voted in August to indefinitely “suspend” the six-year project and instructed City Manager Spencer Cronk to develop a new process to make changes to the land development code. Cronk is expected to come back with something in … the next month or two. While Adler has suggested that his big win and the downfall of the anti-development Prop J are signals that voters want bold action, it’s never clear what bold means to a guy like Adler. While urbanists have two new members of Council –– Natasha Harper-Madison and Paige Ellis –– who are speaking their language on land use, it’s far from guaranteed that whatever comes out of the sausage-making process will bring the type of dramatic change necessary to boost housing supply, reduce sprawl and facilitate public transit/walkability.

Property Taxes: Republicans enter the 2019 legislative session keenly aware that this may be the last time their party controls every branch of state government. In November, Texas’ increasingly diverse electorate powered big gains for Dems in urban and suburban areas (12 state house seats, 2 state senate seats). There will be more where that came from in 2020.

Therefore, this may be the GOP’s last shot to do something that will never be accomplished if Dems take back one house: sharply limit the ability of local governments to raise property taxes. They’ve been promising this for years but for some reason have yet to lower the “rollback rate” from its current 8%. Abbott has absurdly proposed 2.5%, which doesn’t even cover basic growth in the cost of city services. 4% seems more likely, but even that could make things very challenging for Austin and other cities, counties and school districts. The big question is whether this new tax limit is accompanied by some kind of school finance reform. The great majority of your property taxes, you may recall, fund AISD, and half of those dollars are “recaptured” by the state to redistribute to other districts.

Affordable Housing: Voters approved a record $250 million for affordable housing in November. It’s now up to Council to spend that money, including by acquiring land and providing funding to support income-restricted housing in developments. While everybody on the new Council supports the concept of subsidized housing, they may not agree on how the funds should be deployed. “I want us to support affordable housing, but that area is not the best fit because traffic/flooding/green space/transit access,” may be something we hear frequently in the coming years.

Austin Strategic Mobility Plan/Project Connect: It may not be until 2020 that Cap Metro puts forth a concrete proposal for Project Connect, the high-capacity transit plan that may involve light-rail, bus-rapid transit or autonomous rapid transit. But Council may take a key step in planning for a more transit-oriented future by approving a new Strategic Mobility Plan. The ASMP is supposed to serve as a guiding document that will shape the city’s transportation and land use decisions over the next 20 years.

Like any other long-range planning document, it’s not clear how much impact it will have. Six years ago Council unanimously approved Imagine Austin, the comprehensive plan that envisioned a more compact, connected community, but six years later there is still not a land development code that fulfills that vision. However, the ASMP does include some very specific things –– it identifies streets that should be targeted with transit priority lanes and bike infrastructure –– that could prompt some road warrior opposition or hesitance from neighborhood groups. Does Council have the will to go bold?

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