Land use reform gets another day in court

This is an excerpt from the Sept. 24 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Eighteen months after Travis County District Judge Jan Soifer essentially blocked City Council from moving forward on a new land development code, the city of Austin will get a chance to appeal.

Texas’s Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston will hear oral arguments on the case, Acuna v. City of Austin, on Nov. 17 via Zoom.

The three judge panel that will hear the case include Republicans Tracy Christopher and Randy Wilson and Democrat Jerry Zimmerer. I know next to nothing about the judges’ politics besides their partisan affiliations. And frankly, whatever I could learn about the judges may not give me much insight into how they will rule on this case, where traditional ideological divisions are not particularly useful: there are liberals and conservatives on both sides.

Again, it’s hardly clear that City Council will be able to push through a comprehensive LDC rewrite even if it gets a favorable court ruling. The clear majority in favor of reform that existed last year evaporated with the defeat of Jimmy Flannigan and the departure of Delia Garza, both of whom were firmly pro-reform. Their successors, Mackenzie Kelly and Vanessa Fuentes, respectively, have more ambiguous stances on the issue.

But regardless of what is immediately possible on Council, a favorable ruling for the city would bode very well for the ability of Austin and other Texas cities to address the housing, transportation and environmental challenges created by 75 years of sprawl-oriented planning.

It would be fitting if a court in Houston, which has no zoning and consequently is home to a much greater diversity of low-cost housing, is what allows Austin to finally address its housing crisis.

This is an excerpt from the Sept. 24 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Cronk picks Chacon; Celia Israel launches mayoral committee

City Manager Spencer Cronk announced today that he’s found the guy to be Austin’s new police chief. It’s Joe Chacon, who has been serving as the interim chief since former Chief Brian Manley retired in March. Cronk’s selection must be approved by Council. There is something deeply ironic about the whole situation. Until quite recently, … Continue reading Cronk picks Chacon; Celia Israel launches mayoral committee

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TxDOT’s perverse idea of progress

This is an excerpt from the Sept. 2 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

I-35 has long been decried as a physical and psychological barrier in Austin.

The psychological aspect comes from the fact that the highway for decades separated white Austin from black and brown Austin. When built in 1962, the highway largely replaced East Avenue, which the city had since 1928 enforced as an explicit racial boundary, west of which black and brown people were generally not welcomed. The new highway was a convenient excuse to reinforce the boundary just as the civil rights movement was starting to chip away at Jim Crow.

I-35 remained an important racial divider long after de jure segregation ended in the 60’s, but in the past decade its relevance in this regard has shrunk due to gentrification on the east side. Austin is still a profoundly segregated city, but I-35 is no longer the key dividing line.

What’s not really debatable is that I-35 very much remains a major physical barrier. Many east-west streets are halted by I-35, forcing drivers, pedestrians and cyclists wishing to cross to make an unpleasant, if not perilous, journey on the frontage road.

And it need not be. We can have a major road, or even a highway, that doesn’t turn a major part of downtown into a hellscape. Indeed, imagine if those scores of acres that are currently dedicated to concrete could instead be home to things that actually enhance downtown: businesses, entertainment, apartments, green space? What if all of that land actually generated billions of dollars in economic activity and property tax revenue? This is the possibility that the Reconnect proposal offers by burying the downtown portion of I-35 and building a good old fashioned urban boulevard on top, thus restoring the street grid and opening up numerous acres of land for development and green space.

TxDOT has no interest in such a solution, of course. Its proposed expansion of I-35 makes the highway even wider, making the physical barrier even more formidable.

Of course, that’s not how they describe it. If you hear TxDOT officials describe their two (very similar) proposed alternatives for expanding I-35, you may come away with the impression that their plan is all about connecting the east and west. This slide from the agency’s presentation to City Council on Tuesday, for instance, suggests that connectivity is a top priority:

More than 15 widened east-west crossings! Plus three new ones!

The fact is that what they’re proposing does not differ substantially from what exists now. They are not making a meaningful attempt to restore the city’s street grid.

In the graphic below, the red dots indicate street crossings under the highway and yellow dots indicate crossing above the highway. The top line is the status quo and the two bottom lines are TxDOT’s two proposed alternatives.

If you count all the dots, you’ll see there will only be one more all-use street crossing (at 5th St). There will still be long stretches of highway that cannot be crossed, particularly on the northern and southern ends. I-35 will continue to be a major east-west barrier to pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchair users and, frankly, drivers.

This is an excerpt from the Sept. 2 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Half way to bikeable: Austin’s milquetoast milestone

In its newsletter last week, the Transportation Department declared that the city has achieved an important milestone: the All Ages & Abilities Bicycle Network is now 50% complete. The AAA Bicycle Network surpassed the halfway milestone at the 207-mile mark on June 19th, upon completion of the protected bicycle lane on Guadalupe Street from Koenig … Continue reading Half way to bikeable: Austin’s milquetoast milestone

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Here comes redistricting

If you follow national politics, you’re likely aware that the ideal of representative democracy is often perverted by partisan redistricting, or gerrymandering. In 17 states, there is a nonpartisan system in place aimed at preventing gerrymandering, but in 33 states the task is left entirely up to elected legislators. Redistricting is a part of local politics too. Tomorrow the … Continue reading Here comes redistricting

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The high cost of the cop prop

This is an excerpt from the Aug. 11 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Yesterday city budget officials released an estimate for what it will cost to pay for the police staffing mandate in the Save Austin Now proposition. It’s not pretty.

Remember, the SAN petition, which will be on the ballot in November, would require the city to employ two sworn police officers (civilian police employees don’t count) per 1,000 residents. It would also require the police department to maintain an average of 35% “community engagement” time for patrol officers. It would also require an additional 40 hours of annual in-house training and require the city to set up a program that offers additional financial incentives (of unspecified value) for officers who learn a second language, mentor cadets or who are awarded honorable conduct citations.

There is reason to believe that even if the referendum is approved, it will not be enforceable due to a provision of the city charter that forbids the use of referendums in “appropriating money or authorizing the levy of taxes.” But that’s a separate discussion…

The budget office’s analysis includes a low estimate and a high estimate, based on population growth and wage growth. Because obviously the cost of employing that many officers depends on how much we decide to pay them and how high we set the financial incentives. (Indeed, if this mandate is approved, I imagine the police union will have a much harder time negotiating pay increases)

The low estimate assumes over the next five years:

  • 1% population growth
  • 1% wage growth
  • One new police substation for the increased patrol staff
  • $50 increase in the existing monthly language stipend
  • $175 per month mentorship stipend
  • $500 stipend for honorable conduct citations
  • Purchase or lease of new training facility
  • 12 new training employees
  • To meet the 35% community engagement time, APD moves officers out of specialized units and into patrol

It also assumes that in order to have 2 officers per 1,000k residents employed at all times, the city would actually have to budget for 2.3/1000k. Why? Simply budgeting for the minimum required number of police officers would leave the city vulnerable to falling below the level as officers retire.

Total cost : $54.3M a year or $271.5M over five years.

The high estimate assumes:

  • 2% population growth
  • 2% wage growth
  • 3 new police substations
  • $175 increase in language stipend
  • $350/month membership stipend
  • $1,000 stipend for honorable citation
  • Purchase or lease of new training facility
  • 12 new training employees
  • To meet the community engagement target without reducing specialized unit staffing, APD hires even more officers: at a rate of 2.35/1,000k
  • To meet the 2.35/1,000k rate, APD budgets for 2.5/1,000k

Total cost: $119.8M per year or $598.8M over five years


How seriously should we take this estimate?

I’m glad that the city is laying out all of the assumptions included in these estimates. As you can see, a lot of the assumptions are based on guessing what a future City Council might do: how high it will set wages and incentives and how many new facilities it deems necessary to accommodate the increased staff. My assumption is that if this referendum passes and is enforceable, Council will use whatever flexibility it has takes to reduce the cost, such as by making the incentives as low as possible or not authorizing new substations.

The population growth range is in line with what the city demographer has projected. Although the city population grew by more than 2% per year over the past decade, it has begun to slow down in recent years as more growth occurs outside of the city limits. Here is data from the past decade and the future projection:

Another area of flexibility is in wages. The cops are entering the final year of their five-year union contract, which gave them a 1% wage hike in the first year and 2% hikes in the last four. The city could certainly choose to take a less generous line in next year’s negotiations. But the cost of living is also steadily increasing, which will make it harder to recruit and retain new officers without offering pay raises.

The bottom line

The bottom line: the city is already facing a structural deficit due to the 3.5% tax limit put in place by the legislature two years ago. This new mandate will turn a manageable structural deficit into a full-blown fiscal crisis requiring the city to make big cuts to other services — fire, EMS, parks — and/or ask voters to approve significant tax increases above the 3.5% rate:

Measuring “community engagement” time

Another thing that’s up in the air is how to define and measure “community engagement” time. Is SAN simply referring to “uncommitted” time when patrol officers aren’t responding to a call? APD does try to measure that, but as I’ve noted before, their efforts have produced some dubious data, with wild swings in reported “uncommitted time” from year to year. For instance, this was the data APD reported in 2015, which showed uncommitted time plummeting from 27% to 14% in just two years, before rising again:

I asked APD if there were any requirements for how officers use uncommitted time, whether the department has in place any metrics for how they use it and if there is any explanation for the dramatic variations in reported spare time.

In a statement, I was told that uncommitted time is “simply time not on a call for service.” Furthermore:

This differs from community engagement time in that not all uncommitted time is used to engage the community. We do not have a process for actually measuring community engagement time at this point (in development).

Even measuring uncommitted time is not always simple, they conceded:

We calculate uncommitted time using an adopted formula which should be used the same way at all times. Having said that, it is not the same formula recommended by (the Matrix Report) which is why our target uncommitted time is lower than their recommendation. As well, there are issues with the process related to things like backup where time on call is often not recorded or not recorded well.

OK, so “community engagement” is not currently being measured but if and when it is measured, it will logically be a smaller subset of “uncommitted time.”

Well, the city manager clearly didn’t get this memo, since in his proposed budget this year, APD reported 31% “community engagement” time last year and is projecting the same level of community engagement for this year. This is despite what police leaders have repeatedly described as a severe staffing shortage:

Again, the point of showing you all of these conflicting numbers is just to demonstrate how subjective this metric is. It’s hard to say what effect the 35% “community engagement time” will be because there’s no universally accepted definition of community engagement time, let alone a universally accepted method of measuring it.

SAN responds

In a statement, Save Austin Now ridiculed the idea that the city couldn’t afford its proposed staffing mandate, saying that it was “on track to achieve” that level “just two years ago.”

Well, something big changed in the last two years. The state legislature dramatically restricted the city’s ability to raise revenue. The city was ramping up APD staffing back when it was regularly raising taxes by more than the current 3.5% cap. Now the city needs voter approval to go above that.

Second, whether or not this was intentional, there’s a difference between budgeting for a certain number of officers and a mandate that that number be on the payroll at all times.

It makes no sense that our elected officials have chosen to allocate $515M to homelessness over the next three years and raise taxes again this year, while simultaneously arguing that returning to an adequate police staffing level is financially impossible in the face of rising crime. In a rapidly growing city with a $4.2 billion budget, we can afford public safety.

This statement has a number of sleights of hand that will unfortunately fool most media covering this issue. First, the $515M refers to a goal for the total amount spent from a variety of sources in the community: the city, the county, nonprofits, private philanthropy. Second, City Council is quite likely to approve a budget that does not result in a tax increase for the average homeowner, although it will on commercial property owners. Third, the city’s budget is technically $4.2 billion but most of that is tied up in enterprise departments funded by user fees, notably the city-owned electric and water utilities. The only source of potential funding for cops is the $1.2 billion general fund.

This is not Prop B

In contrast to Prop B, which many elected liberals remained silent on, I expect this petition to be universally opposed by the local Democratic/liberal establishment.

This puts at risk the public services that liberals cherish: parks, libraries, social programs. And it’s accompanied by a hefty price tag that will put pressure on them to raise taxes — something that nobody wants. What will be interesting to see is if there are some right-of-center voices that emerge in opposition.

This is an excerpt from the Aug. 11 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Where has Austin grown?

Following the deaths of two police officers last week to Covid, the Fire Dept announced its first loss to the pandemic: The fire department says that 78% of those who responded to a recent survey are vaccinated, but many firefighters didn’t respond to the survey. Back in April, the department reported that 60% of its uniformed … Continue reading Where has Austin grown?

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FAR out of downtown?

A couple weeks ago the Design Commission recommended changes to the Downtown Density Bonus, the program that offers developers increased height in exchange for some “community benefits,” notably fees to fund affordable housing. Right now, different parts of downtown are subject to different limits on Floor to Area Ratio, which governs the amount of floor space there can be on a lot. In most of downtown, the … Continue reading FAR out of downtown?

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The one word that makes Prop A so expensive

This is an excerpt from the Aug. 16 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

City budget officials say the police staffing initiative (Prop A) will result in major fiscal challenges, forcing the city to either make big cuts to other services or to ask voters to approve big tax hikes in the coming years.

But Prop A supporters can’t believe it. All they’re asking for, they say, is putting APD a little above where it was on track to be a couple of years ago.

“Our approved staffing two years ago was 1,959,” police association prez Ken Casaday said to me via text last week. “The Council had also agreed to add officers to this number over a five year period. So, where did the money go?”

Much of the incredulity is due to a nuance in the petition language that almost everyone who isn’t a professional budget analyst neglects:

That one word, “employment,” explains why the proposal is actually much more expensive than many of its supporters believe.

Two years ago, the city didn’t actually employ 1,959 officers. That number represents the authorized strength. The city budgets enough money to pay 1,959 officers, but there may be a significant number of vacancies. Typically the police department uses the money for the vacant positions to pay overtime.

So, if the law requires the city to always employ 2 officers per 1,000 residents, then that means that the city must budget for many more because vacancies will naturally occur due to retirements, resignations and (occasionally) firings.

The city budget office has estimated that to meet a 2 officers per 1,000 residents ratio at all times, it must actually budget for a ratio of between 2.35-2.5. That means it must budget for hundreds of positions more than it intends to fill.

Wait, why?

Hiring police officers isn’t as simple as hiring, say, an accountant. Every new officer has to go through the 8-month police academy. Just running the academy costs money –– to pay the instructors as well as the cadets.

Perhaps if the city were subjected to such a strict police staffing mandate, the city could find ways to recruit and train with greater flexibility. For instance, Mackenzie Kelly has proposed a way to get officers more affordably: a 4-month academy for a smaller number of recruits (30) who already have a state law enforcement certification. Many such recruits have experience as cops for other departments.

But there is a certain rigidity that is unavoidable. No one — at least no one I’m aware of — is suggesting we do away with or water down the required training. And if we’re going to require eight months of training, the most economical solution is to try to train as many cadets at once.

So here’s the current situation: As of the end of July, the police department had an authorized strength of 1,809 officers but it had 156 vacancies. So only 1,655 officers are actually employed. Now, there is a current academy class with 88 cadets who will become officers in February. But the city is losing about 15 officers a month, mostly to retirements. So it’s very possible that by the time we get 88 new officers, we will have lost another 90, meaning we’ll be at roughly the same number of employed officers

If we are going by the recently-released 2020 census figures, which put Austin’s population at 961,855, we will need to employ 1,924 officers if the mandate passes.

If the mandate is approved, we will need to immediately increase the force by nearly 300 officers. The petition says the city must run three academy classes a year until it achieves the ratio. I suppose if we do that we will eventually achieve that ratio.

But what about after we achieve the ratio? Each year we’ll have to run more academy classes than we likely need to make sure that the number of new cadets exceeds the retirements that year. The problem is you never know how many retirements there will be each year. This explains why the city would have to budget for more positions and always train more officers than required. This explains why the mandate is much more expensive than its authors may realize.

Hence the city’s estimate that it will cost an additional $54.3 million to $119.8 million a year.

The real tragedy of this mandate is not just that it would force us to spend much more money on law enforcement, but that it would require the city to spend on a very specific type of law enforcement. None of this money that would be roped off for the police department could be spent on anything except officers. It couldn’t be used to boost staffing or pay for the burnt out 911 center. It could not be used for equipment in the forensics lab.

And then there are the taxes…

The other big difference between two years ago and now are the state-imposed tax limits, which were signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2019 but did not go into effect until 2020.

The police staffing plan that Casaday and others point to was crafted back in the days when the city was able to increase taxes by up to 8% each year without voter approval. In the last three budgets before the new taxing limits went into effect, Council boosted the police budget by 5% in FY 2017-18, 7.6% in FY 2018-19 and 4% in FY 2019-20.

We couldn’t afford to keep this hiring pace up under the current 3.5% revenue limit without making major cuts to other departments. So the cost of SAN’s proposal, with the fateful employment word, is even more unrealistic.

By the way, back in 2019, city and county leaders from all over the state warned Republicans at the Lege that the revenue limits posed a serious threat to funding for law enforcement…

Do they even realize it?

There are two reasons why Save Austin Now may have written the fateful word, employed:

  1. Cluelessness. Save Austin Now or Legislative Solutions, the legal consultant they paid $425 to help with “petition language creation,” simply didn’t realize the significance of the word employed
  2. A conscious effort by Mackowiak and the GOP to starve other city services that conservatives don’t believe are necessary. Something to make the ghosts of Ronald Reagan and David Koch happy.
  3. A conscious effort to turn voters against the city and its Democratic elected officials by forcing them to significantly raise taxes via one or more tax rate elections.

I tend to believe it’s mostly #1. But #2 and #3 are certainly on the table.

This is an excerpt from the Aug. 16 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

The ballot language doesn’t matter

Yesterday Council voted unanimously to put the Save Austin Now’s proposed police staffing mandate on the ballot. Despite evidence that SAN’s paid petition-gatherers misled people into thinking they were supporting a referendum focused on police reform and training, the city clerk explained that the only way to get signatures thrown out is if individuals who … Continue reading The ballot language doesn’t matter

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