The Watson Wire Archives
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- Watson Wire: Notice Anything?
I’ve really come to dread Friday afternoons. For some reason, every Friday at about 3:00 — and you can set your clock by it — the proverbial stuff hits the fan. It’s like people have waited all week to break whatever bad news they have for me.
And, yeah, I’ve been known to whine about it — loudly.
But I do appreciate getting the heads-up when something big is coming. Being notified, even about something I don’t like or disagree with, allows me to address it, give input, maybe even fix it.
The same applies to how the city government — the Mayor and Council —should give notice to the public on big issues.
This issue is coming into play now because we will soon be taking up some pretty big changes to the Land Development Code (LDC) as part of our determined efforts to address Austin’s housing affordability emergency. And getting the public notice process right really matters, since that was one of the issues that sunk the LDC rewrite known as CodeNext (both legally and as a matter of just good government).
Even before I was back in the mayor’s office, I really disliked and disagreed with how the City handled CodeNext. The City made the decision not to provide notice in as broad a way as possible about what was happening and what CodeNext could do all across the city. People sued the City and Austin lost the suit, along with a lot of credibility. And from a housing policy perspective, we lost precious time, lots and lots of time.
Doing It Differently
The Council members and I are committed to getting more housing in Austin. We adopted several housing-related resolutions a few months ago directing the City Manager to come back with full ordinances for Council consideration. The approach has been to focus on individual initiatives that address specific needs or barriers, including LDC changes necessary to bring about positive results.
These are big changes, and some folks have legitimate concerns about how these changes will affect their lives and affect Austin now and in the future. At times, the land use debate in Austin has been bitterly divided and often feels as partisan as Washington, D.C. It may not be partisan in the sense of Republicans and Democrats, but it’s divided into sides with name calling, an unwillingness to talk with each other and, using tools like public notice (or the lack of it) to gain an advantage.
It doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be that you’re either 1) for housing and don’t care about neighborhoods; or 2) for protecting neighborhoods and opposed to things that could get us more housing. I think a lot (dare I say, most?) of Austinites sit somewhere in the middle between those two poles, which can have some very passionate people advocating. And, yeah, I’m guessing we’re not going to get perfect, pure results. We’re not going to meet everyone’s concept of perfection. Trying to fairly and responsibly address big issues impacting lots of people is rarely, if ever, utopian.
The hope is that we start from a place where people don't feel left out or messed around because the process is distorted. Of course, the process will also not be perfect. But I believe that the public knowing what’s happening and having a shot at good public feedback will help us make these policies better for everyone. To get that feedback, I want robust and clear public notice of any proposed LDC change. Not just the minimum that can be legally achieved, but more than the law requires. And we should consider alternative notice mechanisms, too, so we can maybe reach more folks.
The first step in this will likely be to have a joint meeting of the Austin City Council and the Planning Commission on certain proposals. This will give us at least three times for public comment: the joint meeting, a separate Planning Commission meeting and a separate Council meeting. On September 21, the Austin City Council will vote on whether we should have a joint meeting as well as the public notification process.
More communication about what’s going on with LDC changes than is customary — maybe even more than is necessary — will only help this process as we address a formidable challenge. Frankly, greater communication is the least we should do to ensure a credible community discussion of an issue that will define Austin’s future.
Have a great weekend. As for me, well, it’s Friday and 3:00 is almost here. I’m headed to turn on the fan.
- Watson Wire: Strengthening the Healthcare Safety Net
Mental illness is common. Often hidden but common. And brain health, in concept, is no different than heart health. Yet the public finance system that supports a healthcare safety net for our most vulnerable neighbors deals with brain health differently — and poorly at that.
As a result, Integral Care, the public entity that supports adults and children living with mental illness, substance use disorders and intellectual and developmental disabilities in Travis County, is now facing significant fiscal challenges.
As a community, we’ve repeatedly worked to piece together a healthcare safety-net system to serve everyone. We need to work together again to shore up Integral Care. For now, we have a way to do that through our Travis County Healthcare District, known as Central Health. But we also need to do better preparing for the future of our safety net and meeting the needs of our unhoused neighbors, many of whom are living with mental illness.
The Safety Net
For the longest time, the City of Austin basically provided the healthcare safety net. This went on even after other counties created hospital or health care districts that were county-wide to provide a broader revenue base than just a city. We just kept it weird by comparison.
In 2004, Travis County voters created a health care district – now known as Central Health – to serve this function. The district covers the whole of Travis County. As healthcare funding responsibilities shifted to Central Health, the City and Travis County both reduced their property tax rates and transferred that ongoing taxing capacity to Central Health. Thanks to that property tax revenue, Central Health has accumulated reserves of about $400 million, an amount that exceeds its annual expenditures.
Integral Care, another part of our safety net, doesn’t have access to a stable, reliable and ongoing source of local funding. Instead, Integral Care cobbles together local, state and federal funds as well as philanthropy to pay for essential mental healthcare programs. And changes to how those state and federal dollars flow have contributed to a major budget shortfall at Integral Care.
Last week, the Board of Directors for Integral Care adopted a budget that includes significant layoffs and will reduce access to mental healthcare in this community at a time when we all know the extraordinary needs, particularly since Integral Care’s work is key to addressing the needs of those living homeless in Travis County. Representatives of the workers at Integral Care pointed out that, once again, we need to figure out how to fix the safety net and address this fiscal challenge.
How Best to Address this Safety Net Issue
As Central Health says, it is the “only organization that can create and is empowered to create a high-functioning, comprehensive safety-net healthcare system for Travis County.” Yep, that’s why the voters created it. It’s the reason other jurisdictions gave it resources and reduced their tax rates so that the safety net organization could succeed and, as a result, we all have a better shot at succeeding.
I’ve worked closely with Central Health over the years. And, as this specific issue has arisen (along with other issues related to our population that’s living homeless), I’ve had productive discussions about next steps with Mike Geeslin, the President and CEO of Central Health; Dr. Charles Bell, Chair of the Central Health Board of Managers; Maram Museitif, Chair of the Central Health Budget Committee; and Ann Kitchen, a former Austin City Council Member and board member of both Central Health and Integral Care. I’ve also talked with Trish Young Brown, the Chair of the Integral Care Board and the former CEO at Central Health.
Central Health is able to provide a short-term solution to avoid significant cuts to mental health services that will undermine our community investments in health, healthcare and addressing the needs of our population living homeless. It’s important, however, that we don’t just have Central Health backstop any and all Integral Care deficits. Also, the expenditure of Central Health funds must be consistent with Central Health’s mission, and we probably will need to have some analysis of the methods of care.
On Wednesday, the Central Health Board of Managers will meet to adopt the 2024 budget and tax rate. I anticipate that Central Health will give appropriate consideration to this immediate issue. I encourage the Board of Managers to support this need now.
Central Health’s proposed budget for the next year sets aside a total of $438 million in reserves – in addition to the $354 million it has budgeted to spend on health services and other functions. The very substantial reserves set aside by Central Health are intended to pay for a long-term Healthcare Equity Plan. That’s good. But, right now there are significant needs, and parts of that distant plan align directly with those immediate needs and the missions of both Central Health and Integral Care.
I want to be clear: I applaud Central Health for planning ahead and setting aside resources now for big investments in the future. But our community has very real health care problems and a homelessness crisis now – today – and Central Health has both the mission and the means to help. That would prevent lay-offs and prevent a reduction in important services.
For the longer term, I’m working to convene the CEOs and board chairs of Central Health and Integral Care along with the Travis County Judge and the County Health Director, the Austin City Manager and me, and the Dean of the Dell Medical School at UT Austin, which is very involved in care arising out of Central Health and Integral Care.
We need to take the responsibility to address three issues for this community:
- Stabilizing and maximizing Integral Care’s budget situation;
- Collaborating and coordinating funding for services related to those who are unhoused; and
- Aligning our long-term visions and plans for addressing homelessness with more immediate needs.
There will be other issues going forward, of course, but these need current and pretty urgent attention.
- Watson Wire: Women’s Equality Day & AWE
Today is Women’s Equality Day, which marks the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Finally getting the right to vote was a major milestone in the fight for women’s equality, but the struggle continues for women to achieve equality, including economic equality.
I recently formed the Mayor’s Task Force for Austin Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) aimed at ensuring Austin’s entrepreneurial women have equal opportunities to start and build their businesses.
We’ve put together a strong group of talented women who are laying the groundwork to make Austin a great city for women to start and build businesses. And they’d like your feedback on actions our city, our higher education institutions, non-profits, and private sector partners can take to support Austin’s women entrepreneurs more robustly.
Help us honor Women’s Equality Day by completing this short survey that the AWE Task Force has developed to engage the community in its important work.
We can create a world-class and thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem for women in Austin. One that's more inclusive and equitable.
- Watson Wire: Getting Out of Our Own Way
The bad news: The City of Austin’s development review process is terribly inefficient and costly and has made our affordability crisis worse.
But, the good news: We’re gonna fix that.
As I took office, I met with McKinsey & Company, the international consulting firm, and asked them to take a deep dive into the City’s site plan review process. I had promised during the campaign that we would dig into this mess and get working to fix it quickly.
McKinsey’s findings are pretty striking:
- Each site plan application goes through about 1,470 total steps.
- Each formal review cycle takes the equivalent of a week’s work for 20 employees and each application, on average, goes through 5 formal review cycles.
- 78% of applicants surveyed reported taking longer than one year to receive a permit.
- 81% of applicants surveyed reported submitting 3+ times to resolve formal review comments.
- Every month of delay increases the overall development costs of a single-family house by almost $10,000. For a multifamily development, it adds almost $546,000 a month.
- Only 1 percent of the customers surveyed were satisfied with the City of Austin’s site review process. By comparison, customer satisfaction with the state’s permitting and licensure processes is 34 percent.
City staff is also frustrated by the lack of a coordinated and streamlined review process, and applicants noted that the consistent turnover of reviewers leads to delayed reviews. So clearly, the process works for no one.
With 11 different departments playing a role in the review process, McKinsey identified the siloed priorities and approaches in each of those departments as a major factor in the breakdown in the process. What we need is a “shared direction and ‘one team’ mindset and approach.” The siloed nature of City departments has been a recurring problem as we’ve spent this past 7 months working to reorganize the City for success.
Over the years, there have been a lot of audits and reports on the development review process, but nothing lasting seemed to come of them. This one is different. McKinsey started at the most fundamental level of documenting each laborious step in the review process, which shockingly had never been in any of those past efforts.
At Tuesday’s City Council work session, we’ll hear from McKinsey about their findings and recommendations for a process that is designed for customers and staff with consistency, transparency, and ease of use. The recommendations include some changes that we could implement quickly, such as creating an online “pizza tracker” for applicants to know the status of their application. Other changes, including new IT systems, will take longer to ensure they’re done right.
And then on Thursday, the Council will vote on a contract for McKinsey to continue on with the implementation of this initial phase.
There are a lot of variables in the affordability equation, and many of them are outside of the City’s control. But this one is all us, and there is consensus that we need to get out of our own way and get this done to make Austin more affordable to everyone.
- Watson (Water) Wire: Wanting for and Wasting Not
Seems that 47 years of a guilty conscience finally caught up with Bob of Flushing, Michigan. So, in a recent letter to me, Bob admitted that he and his wife absconded with an item that belonged to the people of Austin back in 1976.
“We took a souvenir, and now we’re returning it,” Bob wrote. “We are hopeful that the statute of limitations on liberating Water Works property has run out.”
As for those outstanding UT parking tickets from the same time, Bob is less concerned: “Can you please tell the campus safety office that we’re not yet so repentant that we’ll pay those two parking tickets?”
By the power vested in me by the ratepayers of the Austin Water Utility, I absolve you, Bob. But you’re on your own with UT.
Time to Conserve
Austin is no stranger to hot, dry summers, but the extreme heat and lack of rain we’ve seen this summer means we all need be very mindful about our water use. We expect that the water storage in the Highland Lakes, the reservoirs that are the source of Austin’s drinking water, will soon reach about 45% of capacity, which is a critical level that’s triggering the next stage of the City’s Drought Contingency Plan.
What this means for you is that beginning Tuesday, August 15, the City of Austin’s Stage Two watering restrictions will be in effect and enforced. These restrictions include:
Automatic irrigation and hose-end watering is restricted to one day per week.
Automatic irrigation runtime is reduced by 3 hours with cutoff at 5 a.m. instead of 8 a.m.
Water waste is prohibited.
Restaurants may serve water only upon request.
Charity car washes are prohibited, and home car washing must use an auto-shut-off valve or a bucket.
Patio misters at commercial properties, including restaurants and bars, may operate only between 4 p.m. and midnight.
Large ornamental fountains can no longer be operated.
New landscape-establishment irrigation is no longer exempt from the watering schedule.
Saving for a Non-Rainy Day
Sustaining an essential lifesource should motivate us both individually and as a city looking to our future.
During my first time as mayor, we negotiated a long-term water supply contract with the Lower Colorado River Authority. It was an important deal for us and something we count on today. When I was in the Texas Senate, I worked with the LCRA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to update the LCRA’s water management plan to better assure conservation and that there is water to meet the terms of the water agreement.
Importantly, following the historic drought Central Texas experienced from 2008-2016, Austin Water, with the assistance of lots of community experts and input, developed the Water Forward Plan, a 100-year integrated water resource plan focused on ensuring a sustainable and resilient water supply.
The plan recommended a robust set of strategies to manage our supply including things like expanding the purple pipe system that uses treated, reclaimed water for the purpose of irrigation, cooling towers, and other uses not related to requiring higher-quality drinking water. The plan also recommended an aquifer storage and recovery project, which is a strategy that would store water in a natural aquifer during wet times for later recovery and use. It’s an ambitious project but will be a critical part in securing water for generations to come.
This scorching, almost unbearable weather reminds us daily of the need to think about and prepare for tomorrow.
- Watson Wire: Halting Zilker Park Vision Plan
The Zilker Metropolitan Park Vision Plan will not be on the August 31st City Council agenda, and there is no plan to bring it before the Austin Mayor and Council in the future.
I’ve written previously and spoken publicly multiple times about my concerns with the Zilker Park Vision Plan.
As the plan is shelved, we should recognize that really good people can often disagree. A lot of people and groups worked hard to do something big and positive for our community. And our city staffers have put a lot into this process, as well. I truly appreciate and respect their efforts.
In this case, I see people who share a love our home and have good motivations all agreeing that Zilker Park is special — an Austin jewel. They also agree that the park needs our care and protection, and folks from all over town deserve access to it. However, they disagree on how to achieve these important purposes.
My recommendation is that we cool off for a spell (I wish we could do that with the weather, too). We could all benefit from a little time and perspective. And then, we can start working together on the recommendations in the plan that have consensus.
On those issues where there is strong disagreement, there is general agreement that the stated goals are valid. For example, the dispute over parking arises from a desire for equitable access to people from all over the city. Where there’s disagreement is how to achieve that common goal.
While there’s also disagreement over a new location for the Zilker Hillside Theater, there’s little disagreement that our current theater needs help to accommodate a growing city and to have a more functional venue.
I believe strongly that we can — and must — meet our objectives to preserve and nurture the ecological sanctity of this place while assuring equitable access to all Austinites.
However, this plan wasn’t the right course and it’s time for it to be ended. I'm grateful the Interim City Manager has stopped this process.
- Watson Wire: Love Lives Here
The bright and colorful message emblazoned on a wall at the Esperanza Community, a non-congregate homeless shelter complex built and operated by The Other Ones Foundation (TOOF), sings a message of hope and joy. At Esperanza, TOOF offers holistic services including onsite work opportunities, case management, housing navigation and other support for our unhoused neighbors.
And TOOF will soon be able to show the love to even more folks thanks to a big investment from the State of Texas.
Even before I was elected mayor, I was talking with the Governor’s Office and local community partners about addressing the City’s homelessness crisis by increasing shelter capacity in Austin. Those efforts accelerated when I got into City Hall and they led to today, when the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) awarded almost $65 million to Austin community groups addressing homelessness. About $60 million has been earmarked to support the planning for and expansion of the non-congregate shelter model in Austin with a City goal of establishing an estimated 700 additional bed capacity.
Also included in that total is $5 million for Caritas of Austin and LifeWorks for housing stabilization, such as emergency rental assistance.
Susan McDowell, CEO of LifeWorks, said the award will go a long way in supporting efforts to address youth homelessness, providing life-changing services like housing, counseling, and workforce training.
“Through this collaborative partnership with the city and state, we continue to champion the belief that every young person in our community deserves a safe and secure path in pursuit of a life they are going to love,” McDowell said.
Building Stability Through Shelter
Our unhoused population has increased significantly in recent years, but on any given night, there’s only 1 shelter bed for every 5 persons experiencing homelessness. According to an analysis from the City’s Homeless Services Division, we need about 1,000 additional shelter beds.
That means we are far short of what we need to help folks living on our streets, under highway overpasses and in our parks. Remember, they’re out there right now in heat as high as 107 degrees and, based on our conversations with some folks living in the encampments, many of them would like somewhere to get some relief.
Let me be clear, connecting people experiencing homelessness with services while in our shelters is vital in helping them to get healthier, to feel safer, to find relief from the elements, to receive job training, and to resolve their housing.
I believe strongly that we must create a continuum of support so that we can help our unhoused neighbors who need a place to be while we continue to build a pipeline of permanent supportive housing and address affordability issues in Austin. It can’t be all or nothing.
But Austin’s approach to addressing the needs of those living homeless has become too politically charged. As we too often do, we’ve made the discussion an argument and some see only a portion of the solution as the be-all end-all of the solution. They so favor the creation of permanent supportive housing that they’ve rejected more immediate needs that could change lives — such as appropriate shelters.
Additionally, Austin voters said loud and clear in 2021 that they want the camping ban enforced, and the State passed legislation saying that there must be enforcement of the camping ban. That really can’t be meaningfully and humanely done without more shelter space.
The creation of more permanent supportive housing remains an important long-term goal, but progress is incremental and slow. While we work toward that goal, our unhoused neighbors need shelter now, and we need to follow the law regarding camping. Securing the state investment complements recent city investments at the Marshalling Yard and what used to be the Salvation Army as well as two bridge shelters that are part of the City’s HEAL initiative.
Chris Baker, Founder and Executive Director of TOOF, emphasized the need to increase access to dignified and low-barrier shelter in addition to supportive and deeply affordable permanent housing options.
“We are grateful to Mayor Watson and the State for working together to bring much needed funding into our community’s homeless response system to accomplish both,” Baker said. “The most important thing is that these new resources are stewarded by our community and used in response to what our community needs. That’s why all of TOOF's programming is designed in partnership with a variety of community stakeholders. Most importantly, those who are unhoused.”
I’m deeply appreciative of the Governor’s staff and those at TDHCA that worked with me the past several months and who helped to make this huge investment a reality. We are demonstrating how we can partner to serve our shared constituents.
- Watson Wire: Hot off the Presses
It's hot outside. I'm working hard to address this issue. It's taking a little longer than I wanted, but, if I’m successful, you'll notice cooler temperatures around late October (if we’re lucky) but (unfortunately) more like early November.
In the meantime, the best I can offer is popsicles.
The other day, I visited a city summer camp with popsicles from Mom & Pops, and this evening Council Member José Velásquez and I will be at the Pan Am Summer Hillside Concert Series with cool treats from La Super Michoacana.
Seriously, it's very hot. Pay attention to how you feel. Hydrate. Check on neighbors (especially elderly and those who need a little more help), watch the kids and take care of yourself.
First Draft of the Budget
Tomorrow marks opening day of budget season for the City of Austin when we have our first work session related to the proposed 2023-24 budget.
Before you pull up the enormous budget document and do a quick search for the things you care about most, I’d ask that you take a step back because we’re doing some big things here to make local government work the way it ought to work and fix some of the big problems we inherited.
This budget reflects a fundamental change in how our city is functioning. It shows how our City Council and City Management can work in concert to address complex challenges and improve the quality of life for every Austinite.
Affordability: The city is approaching the affordability crisis through several avenues. For city employees, the proposed budget includes a living wage increase to $20.80 and a 4 percent pay increase for all civilian employees. For taxpayers, we kept the bump in total taxes and fees to 2 percent for a “typical” homeowner.
To tackle housing affordability directly, we’ve taken a deep dive into the city’s development review process to determine how we can streamline how long it takes to get a site plan. That examination is almost done, and this budget includes funding to implement changes so the city will be able to move quicker and stop being an obstacle to creating essential housing and infrastructure.
Resilience: As I’ve said before, Winter Storm Mara was a clarifying event that revealed there was a need for some significant changes at City Hall. That weather disaster exposed some serious deficiencies in our readiness, so we’re investing heavily in hardening Austin Energy’s distribution system as well as studying the feasibility of burying overhead power lines. There is funding for additional generators for city facilities, such as fire stations that lost power during the storm as well as a continued commitment to the Resilience Hub Network, which includes community-focused facilities that offer day-to-day services and support the community before, during and after a disaster.
Homelessness: We’re taking a comprehensive approach to homelessness in this budget by investing in the entire continuum — including prevention, emergency sheltering and permanent supportive housing. All told, this proposed budget increases appropriations to homelessness response by 13 percent. Our job is to demonstrate results from that investment. In addition, the city will be consolidating the way we currently deal with trash and cleaning up encampments. We have a beautiful city and want to ensure public spaces are inviting to everyone.
We’re in the enviable position of tackling these challenges from a platform of success. Unlike some cities, we’re not managing decline and decay. Instead, we’re working to manage the byproducts of success — and that creates opportunity.
That also creates the expectation that we’re going to get it all done and done right. Things are never going to be perfect and there are going to be times when we try something that doesn’t work and we have to recalibrate and go in a different direction.
- Watson Wire: Announcing AWE
During SXSW in March, a bunch of mayors, ministers and ambassadors from foreign cities and countries came by City Hall to visit with me. I teased that there must be some international rule that requires an official to attach a picture of themselves with the Austin mayor to get their travel reimbursed.
Austin is envied around the world as a focal point in a worldwide economy. Other cities — other nations — look at us and want to be a part of our success. They want to partner with us, be our Sister City, engage in trade.
Many of the people and businesses moving here are coming to capitalize on our region’s incredible economic growth. And for those who’ve been able to take advantage of our success, Austin has been a land of opportunity. But along the way, lots of folks have been left behind, including many long time Austinites, who can no longer live in the city they love.
Changing the Paradigm
For a while now, many have judged the success of Austin’s economic development approach by almost exclusively focusing on how many new jobs we created each year. We count the number of new W-2s, pat ourselves on the back and then start all over again in the new year.
I absolutely want us to keep creating jobs. But it’s time for us to evolve our model and create a greater focus on getting more of the people living here participating in the economy — by putting them into those new jobs and by providing better help to those who live here and want to create jobs. We need to focus on the person — the Austinite — we want in the created job and not just the creation of the job.
As we address Austin’s affordability, we’ve tended to focus on subsidizing housing or building more units to address supply and demand and drive down costs. Another important way to make meaningful progress on this issue is by adding solutions to the family income side of the equation — helping Austinites make more money, so they can more afford living in Austin.
My goal is to shift Austin’s economic development paradigm to be unapologetically focused on helping the people in Austin participate in and enjoy more of our prosperity.
The Mayor’s Task Force for Austin Women Entrepreneurs
A key part of my overall plan is creating the Mayor’s Task Force for Austin Women Entrepreneurs (AWE). AWE is charged with exploring actions the city, our higher education institutions, non-profits and private sector partners can and should take to more robustly support women entrepreneurs.
This town is loaded with enterprising, talented women ready to take the risks to start and grow businesses. It’s also loaded with resources for helping those women achieve success. But our entrepreneurial ecosystem needs to be more inclusive and equitable. I’m excited that Carla McDonald, founder and managing director of the investment firm Dynabrand Ventures, will be the Chair. The initial AWE members will be Cristina Silingardi, Lauren Washington, Jan Ryan, and Mellie Price. We’ll announce additional members later.
I’ve asked this excellent group to report back shortly after the first of next year with pragmatic, actionable recommendations. We will immediately begin implementing those things that will enhance the ability of Austin’s entrepreneurial women to see dreams fulfilled in business and successful job creation.
I’m excited to see the coming recommendations. AWE will be a great catalyst for Austin, helping us align our assets to make Austin the #1 city in the world for entrepreneurial women to start and build businesses.
There’s More — Building Community
AWE isn’t the only way we’re looking to shift our eco devo model. In the coming years, there will be $25 billion in transportation infrastructure in the works for our community, including the airport expansion, I-35 reconstruction and Project Connect. This essentially creates a distinct economic development sector —workforce for creating infrastructure.
Austin should see mobility and infrastructure projects not as building a rail line or a tarmac or a road, but as community building, providing the means for Austinites to build careers and financial security for their families.
We’re going to use these public investments to relentlessly focus on making sure Austinites have the training and education to access good careers while we improve mobility.
We have an opportunity to invest in our local talent — in particular, our young people, to capture these high-opportunity jobs with the right training and support. These are well paying jobs that lead to careers and economic mobility.
One of the biggest obstacles for anyone to take advantage of job training and other economic opportunities is access to affordable, quality childcare. For many Austin families, childcare is the second-biggest monthly expense, behind only housing. When parents can’t find affordable, accessible childcare, it impedes their career growth. And a lot of the times — it’s women who see their career opportunities dwindle due to this lack of childcare.
The pandemic shined a bright light on the childcare crisis and we’re not going to squander this moment. We’re working with community leaders, business leaders, and providers to put together a plan of action to invest in childcare.
Imagine if the recommendations made by AWE helped us partner and assist some of the women entrepreneurs running home-based small businesses that provide quality early childhood care and education. I think that would be something pretty neat.
We’re still in the formative stages on some of this and there will be a lot more in the coming months. But we’re absolutely focused on fostering opportunity for everyone in this community.
- Watson Wire: Talking About the Dough
My first budgeting experience was when I was about 8 and sold donuts door to door. On Saturdays, I’d buy 12 dozen donuts at the nearby donut shop, and they’d throw in another dozen for free. I’d drag those donuts around in a wagon. My pitch at the door was if you bought my product, you wouldn’t have to cook breakfast the next day before church. I also may have told folks that I was saving for college.
The budget was simple — have enough dough to buy 12 dozen donuts, and the extra dozen would be my profit margin. At some point, my parents “convinced” me I should cut my younger brother Kyle in on this enterprise. I gave him a dime for pulling the wagon. I had to budget for his questionable work. Kyle still claims he was badly, if not illegally, underpaid.
Budgeting Austin’s Dough
It’s budget time at City Hall. On July 14th, the first cut at the FY 2023-24 Budget will be made public. And we’re talking about more than donut money.
To illustrate, the FY 2022-23 All Funds Operating Budget for the City of Austin was $5.0 billion, which includes Austin Energy, Austin Water, the airport. The City allocated just under $1.3 billion — about 25% of the All Funds budget — for the General Fund that covers things like public safety (Police, Fire and EMS), parks and libraries. Police, Fire and EMS were almost 62% of the General Fund. Most of the money in the General Fund comes from sales and property taxes with some coming from utility transfers, fines and fees.
The Enterprise Funds make up the biggest chunk of spending. Austin Energy, Austin Water and Aviation account for the biggest expenditures and are primarily funded by rates paid by customers.
The Timeline and Transparency
When I was in the Texas Senate, I served on the Finance Committee for several years. From the beginning of my time in the Senate, I pushed for more openness in the budgeting process. I called it my “Honesty Agenda” and I’m proud we made some significant changes that allowed for items to be laid out for longer time periods so that the public had more of a chance to know what was happening, legislators could better know what they were voting on and, overall, there were fewer surprises.
Last Friday, I laid out an outline for the process the City Council can use to get us to a good outcome. It will assure transparency and efficiency in the process.
I’m anticipating this will be a very collaborative budget process. The City Council has done a good job this year of breaking down barriers between the policymaking body and the administrative functions.
Here’s the outline. Of course, we will be appropriately flexible and there likely will be some adjustments along the way.
Friday, July 14, 2023:
The City Manager will file the draft budget with the City Clerk, and it will be delivered to the Mayor and Council Members.
July 14th starts the Council Budget Questions process. The public can see the questions and answers asked throughout the process.
Wednesday, July 19th, 2023:
A work session at which the City Manager will present the budget to Mayor and Council. After the presentation, Council will ask questions and get specific briefings on parts of the budget.
Wednesday, July 26th, 2023:
A council meeting focused on the City’s General Fund. The meeting will begin with public comment at 10:00 am.
Tuesday, August 1st, 2023:
We will also have a work session focused on Enterprise Funds.
We will hold a public hearing on the maximum tax rate and public comment regarding any budget aspect at 3:00 pm. We will then set the maximum tax rate.
Thursday, August 3rd, 2023:
This date is held for a potential meeting if needed.
Monday, August 7th, 2023:
We’ll have a goal of filing proposed Budget Amendments and Budget Items from Council (IFCs) by close of business.
“Budget Amendments” are items where a Council Member seeks to amend an appropriation in the budget. “Budget IFCs” are items from a Council Member that address policy that a member wishes to be made as part of the budget process.
Thursday, August 8th, 2023:
This date is held for a potential meeting if needed.
Thursday, August 10th, 2023:
A work session for Council Members to publicly lay out proposed Budget Amendments and IFCs to provide greater transparency and less surprises for the public and the Council.
Wednesday, August 16th—Friday, August 18th:
We will vote on the budget.
- Watson Wire: Zilker Park
Liz and I moved to Austin 42 years ago, and people constantly told us, “You’ll never want to leave”. It was so frequent that we laughed about it — until, of course, we decided we never wanted to leave. That took all of about 3 months.
Zilker Park was one of the places everyone told us we just had to go. I still remember a bunch of firsts: the first time I was in the park on the Great Lawn, the first time I saw something at the Hillside Theatre, ate ice cream near the entrance of Barton Springs Pool and the first time I literally chilled in the pool. I remember taking my boys to that park. I’ve listened to music in the park so many times. Heck, for 13 years, I even hosted a concert there that was quite an event, if I do say so myself.
Zilker ain’t just any park. It’s sort of foundational to Austin. Historically, it was first started in 1917 when Andrew Zilker gave about 35 acres around Barton Springs to the city. That area had been a place that people gathered for centuries. The last gift by Zilker was in 1940, when the park was named after him. The park is now 351 acres.
In a city growing and changing as fast as Austin, it’s okay for some places — especially places that are foundational — to maintain some original qualities and remain open space that’s more organic and basic. That’s really true for spots that mean so many different things to so many different people.
The Vision Plan
The Zilker Metropolitan Park Vision Plan has been in the works for years, starting with planning money approved by voters as part of the 2012 bond package. The draft plan, which was released last fall and is set to come to the City Council soon, has become a flash point. There are some parts of this plan that are really good improvements, but I understand the unhappiness and fear some people have.
It’s important to note that there’s no money to pay for the proposed vision plan – and it would be very expensive at a time when Austin has several parks all over town that need significant improvements. Serious consideration needs to be given to the equity of paying for this proposal before making changes and improvements elsewhere.
Additionally, there are aspects of the proposal that, in my view, are either unnecessary or will greatly disrupt the special place. For example, I don’t support a big amphitheater on the Great Lawn. We’ve proven you don’t need such a thing to have amazing shows there. And we just opened a pretty cool amphitheater in downtown at Waterloo Park. Plus, we can, and should, upgrade and make improvements at the current Hillside Theatre.
I also don't support putting garages in the park. There are options for parking that wouldn’t impact the park so negatively as garages. For example, we could partner with Austin ISD to utilize the area around Austin High in a way that serves the school district and the city. We could put parking there for park visitors and, done right, we could work with AISD to get housing for teachers and school district staff. We can get additional benefits without damaging Zilker.
Finally, I favor taking parts of the park back to nature—what some call “re-wilding”. It preserves Zilker and helps us achieve our climate goals.
I will never support turning the park over to an independent, private corporate entity to govern or control it, as some have worried this plan may do. I ran for mayor saying that City Hall should do better at taking care of the basics. One part of that is making sure our governance or oversight of things like Zilker is done well. If there is some need to have a person (or two or three) coordinating communication and activity with the various and many groups that enjoy Zilker, then the city can hire such people. Make that their job and make sure it’s done well. That’s pretty basic.
This special place belongs to Austinites. It’s a deep part of the city’s foundation and soul. I thank all of those who have given so much time to bring a proposal forward. However, I think there are parts of the proposal that need to be improved and removed.
The word has been that Council will take up this item on July 20th. That isn’t what we’ll be doing. Instead, the Council will focus on the budget until mid-August. The Zilker plan will be part of a work session on August 29th. The Council will then consider taking action on August 31st. We’ll hear from the public on the 31st.
- Watson Wire: Hot Wire
We’re facing yet another weather emergency in Austin, but this one differs from what we all endured in February for several reasons – including the obvious 80-degree temperature swing.
The City Council brought in Jesús Garza to serve as interim city manager in the wake of Winter Storm Mara with a mandate to focus on how to improve basic city services, including the city’s emergency response. Under the previous management, the city had failed to implement key lessons learned during Winter Storm Uri in 2021 and that contributed to the extended power outage and public frustration with the city’s communication.
A key step we’ve taken to ensure the city is prepared and responsive to you during an emergency is the appointment of Ken Snipes as the new Director of Emergency Management. I’m glad he’s in this position.
Here are some other steps we’ve taken:
Communication: We will make sure information is regularly provided to the public that outlines how to stay safe, what is happening with the weather, and how the city is using its resources to help people who need assistance. Outreach communication staff are coordinating across departments and sharing messaging on social media. Information includes available cooling center locations, recognizing heat illness and actions to take to prevent it, and protecting children, elderly, and pets during hot weather.
Coordination: At my request, and working with the City Manager, we’ve activated the city team that coordinates the run-up to this emergency to ensure we’re prepared and being proactive. This might sound pretty basic, but the lack of that internal coordination was a major problem in February. We’ve also bolstered our efforts to work in concert and share information among the Big 5 public partners – City of Austin, Travis County, Austin ISD, Austin Community College, and the University of Texas.
Collaboration: Working with all our outreach networks, including faith-based and non-profit organizations, we’re reaching out to our most vulnerable populations. Austin Public Health is in contact with area hospitals and nursing homes to offer any support and assistance necessary. In the case of an energy emergency, Austin Energy (AE) will proactively contact customers on its Medically Vulnerable Registry. AE also has crews on standby 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to respond immediately to outages.
Fading the Heat
In a news conference this morning, we hit on some key points for all of you to prepare for this extreme weather. The biggest takeaway? You are not invincible. This heat and humidity are dangerous. Knowing how to be safe during this excessive heat warning is important to protecting yourself and vulnerable populations.
Look before you lock – Even if you think you will only be away for a second, NEVER leave children and pets inside a locked vehicle. Even in the mid-60s, the outside temperature can cause the inside of a vehicle to rise above 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
Stay hydrated - Drink more water than usual. If you’re feeling dehydrated, you probably are.
Protect your pets - Provide your pets with plenty of water and shade. Speaking of pets, the city is offering free adoptions at the animal shelter for the foreseeable future. The goal is to get more people to take pets home so that we better manage capacity and, consequently, are better able to keep animals from needing to be outside.
Work and play safely - Avoid high-energy activities and exercise during extreme heat, especially during the afternoon. If you have to be outside, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water and staying in the shade.
Check in on elderly family members, friends and neighbors - Make sure they have access to air conditioners and/or fans and clean water for hydration.
Due to extreme heat, all Parks and Library facilities will serve as Cooling Centers during normal operating hours. Service animals are permitted in City facilities. Check hours and operations before arriving.
Water Breaks for Employees
The City of Austin takes the safety of our employees very seriously. Supervisors should ensure that employees working outdoors, working indoors without air conditioning or ventilation, take scheduled breaks in cool areas. Ensure there is plenty of cool water to drink on-site and take water breaks as needed.
In light of recent legislation, there might be some confusion out there about the city’s ordinance requiring water breaks for construction workers.
Let’s be clear: the city’s ordinance is still in effect. Employees performing construction activities at a construction site are entitled to a rest and water break every four hours. The new state law that preempts our ordinance does not go in effect until September 1 so employers are still subject to the city water break ordinance.
ERCOT and Austin Energy
ERCOT issued a Voluntary Conservation Notice— a pre-emergency measure— on June 19 due to extreme heat and forecasted record demand. City of Austin followed ERCOT’s voluntary notice and reduced consumption at city facilities. Even though that notice has expired, and we do not expect any more measures to be taken by ERCOT for the remainder of the week, I would like to remind folks to conserve energy during peak usage hours in the afternoon to lighten the load.
Austin Energy crews are ready to respond to customer needs and are working in the field through this extreme summer heat.
Be Cool to Our Public Servants
Finally, we have a lot of city and county employees providing public service in this extreme heat. Please take notice and thank them for their hard work.
And stay safe.
- Watson Wire: Getting (Stuff) Done for Housing
We’ve seen in recent years that the very qualities that drew so many people to Austin for so long – an ethos of acceptance and an economy of abundance – are now jeopardized by the incredible growth they produced. At the same time, economic forces far beyond our control have further compromised Austin’s affordability, with rising housing costs as the central cause and effect.
I worry a lot about intergenerational inequity. If housing costs in Austin put home ownership – typically the basis of long-term financial stability – out of reach for our children and grandchildren, we’ll be undermining their future. Even if people don’t want to or can't own, being able to find a place to live that’s affordable is key to building a future. The next generation should have a right to build lives in Austin (and build wealth in Austin) the way so many of us did for so long. We can’t protect Austin – in fact, we'll fail Austin – by cutting off the next generation of Austinites. For that matter, we can't cut off those folks here right now that are in desperate need of housing and provide essential services and play essential roles in our city.
But the good news is that the fight is not lost, and we still have powerful weapons at our disposal – namely, an extraordinary consensus about what our challenges are, and a shared determination to find solutions that change the equation. If we respond thoughtfully but decisively to our housing emergency – if we come together around a positive vision, and quickly take steps to turn that vision into a reality – I know that we can protect Austin’s special quality of life, for ourselves and future generations.
As I’ve mentioned before, one of the first steps we’ve taken to address our housing emergency was to bring in consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to examine our wildly inefficient development review process that both drives up costs and limits the supply. Their focus is on streamlining the work of the 11 city departments involved with development review to ensure the city is part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Their findings, which we expect very soon, will help us to get moving quickly on more housing and critical infrastructure.
When it comes to housing, I believe that Austinites want to expand the availability of a full range of housing options without damaging the essential character of our existing neighborhoods or putting our environment at risk. And I’m talking about neighborhoods all over Austin, not just in certain parts of the city. Neighborhood character, culture and community are important everywhere.
Shared Determination to Find Solutions
The other day, I heard someone say that this Council, in six months, has made more progress on making changes that will create or allow more affordable housing to be built in Austin than we saw in the previous decade or so. A big part of the reason we’ve been stagnant in the past is because Austin’s policymakers have taken an all-or-nothing approach to enacting land-use changes. As a result, we got nothing.
In the Austin Chronicle’s new Best of Austin poll, one constituent who voted for me as Best City Official offered what I assume is a compliment: “Love him or hate him, he's gettin' (stuff) done.” I’d argue that our City Council is gettin’ (stuff) done on housing now because we all understand that doing nothing is no longer an option and we haven’t fallen into the trap of making things an all-or-nothing proposition.
Instead, the Council has started targeting some of the thorny land-use code provisions that have been obstacles to building more housing and addressing them, specifically, those include:
Creating tools for greater density along transit corridors, known as Equitable Transit-Oriented Development.
It’s important to note that these Council resolutions are the beginning of the policy discussion, not the end. The Council gives policy direction to the City Manager and staff to develop an ordinance and then bring it back to the Council for adoption. That process allows for plenty more opportunity for folks to weigh in.
Prioritizing public property to build deeply affordable housing.
Addressing our compatibility standards to allow for denser development closer to residential neighborhoods. The current standard is 540 feet, while the resolution adopted calls for 100 feet.
Addressing our Affordability Unlocked development program to encourage market-rate housing density without taxpayer-funded subsidies while also working to create a new bonus program that focuses on affordable home ownership in our city.
Making it easier and cheaper to build on small lots and we should anticipate policy that will be coming forward soon with proposals to reduce our minimum lot sizes and ease the process for building Accessory Dwelling Units.
Addressing the city’s parking minimum requirements so that they don’t unduly hamper affordable building.
- Watson Wire: Stabilizing City Government
The Austin City Council is officially on a “budget break,” meaning there won’t be a council meeting again until July 20. The break from council meetings gives city staff some much-needed time and space to prepare the proposed budget and make headway on some other key policy priorities.
When I was running to be the mayor again, I pointed out how we ask a lot of city staff, and having the right people in the right places is essential to our city running well. I said that we needed to shake up city hall and be sure the place was organized to deliver the services of city government well. Shortly after taking office, during the February ice storm and power outage, it became painfully clear to me that we did not have the right people in the right places to manage a cascading crisis and communicate effectively with the public.
On Feb. 15, the City Council parted ways with our previous City Manager and lured former City Manager Jesús Garza out of retirement to serve as the interim. The Council directive to Jesús was to stabilize our city government and get those basic operations of the city running well. We asked him to fix the problems of the past so that our next permanent City Manager can focus on moving the city forward.
Jesús and his team of temporary leaders brought decades of city management experience to the enormous task of evaluating how all our departments work together to serve the people of Austin. What they found was that the departments often weren’t working together and the organization was not set up to succeed.
So he has made a number of positive management changes, including some that directly relate to the winter storm response:
Austin Energy: Bob Kahn will be the next General Manager of our municipally owned utility. He is returning to Austin Energy after running the Texas Municipal Power Agency and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (BTW…his tenure at ERCOT was long before the events of Winter Storm Uri in 2021 that shined a bright light on the electric grid operator).
Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management: Ken Snipes has led Austin Resource Recovery since 2019 and did an excellent job managing the city’s storm debris clean-up. He has been on special assignment in recent months assisting Interim Assistant City Manager Bruce Mills in evaluating the City’s Emergency Operations functions and will now take over as Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Chief Strategic Communications & External Relations Officer: Providing the public clear, timely and accurate information is essential during a crisis. We can’t afford a lack of coordination among the multiple city departments that are communicating to the public. Michele Middlebrook-Gonzalez, who previously served as the city’s Public Information Director, will return in the newly created position of Chief Strategic Communications & External Relations Officer to focus on strategic internal and external communication across the organization.
Other organizational changes are aimed at improving city operations and efficiency to address our affordability crisis:
Development Services Department: Eleven city departments have a hand in the development review process and they haven’t been working efficiently or effectively together, leading to long and costly delays for housing and critical infrastructure. The challenge of getting all those departments in sync now falls to José Roig, who began with the city as a commercial building inspector and will lead the Development Services Department permanently. Since taking over as the interim DSD Director in January, José has integrated the Code Enforcement functions into the department and embarked upon analyzing the development review and permitting with the aim of streamlining the process.
And, at my request, McKinsey & Company, an international consulting firm, has been doing a deep dive into what we need to do to be better at the development review process. They have been aggressive, and the preliminary results show us a great roadmap for big improvement. I’m excited that we’ll have a final report very soon. They’ve done this pro bono.
Planning Department: The new Planning Department is taking on the big-picture policy issues related to land use and code changes, which allows the separate Housing Department to focus on affordability and creating more housing. Lauren Middleton-Pratt, who was previously an assistant city manager in Buda overseeing development services, started last month as the Director of the Planning Department.
Why it matters now?
All of these changes will help to stabilize this organization and set up the next City Manager for success. That’s why I believe now is the right time to begin the search process for a permanent city manager.
I committed that we would start in the June/July timeframe by gathering a committee of council members to narrow the field of search firms that will then be brought to the full Council for review and selection. I have asked Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis and Council Members Leslie Pool, Chito Vela and Vanessa Fuentes to help with the initial process.
I hope we accomplish the selection of a firm in the July-August time frame and the firm can begin its work.
- Watson Wire: Addressing Homelessness
We passed several items on yesterday’s City Council agenda that reflect our commitment to addressing the humanitarian emergency in our city.
Austin’s unhoused population has increased significantly in these past few years, with an estimated 5,000 people experiencing homelessness as of February. But fewer than 900 of those individuals currently receive some form of shelter.
The narrow approach we inherited has been to create more permanent supportive housing, almost to the exclusion of anything else. Now, more permanent supportive housing is absolutely essential. But it takes a long time to get it built and to house people in it. It can’t be all-or-nothing.
We need to do more to address the emergency shelter needs of our neighbors living on the street right now while also ensuring they have access to connective services and housing support – and we will.
Additional shelter beds can’t come fast enough. Our encampments have grown in both numbers and size. The conditions in these encampments in many cases pose a danger to the people living in them. The encampments also violate the public camping ban reinstated by Austin voters as well as state law. We’ll be far better able to meet the will of Austin voters and follow the law with more emergency shelters now while working to create the permanent supportive housing we also need.
It simply doesn’t make sense to rely on an all-or-nothing approach if you care about those living under highway overpasses, in our parks and on our street corners. Instead, we’re identifying any-and-all opportunities to increase our shelter capacity, addressing mental health needs, and supporting organizations already working to provide housing. And very soon, we’ll be able to announce some significant new investments and efforts to address this emergency.
We’ve identified several opportunities to increase our shelter capacity:
- Marshalling Yard: We’ll convert part of the city-owned facility to make a temporary emergency shelter that is expected to provide up to 300 additional beds as well as support services.
- Downtown Shelter: The city will re-open the downtown shelter that the Salvation Army abruptly closed in March.
- Northbridge/Southbridge Shelters: The city is creating space for an additional 130 people at the Northbridge and Southbridge shelters by shifting rooms from single to double occupancy.
All told, that means about 500 more of our unhoused neighbors will have the opportunity to sleep in a safe place and be connected to services and providers that can help them move toward a permanent housing solution.
Common Sense, Accountable Finances
The City has allocated a lot of money to bring thousands of new permanent supportive housing units online for people experiencing homelessness in addition to these new emergency shelters. That money must be spent in the best way possible that’s going to help the most of our neighbors.
To that end, I’ve asked the City Manager to report to the Council about how our public dollars are being used to create permanent supportive housing, the status of the units that we’re told are being built, and what’s being done to ensure all our investments have been properly vetted and our limited resources are used wisely.
We need this housing, but we also have an obligation to make sure people are getting what they were promised and that financially sound decisions have been and are being made.
Watson Wire: Surviving the Legislature
Hating on Austin is a favorite political pastime in the Texas Capitol. And in Austin, hating on those in the Capitol is a pretty good way to score political points, too. It’s been especially intense these past few years — in both directions.
This was my first legislative session as mayor (this time) and only the second session since I left the Texas Senate. I've been working to ratchet down the antipathy between the city and state since I came into office in January by opening the lines of communication, finding workable policy solutions and making bad bills less bad. I do this to better serve the people of Austin and get better results for our city while always honoring Austin values. We’re seeing positive results.
There were very real threats to the City of Austin during this legislative session – some of which actually threatened the very existence of the Capital City. With the regular legislation session closing on Monday, I’m pleased to tell you that Austin still exists!
Of course, we didn’t stop everything bad and there is an ongoing, concerted effort to restrict the authority of all Texas cities (we’ll save that conversation for another day). But we did get a few good bills through that help our city…shhh, don’t tell anyone. All things considered, we did pretty well at stopping or changing a lot of bills specifically aimed at hurting Austin.
Austin Light Rail
Our biggest win was saving Austin Light Rail from a last-minute Senate amendment that would have killed the financing for the voter-approved infrastructure project. The amendment passed without a public hearing, discussion or debate.
From the start, there was legislation that was expressly meant to overturn the will of Austin voters and kill Austin Light Rail. The “policy” justification kept shifting as the bill moved through the process. It was admitted that the bill wasn’t really about policy but rather was always intended to stop light rail – and that was evidenced by the ways the process was manipulated.
Throughout the legislative session, I negotiated in good faith with the objective of protecting this long-sought community investment for generations to come, even if that meant coming back to the voters. If the deal we made in the House had been honored, there would be legislation today.
But, as I said, if the ultimate goal was to kill light rail in Austin, they couldn't do that with a fair election here. So instead, they moved the goal posts again, declared yet another reason to oppose light rail, and used a hastily drafted Attorney General advisory opinion that isn’t law to justify jamming through a last-minute amendment that essentially re-wrote the House version.
Fortunately, we worked with Rep. Bucy and our House delegation and we were able to stop that amended version of the bill. And, ironically, now we have a clearer path forward, thanks to that same Attorney General opinion.
So, legally, we’re in a stronger position today than we were just a few months ago. The guidance from that opinion helps inform our next actions.
We could see new legislative challenges. We could also see litigation from those who lost the 2020 election and ran to the Legislature to undermine the will of the voters…but for now we’re going to continue our efforts and look forward to the day when light rail is up and running in Austin.
Austin Energy also faced an existential threat from the Legislature, in large part due to the extended power outage following Winter Storm Mara. Lawmakers filed 9 bills specifically targeting just AE and some of them would’ve bankrupted our city-owned utility and/or the city itself.
I ran for mayor saying we needed to shake things up at City Hall and better provide basic services, including at Austin Energy. And the management of Winter Storm Mara was a prime example of the need for a shake-up, which is why you’ve seen significant management changes at the top levels of the city. My message to state lawmakers was that, together with the Interim City Manager, we were in a much better position than the Legislature to make smart, effective changes to the utility that protect our customers and our taxpayers.
Not a one of the AE bills passed.
There’s still a lot to unpack about the legislative session and how it will affect Austin going forward. On some issues, we’re now subject to new restrictions and less local control. On others, the City Council now has an opportunity to craft policies in the best interest of the City of Austin rather than having them imposed by the Legislature. That is a win.
- Watson Wire: A Message to Our Newest Police Officers
I had the honor and privilege to speak to the 33 newest Austin police officers on Friday evening as they graduated from the academy.
After thanking them and their families for making a commitment to our community, I turned to how we all need to strive to earn the public’s faith and trust.
They are entering the profession of policing at a critical and complex time for Austin – and for policing – and I urged them to be leaders we want and need.
Austin is a special place, and nothing would make me prouder – and not just as mayor, but as a citizen – than for this city to guide the nation on finding the balance in 21st Century policing.
And our best path forward is to forge our own way, to break with convention, to embrace positive change, and to make Austin better.
As I told our newest officers:
"Most of you are of a generation that simply does not accept old divisions and ways of thinking. You can see this job through new eyes. You know that policing is changing. And you have the chance to fulfill your calling by not just carrying out the traditional role of a cop, but by evolving that role so that it parallels a society seeking change.
So, I say to you, with the deepest respect, please – don’t you be naysayers who only see policing as it has been. Instead, be the new generation of leaders who see policing as it can be, and as it must be, to truly earn the faith and trust of this community."
- Watson Wire: Celebrating Austin’s Living Room
Downtown Austin used to be pretty dead. It had no energy, no vibrance and – after the bankers, lawyers and state employees went home at the end of the day – almost no people.
Breathing new life into downtown became the mission of the Downtown Austin Alliance, and, Wednesday night, we celebrated 30 years of the DAA and the amazing transformation of downtown during that time.
Downtown matters. It’s the living room of our community. It’s how we present ourselves to the world. And now we present to the world a place that’s dynamic, interesting, distinctive and full of spirit and possibilities – just like the people of Austin.
Thirty years ago, the Austin City Council held meetings in the retrofitted old Calcasieu Lumber Company building, which had been serving as temporary chambers for a very long time. And when I was elected Mayor the first time around in 1997, we were still operating out of that “temporary” space.
For yesterday’s City Council meeting, we convened in our permanent chambers in City Hall, in the heart of the Second Street District. The vision for the District stemmed from a recommendation by the American Institute of Architects’ Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) when they first came to Austin in 1991. The creation of the Downtown Austin Alliance was also a R/UDAT recommendation.
I brought R/UDAT back to revisit their recommendations in 1997 because we hadn’t made much progress on realizing the vision for a vibrant downtown with a mix of uses, including residential. Experts had told us that we needed more retail downtown before private developers would build housing, and private developers were hesitant to build without retail. We forged ahead to prove up the concept and created a public-private partnership with Post Properties to build a 200-unit residential project near Seaholm. The units leased up faster than anyone expected, and demand took off. Now, more than 14,000 residents live downtown.
When Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) wanted to build a sprawling suburban campus in Austin directly over the aquifer, we lured them away with a few of the virtually dormant blocks the city had purchased back in the early 1970s. That deal helped pay for our current City Hall.
You see, there were obstacles and naysayers— like there always are— but once we laid out the vision of what downtown could be, the creativity of Austinites took over.
Downtown is now much more than just a business center. It’s a place that captivates, entertains, and engages folks.
It’s a special place, and I love to see people enjoying it every day.
- Watson Wire: Public Service
My father, Don Watson, was a lifetime public servant who worked as a government employee. He taught me in a deep and personal way the value of serving and working for those around you. He believed in the good of the whole and viewed public service as the ultimate opportunity for individuals to be better by doing better.
Over the years, I’ve had the honor of working with countless talented and committed public employees who exemplified the Don Watson spirit. People who believe a career in public service isn’t just a job or a means to an end but a part of who they are.
Interim City Manager Jesús Garza is celebrating the contributions of our city employees during Public Service Recognition Week, honoring some of the folks who go above and beyond for the people of Austin.
We ask a lot of our city employees. They work through difficult and dangerous weather to provide us with basic services. They reach out and listen to residents throughout our community to get feedback on public programs and projects. They provide their expertise and experience to City Council, navigating the dense City Code and bringing us public policy solutions for problems big and small. They keep us safe and respond in times of distress. It can be challenging and thankless work at times, but there’s a certain sense of satisfaction knowing you’re doing something meaningful for the community.
Amie Acosta-Gonzales, a library assistant at Austin Public Library’s Terrazas Branch, exemplifies a person with the heart of a public servant. In nominating Amie for special recognition from the City Manager, her supervisor noted that she treats every person who walks through the door as a part of her own family, from organizing staff birthday parties (and making some of the best queso in town) to taking care of folks experiencing homelessness and mental illness.
During Winter Storm Mara, she helped operate Terrazas as a warming center for our unhoused neighbors and even when the library is closed, Amie is there making sure the public is cared for.
I think Don Watson would’ve appreciated her spirit, warmth, and generosity.
No one makes our city better and no one more greatly enhances our quality of life than those public employees who serve us so well.
Every day, City of Austin employees are doing great things just like Amie. And to all of them, I want to say thank you.
- Watson Wire: What's next on public safety?
Proposition A, a ballot initiative related to police oversight, passed overwhelmingly on Saturday. Proposition B, a separate ballot initiative related to less-robust civilian oversight of police, failed – by a lot.
The Austin City Council didn’t adopt the proposed four-year police contract in February primarily because we wanted to protect the right of voters to be heard on police oversight. The huge margin reaffirmed what we all expected: Austinites put a high value on police oversight and transparency. Now, we face the job of trying to put this new and popular policy into effect.
With the election behind us, my hope is that we can get to back to work negotiating a new four-year contract with the police association with the aim of bringing some stability to the seriously understaffed and overworked Austin Police Department.
That said, this already complex situation is further complicated by two factors: pending legislation that would impact provisions just approved by voters; and a provision in Prop. A that, ironically, could lead to the people of Austin having less oversight over their police department than we had under both the expired contract and the proposed four-year contract, assuming the union doesn’t agree to certain Prop. A provisions.
As I’ve said before, this deeply felt conversation about public safety and policing in our community has raised a lot of challenging questions and absolutely no easy answers. But we’ll keep talking and working in the hope of finding some common-sense solutions that serve all our community.
Where's the Balance?
APD currently has more than 300 vacant officer positions, which has undeniable negative implications on our ability to be responsive to the people of Austin when they call for assistance and on crime and safety in our city.
The APD/DPS partnership is intended as a bridge to get us to a long-term police contract and increased APD staffing by providing support and supplement to Austin Police. It’s intended to reduce violent crime and response times and assure greater safety on our roads. It’s designed to send police first to where the most 911 calls are coming from. And it does that, in part, by creating a visible police presence in those areas to deter criminal activity.
Remember that street takeover in February that caused a media frenzy, a focus on police understaffing and cries of lawlessness? On the first weekend of the APD/DPS partnership, they stopped a street takeover near Givens Park in East Austin. The large gathering had drawn about 1,000 participants and as the driving behavior became increasingly more dangerous, APD and DPS shut down MLK Blvd. and cleared the roadway. Based on online chatter, the street takeover-ers are warning each other not to come back to Austin right now because of the increased law enforcement presence.
While we’ve seen a decrease in violent crime since the partnership started, we’ve also seen a troubling number of traffic stops. While we’ve seen more police attention paid to reducing violent crime affecting communities of color, we’ve also seen communities of color feeling overpoliced because of the large police presence.
That can’t be the end of the discussion. We can’t make this an “either/or” debate. It can’t be that we abandon a successful effort to reduce violent crime, particularly in communities of color, if we can also make sure we’re not overpolicing. Likewise, we can’t dismiss concerns of profiling and targeting just because we want to reduce violent crime. There must be—and can be—a balance.
So, let’s start where we ought to agree: We can reduce violent crime while also being responsive to the fears that certain communities are being targeted.
I deeply believe everyone in our community should both be safe and feel safe. And that's a goal we're working toward, not a reality of today.
The reality of today is that the same policing efforts that recently saved a 14-year-old girl from being sex trafficked have also ensnared people whose minor traffic violations led to much more serious consequences because they couldn’t afford car insurance or didn’t have a driver’s license.
The reality of today is that our justice system is not so just and often criminalizes poverty. At the same time, communities of color are experiencing disproportionately high levels of violent crime as well as traffic fatalities and injuries. We have a responsibility to address all those issues using good data, nuanced policy and a lot of heart.
The reality of today is that the Austin Police Department is seriously understaffed and overworked and that affects how officers interact with the community.
We're in the middle of a public policy conversation about one of the most difficult and consequential issues we as a city deal with. We're monitoring, listening, learning, recalibrating and adjusting.
We're looking for that balance and, on most days, are teetering on the edge.
Let’s continue that conversation in a thoughtful, respectful way that focuses on all the aspects of our challenges and not just a piece of the puzzle. That’s harder. It’s not easy or fast. It may not get the same dramatic media headlines or Twitter attention. But it’s also more likely to yield a just result and better outcomes or our city.
- Watson Wire: Long-term vision, short-term focus
In my first Watson Wire as mayor, I shared some of the Ground Rules that I’ve developed over the years to help guide me through difficult policymaking decisions.
One of those principles – have a long-term vision with short-term focus – stemmed from surviving cancer oh so many years ago. When you’re supposed to be dead, well, that helps to put the fleeting nature of time in some perspective. I’ve tried to focus on achieving results right now, but in a way that benefits the long term.
Striking a balance between the now and the future is often the greatest challenge of policymaking. That challenge has been on my mind a lot lately as we’ve been navigating through all the big, thorny, controversial, high-stakes issues that we’ve inherited.
The legislation aimed at killing Austin Light Rail is a good example. Some in the Legislature are coming after us because we used a new funding mechanism – in full compliance with state law – to go big on light rail. And they do love to hate Austin.
What’s the long-term vision? Protecting this generational, voter-approved investment so that our already-big (and still growing) city can keep moving forward.
And the short-term focus? Clearing the way for a different version of the bill to get through the Legislature. The initial versions forced another election but included a number of landmines and poison pills. And simply killing the bill (assuming we could) left lots of risks, including that they’d just come back next session. That risk, by itself, would have made our ability to get federal money a lot less likely.
The current version of the bill, which will probably be on the House floor as early as Tuesday, removes those obstacles that were in the previous versions and gives Austin voters a fair election to reaffirm their overwhelming support for investing in light rail.
Our objective is to ensure that Austin Light Rail is built on a solid foundation for the future. And the best way to do that is an election in November 2023 to authorize the issuance of the revenue bonds needed to finance construction of the project. Those bonds are backed by the dedicated tax dollars voters already approved in 2020 so the vote won’t change anyone’s tax bill.
As I’ve said before, the Legislature has the power to force another vote, but the ultimate power lies with the people of Austin. And I have full confidence that the people of Austin will prevail in the end.
I’ve relied on a similar approach to the partnership with the Texas Department of Public Safety. The long-term vision is to bring some stability to the Austin Police Department, which is severely understaffed. That has contributed to longer response times, more crime and less safety in Austin as well as an overworked police force.
The staffing situation isn’t likely to change anytime very soon. We currently don’t have a contract with the police union, and we’re seeing more retirements and resignations than new recruits. Now, this City Council has shored up the pay and retirement benefits for police officers even in the absence of a contract and has offered new recruitment and retention incentives as well. But it’s tough to attract new folks into such an uncertain situation, particularly given that law enforcement agencies all over are struggling with staffing.
My hope is that the police union will return to the negotiating table after the May 6 vote on the two police oversight initiatives, and we can start working together in the best interest of our community. But there are a lot of moving parts here, and I’m not certain that will happen real quick.
While the long-term stability remains elusive, the short-term focus has been to provide support and supplement to our police department through this partnership with DPS. The partnership’s goal is to be responsive to residents who fear violent crime and have called 911 to ask for help, to reduce crime, to keep people safe in our community, and reduce traffic fatalities and injuries. To achieve that purpose, patrol and deployment are prioritized in those area with a high-call volume.
People have the right to be safe and feel safe, including and without question, if you’re a person of color being stopped by police or if you are someone making a 911 call reporting a violent crime.
Let me be clear: If there are unintended consequences to our approach, we must address them immediately because we want to ensure Austinites have no reason to fear that they’ll be racially profiled or targeted by this effort. This continuing collaboration with DPS requires transparency and accountability.
At the same time, a key reason for this short-term focus is to better serve those who are the most impacted by violent crime and are wanting help. During the campaign I heard from them. And we hear from them in real time with their calls wanting police response.
We want to make Austinites more safe. The initial results show that there has been a decrease in response times and crime.
As for transparency, we started that process at the April 18th work session meeting. Tomorrow, the City Council will have another work session with an open and full conversation regarding this partnership, and DPS will be present.
We are counting on DPS and other agencies to provide additional data so that we can fully evaluate the partnership and provide some assurance to our community. If we’re not satisfied with the answers, we can recalibrate and do things differently or we can end the partnership at any time.
- Watson Wire: Let the people vote – again
The legislation aimed at killing Austin Light Rail is moving forward in the Texas House. And, oddly enough, that’s our best way to ensure that Austin Light Rail can move forward, too.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a bad bill. And it’s a terrible precedent for the Legislature to muck with a voter-approved infrastructure investment that is allowed under state law almost three years after an election that also fully complied with state law.
But if we’re going to protect light rail for the long run, we need to bring this question back home to the people of Austin and let the people vote – again. Sometimes, killing a bad bill (assuming the bill can be killed) isn’t necessarily the best outcome. As I’ve said before, governing often requires nuance and some long-term vision.
The biggest threat to this generational project is time, and the looming threat from the state imperils this project because it could cost us valuable time and money. We’re already decades behind in critical public transportation infrastructure and can’t waste any more years.
Working with Chairman Giovanni Capriglione and our local House delegation, we negotiated new bill language that greatly improved the legislation to allow the City of Austin to hold a fair election this November. To hold that election so fast, we prefer the bill to move quickly and be passed with enough votes to go into effect immediately. Of course, the bill still needs to be voted on in the House and make it through committee and the full Senate.
Here’s what the bill requires: voters will be asked to authorize the issuance of revenue bonds that are needed to finance the project. Those bonds are backed by the dedicated property tax revenue already approved by voters in 2020. This vote will not change your property tax bill at all – it won’t go up or down.
The most prominent argument by those advocating for this legislation was that, while voters authorized the revenue stream, they didn’t authorize the issuance of the revenue bonds. No other project in the state would be subject to this duplicative process. But we’ll get it done so we can keep moving forward.
The stakes are incredibly high because the election will determine whether light rail will proceed. And the folks who opposed our election in 2020 will get another chance to kill it – trust me, they won’t squander this opportunity.
This approach is not without risk, but it is the best option to mitigate our long-term risk.
As a community, we can – and will – fight to protect our generational investment in light rail and a more affordable and sustainable future for all of Austin.
The Legislature has the power to force another vote, but the ultimate power lies with the people of Austin.
- Watson Wire: Happy 100 Days!
Yesterday marked 100 days since I became mayor – again. Sometimes, it can seem like the days are flying by, while on others – and I’m thinking of those days I was stuck at home with COVID – they’ve been some of the slowest I’ve experienced. Either way, it’s been a wild ride.
I ran for mayor because I believed City Hall needed to work better for the people of Austin. And I wanted to bring a sense of urgency to fixing things, even if that meant shaking things up.
Here’s some of what we’ve been doing over the past 100 days:
Improving basic city operations: Within a short time of taking office, this City Council replaced the city manager and appointed Interim City Manager Jesús Garza. There’s now an ongoing reorganization of City Hall because the City wasn’t set up for success. Today, we have a former acting chief of police as the assistant city manager over public safety, new people in charge of Austin Energy, the airport, emergency operations, and more changes to come.
Streamlining development review: I brought in McKinsey Consulting, a worldwide consulting firm, to scrub the city’s site plan process to help us reform it. This process currently takes way too long, drives up costs and makes it harder to build affordable housing. We’ll have recommendations by the end of June.
Striking a balance on public safety: We inherited an expiring police contract and a force that’s around 300 officers understaffed, and two May ballot initiatives related to police oversight. We’ve addressed this complicated situation with some common-sense solutions. We’ve preserved the right for people to vote in May on matters related to the police at the same time that we guaranteed police pay and retirement, even with the contract expiration. In fact, the police got a raise, we added to retirement benefits, and created incentives for recruitment. And we’ve partnered with the state to supplement and support APD, and it’s already showing real success. We’ll monitor this carefully to ensure our Austin values are followed. We want success across the board with this partnership.
Conducting efficient City Council meetings: There will be some long ones in the future. I know that. But, so far, we’ve proved you can end meetings before the early morning hours.
Of course, that’s not all we’ve done. And I’m looking to the future. We’ve announced a terrific workforce program that will be more developed in the next 100 days. Expect a childcare program to be prominent. I’m hoping to announce a major initiative in the next few weeks that will help our unhoused neighbors and allow enforcement of the camping ban.
This new City Council has great energy, and we’ve demonstrated a willingness to work together. It’s been a real team that looks to the future. I’m excited about working with this group over the next 100 days and beyond.
- Watson Wire: Bigger than Austin
The threats against Austin at the Texas Legislature are very real and could have serious implications for our voters and taxpayers. That’s why I’ve spent a lot of time in my first few months in the mayor’s office working to lower the tensions from a roiling boil to a gentle simmer.
I’ll always look for opportunities to better serve my constituents. If that means working with someone I might disagree with on another matter but can agree with them on a specific issue, then I’ll actively seek out that opportunity. There’s no need to make an unnecessary enemy of someone.
The public safety partnership announced last week is a good example of how the State Capitol and the Capital City can work together to serve our shared constituents.
But the legislation targeting Project Connect undermines those efforts. The bill, which will be heard in a House committee on Wednesday, is hugely disrespectful to the voters of our city – and being pushed by legislators who do not live in our city.
Bigger than Just Austin
The ripple effects of this legislation, though, will extend far beyond the City of Austin to undermine public infrastructure investment throughout Texas. If the Legislature can torpedo a vote of the people three years after they voted, what does that do to investor confidence in public infrastructure in Texas? What kind of risk premium gets added when no one can trust that a public deal is done because the Legislature could just come back and change the rules after the fact?
That is exactly what is happening. And regardless of how you feel about Project Connect, this growing town, this growing state are going to need infrastructure projects to keep up. We simply can’t put them at risk. Too much is at stake. Public infrastructure projects across the state would be at risk – even those approved by voters – because someone who didn’t like the results of an election had the ear of a legislator.
The Beating Heart
The City of Austin used a provision in Senate Bill 2 (2019) that allowed voters to authorize a tax rate increase above the 3.5 percent threshold, known as the voter-approval rate. It was said at the time that the “beating heart of Senate Bill 2 is, ‘Let the people vote,’” which is precisely what the City of Austin did. The ballot language and the City Council-approved Contract with the Voters stated explicitly that the additional property tax revenue would be dedicated to fund light rail and pay off debt required to finance it. This financing mechanism is not a “blank check,” as the author has suggested, but rather provides an ongoing source of revenue to pay for an ongoing public service. Frankly, that’s just good fiscal management.
It’s certainly true that the scope of Project Connect has had to change in light of the global economic upheaval that drove up costs for just about everything, including land and construction materials. That’s why the Austin Transit Partnership rolled out new light rail options that all fit within available revenue. The cost of state transportation projects have soared as well in the wake of the pandemic, so let’s not pretend this is an Austin-specific issue.
This bill would force another election, and the way the election is proposed in this legislation would likely kill the project. That is a terrible precedent to set.
If you believe that a deal is a deal, then the voters already made the deal. We need to send a strong, active message to the Legislature that unwinding Project Connect is tantamount to saying no infrastructure investment is safe.
- Being Safe and Feeling Safe
Coming into City Hall, I knew one of my first big inherited challenges would be navigating the complicated and fraught policy debate over public safety and the police contract. So I focused on three guiding principles to help me keep my bearings:
- The people of Austin need to both be safe and feel safe;
- Police officers must be respected and have the resources they need to do their job; and
- The voters of Austin have the right to be heard in May on two ballot initiatives relating to police oversight.
Even so, our police staffing challenges remain, well, a challenge.
We’ve taken important steps to shore up the pay and benefits of officers even after the police contract expires at the end of this month. We also added some significant new recruitment and retention incentives. I know that didn’t satisfy everyone, but it was a very real demonstration of respect and support for our police.
Yesterday, we announced a partnership with the Texas Department of Public Safety to provide additional law enforcement officers to assist and supplement the work of the Austin Police Department. The primary aims are to reduce traffic fatalities, reduce response times and increase law enforcement presence across the community, which will help to deter and prevent crime. This effort, which will be led by the Austin Chief of Police, will have transparency, monitoring and reporting to ensure that Austin’s values are being met.
I have longstanding working relationships with Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick from my time in the Texas Senate. I appreciate their willingness to work with us to serve our shared constituents, and I’m pretty sure this is a beginning of a more cooperative partnership between the Texas Capitol and the Capital City.
I promised we would make city government work better in providing basic services. This is an example of that. It’s a common-sense, practical response to a serious need.
And once the voters have their say on the ballot initiatives in May, I’m fully committed to working with the Austin Police Association on a new contract so we can find solutions to our staffing challenges that serve our officers and our community.
- Biased Toward Action
I dropped by the Project Connect Open House last Tuesday and came away energized about our light rail program.
I’m energized, in part, by seeing so much energy from others. Over 530 people visited the Austin Central Library for the kick-off of a community engagement process for the first phase of light rail, the details of which can be found at the Austin Transit Partnership Light Rail Virtual Open House.
Here are some of the initial comments we’ve been hearing:
- Support for ATP to build light rail as soon as possible: Although there are many varied perspectives and feelings on the five options, we have heard an underlying theme of support for moving forward with a core system for Austin’s light rail and an understanding of how complex the challenge is.
- An appreciation for transparency: Numerous open house attendees commented that they appreciate hearing honest answers about the options and path forward.
- Concerns about the size of the first light rail project and the length of the underground segment.
- ATP’s approach to planning for financial resiliency.
- Strong and differing views about the value of getting to the airport.
- Concerns about traffic operations downtown.
- Viability of on-street options through downtown vs elevated or underground.
We want your feedback on this generational project, and we hope you’ll take the opportunity to look at the options and offer your input over the next few weeks.
ATP encourages feedback through its Virtual Open House, Email, or by phone at (512) 904-0180. The deadline is May 2nd.
All of these options fit within our available revenue, which comes from a dedicated portion of the city’s property tax rate approved by voters in 2020. I know that it’s frustrating to some that we’re not going to get everything we wanted from this first phase, but this is the responsible path forward, given the cost increases stemming from construction inflation, rising land values and scope creep. This isn’t a Project Connect problem alone. This happened to all big projects—prices have gone up because of inflation, supply chain issues and more. We need to move forward with a healthy dose of common sense because Austin continues to grow rapidly, and we’re building this system to serve future generations and as an investment in Austin’s infinite potential.
We must be biased toward action and get results even if it doesn’t meet our ideal of perfection. Voters approved Project Connect in 2020, and now it’s time to get it done.
Meanwhile, up at the Capitol, the legislation targeting Project Connect has been referred to the House Pensions, Investments and Financial Services Committee. We’ll keep you posted on upcoming hearings and other opportunities for you to get involved to protect this long-sought community priority that the Legislature is threatening.
Getting Our House in Order
Long before we break ground on light rail, our city’s Development Services Department (DSD) will be asked to do a ton of work. And it’s our job to ensure now that DSD is working well so that the city permitting process isn’t an obstacle in getting this community priority done.
Development services is an area where we want to be as fast as possible while ensuring good outcomes for our community. But there has been a lack of coordination between our 12 city departments that are part of the development process. It’s resulted in delayed site plan developments and permits, increased frustration among anyone — both public and private — trying to get a project done in Austin, and has contributed to the lack of affordable housing options.
Folks, let me be clear with you, things are going to change.
Beginning immediately, McKinsey Consulting Services, a global management consulting firm, has offered its expertise pro bono to scrub our site development plan process and propose recommendations on how we can do this better by June 30. They will work in coordination with the City on identifying policies and procedures that impact the development process and look for any technological updates the city may need. Most importantly, these recommendations will bring us in line with industry standards, something this city deserves. I kicked this effort off last week, and people have responded very well to this aggressive, practical approach.
This is a good step in the right direction. We’re not going to fix this today, but today, we are going to stop the cycle of inaction.
More Positive Shake-up
All last year, I said that we needed to shake up City Hall. That shake-up started in earnest and to great results when we changed city managers.
Last Friday, the Interim City Manager, Jesús Garza, announced a major reorganization of the city system. I’m really pleased with the work that’s been done with these changes. The reorganization clearly creates more opportunities for City Hall to succeed and deliver the services that Austinites deserve. We’ve only been around here for 80 days, and we’re already better positioned for success.
We will continue to work to ensure basic services are provided well and that we are biased toward action.
- Watson Wire: Timing is Everything
I’ve been getting some good feedback from folks new to the Watson Wire. The responses have been thoughtful and measured — even when they’re telling me I’m totally wrong. I appreciate that.
And I hold out hope that, one day soon, I’ll be able to send you all a fun Wire, like I used to send, something light, full of whimsy and perhaps featuring a very loud bulldog named Doc. Well, maybe next week…
Smart and Deliberate
A big part of why I ran for mayor is my belief that City Hall needed to do better at governing. It needed to focus on the basics of providing services and working for results. I said that City Hall needed to be shaken up.
In Austin’s form of government, the City Manager is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city and carries out the Mayor and Council’s policy objectives. I believed that the City of Austin hadn’t been well managed for a long while, and the essential working relationship between the City Manager and City Council was out of alignment. And, I listened when the people of Austin told me that they noticed it everywhere.
Last month, the City Council changed city managers and brought in Jesús Garza as the Interim City Manager. And he, in turn, is bringing in folks who have great experience and know that this city can run well, that we can provide residents basic services both efficiently and effectively. As a result, we’re already seeing organizational changes that are helping our city run better and be more responsive to you. He also understands how the manager should work with the Mayor and Council to make our form of government work well.
We will need to hire a permanent City Manager in the future. Austin, Texas is a worldwide focal point and a great city that is passionately working to be a unique, equitable, positive, creative, happy and accessible place for everyone. It should be a city that the very best candidates would want to manage. But first, we need to right this ship so that, when we hire that new manager, they’ll be able to work with us to move this city forward instead of needing to fix problems of the past.
The hiring of a new City Manager is probably one of the most important decisions this City Council will make. In some ways, it will define our legacy as a team. We need to be smart and deliberate about our choice. We also need to be smart and deliberate about our process for making that choice.
To be able to recruit the best candidates, we need to stabilize the organization so that we’re consistently delivering basic services well. We need to demonstrate that our City Council and our city manager are working together to get things done and, by doing so, demonstrate how we can govern well. We need to let the tumult of some past actions settle down.
Timing is everything. We will take the appropriate amount of time. There’s no need to rush. It’s important to get things right.
Over the next few months, we’re going to give Jesús the opportunity and space to make organizational changes that will set up our city for success.
In the meantime, those of us on the City Council will spend some time reaching out to folks in each council district to listen and discuss the community’s needs and priorities for a permanent City Manager. We want to hear from Austinites about what we should be looking for in this critical leader.
We’ll also be working to identify the professional search firms that have a proven track record in this specific type of search and the ability to bring a pool of candidates that meets or exceeds our expectations. Again, I’m not in any rush. I can envision us waiting until mid-summer or so to start identifying firms.
And that search firm also needs to be open to working with us on an interview process that respects our community’s demand for openness and public participation with the candidates’ desire for privacy. That’s not an easy balance but we’ll do it right this time.
This whole thing may take us some time. That’s okay. In fact, it’s the right way. We’ve seen what happens when things aren’t well managed and when the city manager is out of alignment with the Mayor and Council. Too much is at stake to not make this decision and process a model for how we should govern well.
- Moving forward with Project Connect
Elections matter. I heard that bit of wisdom a lot over the years in the Texas Senate when the majority was getting its way on matters that the minority opposed. And, it’s true. In our form of government, we ask the voters what they want and put it to a vote. The people decide how things are going to be. We might not always like the results, but as Churchill said, “democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others that have been tried.”
The voters of Austin elected in 2020 to dedicate a portion of the city’s property tax rate to implement a light rail system. Light rail has been an elusive goal for many Austinites – including me – for well over two decades, and our voters made an affirmative decision to invest in a more affordable and sustainable future for our community.
Now, some folks who didn’t like the outcome of that election in 2020 have assured that the Texas Legislature will attempt to undermine the will of Austin’s voters – all in the name of protecting Austin voters.
What Did Austin Voters Do in 2020?
In very basic terms, we created something akin to a new city department – a light rail department – that would design, build, operate and maintain a public transportation program that will serve the people of Austin long into the future.
The voters approved an ongoing source of revenue to ensure the city could continue to pay for that ongoing service. From a tax perspective, it’s really not different than how we pay for the ongoing operations of the Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Services Department or the Austin Public Library.
But it is different in that the city created an independent entity – known as a local government corporation – to receive the dedicated revenue from the city and use it to “oversee and finance the acquisition, construction, equipping, and operations and maintenance of the rapid transit system.” The city used the local government corporation model for the Mueller redevelopment, which has been wildly successful.
The independence of the Austin Transit Partnership was integral to the success of the 2020 tax rate election. And, according to a recent report from a national think tank, it’s also a best practice recommended to American communities to deliver good light rail projects more consistently. It was done in large part to protect this major investment from the political whims of the Capital Metro Board of Directors and/or the Austin City Council. In other words, the voters said they wanted an independent entity to handle the money and build the system instead of having politicians mess with things for, well, political purposes. ATP has worked through some start-up challenges but is now well positioned to deliver a light rail system.
That is, if the Legistature (can you say, “politicians”) doesn’t kill it first. The legislation filed last week would require another vote of the people before the ATP could issue the revenue bonds – backed by the voter-approved city tax revenue and federal dollars – needed to finance the multi-billion dollar system. Forcing another election would drive costs through the roof. The uncertainty around the financing would cause contractors to tack on an additional risk premium and potential bondholders to increase interest rates. Meanwhile, the federal government will be watching and wondering if it should send the billions of infrastructure dollars elsewhere. Project Connect would no longer be viable.
I’m all for transparency and accountability to voters, and elections are really the most transparent way of doing things. I’ve also been kicking around some ideas about how to answer the desire for more transparency and accountability without denying that Austin voters have already said what they want. I intend to do what I can to make sure my former colleagues in the Legislature listen to them.
And there’s some irony when someone who supports legislation like this says they’re for transparency and accountability when they’re not accountable to the Austin voters (or only a tiny percentage of them).
Rightsizing Project Connect
Since we’re all now pandemic-era supply chain experts, we understand that construction inflation has affected every infrastructure project everywhere. And there was definitely some vision creep by the previous leadership that led to some eye-popping cost estimates for the project.
So we’ve had to recalibrate our expectations for Project Connect to live within our means while focusing on the community goals and priorities that voters supported when they approved this historic investment.
To that end, ATP has worked up several viable options for the first phase of light rail that fit within our available revenue. On March 21, members of the public are invited to Austin Central Library to view the various options and discuss the pros and cons with the experts.
As I’ve been considering the various options, I keep going back to the community values and goals that have driven this project from the beginning and asking myself:
• Which options will best serve transit riders?
• How will they shape the community we want for our future?
• And will they help build the mobility system we need to meet the demands of our region?
None of these options will meet anyone’s idea of perfection. They all have trade-offs. But we can’t let the ideal get in the way of moving forward.
Project Connect Open House
Tuesday, March 21 | 4 – 7 PM
Austin Central Library
710 W Cesar Chavez St, Austin, TX 78701
Learn about updates on the light rail system from the Austin Transit Partnership (ATP), find out what’s next for Project Connect, and share your feedback.
Can’t make it? You can still view materials and provide feedback at ProjectConnect.com/Get-Involved.
- Respecting the People
“The people of the city reserve the power of direct legislation by initiative...”
– Austin City Charter
They can initiate or challenge ordinances and let the public vote on the proposals. Over the years, they’ve reinstated the camping ban, imposed strong water quality standards over the aquifer and killed off an effort to prevent a rewrite of the land development code.
You might oppose a specific initiative. And you might not like the process of even allowing initiatives. But anyone who talks big about respecting the Rule of Law should respect that the people have the right to be heard in this way.
Why it matters right now
Last year, a group called Equity Action obtained enough signatures to have an initiative put on the ballot. The city clerk certified the signatures and the last City Council put the initiative on the ballot for this coming May. The initiative specifically addresses issues related to what Austin needs to do in a police contract.
If the city agrees to a contract with the police before May, the contract’s terms will preempt some aspects of the initiative, even if the initiative passes. That preemption will occur for the length of the contract. If the contract’s terms conflict with the initiative’s terms, the will of the voters can’t go into effect until the end of the contract. A four-year contract would preempt the will of the voters for four years. A one-year contract, like the Council has asked for, would preempt it for a very short time, but allow us to hear the voters and begin negotiating and hopefully get a new contract before the end of that one year.
This is an unfortunate box to be in. It can be argued that there are real benefits to a longer contract. But, as Mayor, I have an obligation to support the Charter and not preempt the voters’ right to weigh in, as long as the correct process has been followed. Many people who want the City Council to just approve a four-year contract don’t know, appreciate or accept that doing so would effectively silence Austin voters in May. Governing, as opposed to advocacy, sometimes requires nuance and an effort to satisfy multiple principles all at once.
Actually, there are two ballot initiatives. The second one comes from a group called Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability.
These dueling ballot initiatives have highlighted some clear problems in the current initiative process. The City Council will take up an item on Thursday to begin a review of the City Charter with the specific aim of addressing those problems and instituting better transparency and ethical standards.
In the meantime
Last week, Interim City Manager Jesús Garza released details of a generous police retention and recruitment package that the City Council authorized on Feb. 23, when we also unanimously passed an ordinance based on my substitute ensuring that officers’ wages, benefits and retirement would be protected, even if we don’t have a contract with the police union by the end of the month. And while you might’ve heard some absurd statements that we’re “defunding” the police, the retention and recruitment plan actually includes:
A 4% increase in pay for all officers under the rank of assistant chief, effective April 1, 2023;
Up to a $15,000 incentive for new cadets; Retention incentives for current officers, including a pay increase for officers nearing retirement, which may help alleviate the current concern for officers considering retirement.
As Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon said: “This plan demonstrates the commitment this City has to keeping its word and supporting our officers. APD officers keep this community safe, and they deserve to be compensated well for doing so; this plan is an important part of ensuring officers feel valued by the people they serve.”
- Additional provisions within the plan include continuation of longevity pay, field training officer pay, mental health certification pay, bilingual pay, shift differential pay, assistant chief pay, among others.
- Watson Wire: On Bluebonnet Hill
I had big plans for Black History Month that started with this Watson Wire celebrating Huston-Tillotson University’s contribution to Austin. It was all set to go for Feb. 1 and then, well, you all know the rest. It's been quite a month.
So, we’re closing out Black History Month by recognizing and amplifying all that our Huston-Tillotson offers to Austin.
Huston-Tillotson University, founded only a decade after the end of slavery in Texas, is the oldest institution of higher education in Austin and was established to serve former slaves and their descendants. Perched atop Bluebonnet Hill in East Austin, it’s the heart of a community and a home for learning with unlimited potential.
The new president and CEO, Dr. Melva Williams, succeeds Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, who worked tirelessly to strengthen the connection between HT and the Austin community before retiring last year. I’m very excited to work with Dr. Williams and to continue our partnership.
Dr. Williams is continuing that important work and earlier this month hosted a Ideation Summit where business and industry leaders focused on the future needs of the workforce in Austin and ways to partner with the university. That’s a big issue for all of us and I appreciate Dr. Williams bringing people together to look for solutions.
Long before Dr. Williams came to Huston-Tillotson, she played an important role in the life of someone who came into my life last year. Max Lars, my campaign manager and now policy strategist in the Mayor’s Office, attended Southern University-Shreveport where Dr. Williams was the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at the time.
As Max tells it, he was letting his interest in government and politics get in the way of his studies during his sophomore year when Dr. Williams tracked him down and told him: "Lars, you know you can do better. You better get it together!"
“I honestly remember that moment not because I thought she was about to put me on academic probation (which I thought was coming) but because she believed in me enough to sit me down and say, ‘I believe in you, and I know you can do this.’ As a young Black student trying to navigate life, this made a massive difference in my life because that's something you're not used to hearing.
“Dr. Williams has this type of reputation not only at my alma mater but at multiple HBCUs all over Louisiana and now in Texas. Huston-Tillotson University has someone who will make the university better, and our city will be better because of her leadership.”
Our city is already better thanks to Dr. Williams and HT. She's going to have a wonderful impact. Welcome, Dr. Williams.
- Watson Wire: In Good Hands and Making a Difference
We welcomed Jesús Garza, our interim city manager, back on the dais at City Hall yesterday. He stepped into a very big and difficult job a week ago and is already making a difference – including breaking up a fight on the street armed only with his calm demeanor and a sense of compassion. We're in good hands with Jesús.
For our system of government to work for the people of Austin, the City Council and City Manager must be working in alignment. Two weeks ago, it was painfully clear that we were out of alignment – and probably had been for quite some time.
Last week, we terminated the City Manager because we had to change the way we did business. The outcomes of our decisions are simply too important. That was a significant and solemn day, but I promised I would shake things up and make hard decisions when things needed a shake-up.
Today, we’re in a very different place. The members of this City Council and our Interim City Manager are now in alignment about the need to lift up our police and provide them the stability they need to stay on the job until we can negotiate a one-year contract. We unanimously passed an ordinance that protects the pay and benefits of officers even if we don’t get a new contract with the police association. And we directed the City Manager to develop a plan to address the current shortage of police officers, including a financial incentive for the Austin Police Association to resume contract talks with the City.
We are doing this at the same time we’re assuring police accountability and, very importantly, protecting the right of people to petition their government and vote on a petition related to police this May.
Many people who want the Council to just accept what the police association demands for a quick adoption of a four-year contract don’t appreciate or accept that doing so would effectively silence Austin voters in May. As Mayor, I need to protect their rights, too.
This is how we strike a balance that serves the needs of the officers and the community. It’s a demonstration of good faith and good government by our City Council and our City Manager. Now, we need a demonstration of good faith from the Austin Police Association. I hope they will come back to the bargaining table. A contract would be better.
From a practical standpoint for you, this means the City Council and the City Manager are now working together to meet the needs of the people of Austin. I know that it’s a lot to ask for patience from folks, but there’s a lot of inherited scar tissue that we’re working through and will need some time.
We’re making progress. We’re already making the city work better.
- Watson Wire: Accountability
Today was a significant and solemn day at the Austin City Council as we dealt with arguably two of the most consequential decisions this City Council will make.
The first item: We parted ways with City Manager Spencer Cronk. Spencer is a committed public servant, and I appreciate all he gave to the city. But the management of the extended power outage and the lack of clear, timely and accurate communication left our community in the dark. Most importantly, these same problems had surfaced in previous disasters, such as Winter Storm Uri in 2021, and were highlighted again and again in multiple after-action reports and audits.
In our council-manager form of government, the City Manager bears responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the city as well as hiring and firing decisions for department heads, including the general manager of Austin Energy. While the mayor and council members answer to the people of Austin, the City Manager answers to us.
This move was an important first step in ensuring accountability to the public for the city’s serious missteps in the handling of the storm and the power outage. We’ll continue down that path on Tuesday when the members of the City Council meet as the Austin Energy Oversight Committee. We will not allow the lessons learned this time (or last time or the time before that) to be ignored going forward.
While the City Council begins the process of searching for a new permanent City Manager, former Austin City Manager Jesús Garza will step in as the interim. Jesús was an exceptional City Manager from 1994 to 2002, and we worked closely together during my first time as mayor. There aren’t a lot of people with the experience and ability to run such a big and complicated operation as the City of Austin. There are even fewer people who are available on a week’s notice and willing to take on such a daunting task. I’m incredibly grateful that he came out of retirement to help us through this challenging time.
Striking a Balance on Public Safety
The second item related to public safety and the police contract.
This issue has been characterized in the typical "all or nothing" rhetoric. One side will say it is 100% right while the other side says the exact same thing. They'll tell us "you're either for us or against us; there's no middle ground.” As usual, that's not right.
I’ve inherited a great deal of scar tissue on this issue, and I’m hopeful we can work toward a thoughtful outcome, even if it doesn’t meet everyone’s concept of what would be perfect.
Today, I voted to extend the current one-year contract with police so voters will have the opportunity to voice their position on police accountability and oversight. As elected members of the City Council, we need to respect the people of Austin who empowered us to make this decision as well as the City Charter that empowers them to petition their government.
We also need to respect the police officers who serve our community and provide them the stability and resources needed to keep them on the job. Our police department must be sufficiently staffed so that Austinites are both safe, and feel safe, whether they’re in the comfort of their home or being pulled over for a traffic stop. And no one should fear the police. Making all Austinites safe and able to feel safe, respecting police officers and working for stability does not preclude — I would argue it necessarily includes — a robust and transparent oversight — of police.
Finally, we need to respect the process. It absolutely matters how we take up the people’s business.
This proposed police contract, which is being considered in the context of not one, but two ballot propositions related to that contract, should have been finalized weeks ago with time enough before the current contract expires to allow the council, citizens, and stakeholder groups to review, comment, and provide feedback. A time to debate. A time to make changes without being told we all face catastrophic outcomes. A time to modify so as to avoid at least part of the all or nothing b.s. that comes when you do the process so wrong.
But that didn’t happen.
Last week, a last-minute 4-year contract was sprung on all of us the night before council was set to provide direction. We’re not going to do our business like this anymore. It stops now. The outcomes are too important.
As Mayor, I want to help our community move beyond this impasse and begin to hear each other and maybe even trust each other a little more than we do today.
I'm looking at more than one way to see a result. It's not as easy as creating binary choices. But it just might be better.
- Watson Wire: There Must Be Accountability
To all our Austin citizens who are furious about the ongoing power outage, you’re right. There must be accountability.
On Thursday, the Austin City Council will take up an emergency item to evaluate the employment of City Manager Spencer Cronk.
I added the emergency item to the agenda this morning because the management of this situation and the lack of clear, timely and accurate communication has left our community in the dark. It is unacceptable.
The City of Austin can and will do better.
Council Members Alison Alter, Chito Vela and Vanessa Fuentes have joined me in sponsoring the emergency item.
While the members of the City Council answer to the people of Austin, the City Manager answers to us.
- Winter Weather Updates: February 5
Yesterday, I tested positive for COVID-19. This situation is far from ideal, but I’m still in contact with staff and will continue to work and receive storm recovery briefings. And I still hope to attend next week’s Council meeting on Thursday. I’ll attend the Work Session remotely.
On Friday, February 3, Travis County Judge Andy Brown and I signed local disaster declarations for this week’s winter storm. These declarations will help us get state and federal help for our response and recovery efforts.
Yesterday, Governor Abbott issued an Ice Storm Disaster Declaration, which included Denton, Hays, Henderson, Milam, Smith, Travis, and Williamson counties.
Residents can help us fully assess damage impacts by completing the iSTAT survey. The survey helps state and local emergency management officials across Texas identify and understand damages that have occurred during recent natural disaster activity.
I hate that people have suffered and continue to suffer from this. When I took office a little over a month ago, it was to make sure City Hall focused on the basics better than it had been. Well, there’s pretty much nothing more basic than keeping the lights and the heat on. And communicating with people you serve is pretty basic, too. I promise that things will change in the days ahead.
PLEASE NOTE: We’re anticipating strong winds and thunderstorms in the forecast beginning Tuesday. Our trees are still vulnerable, which means additional tree limbs may fall. Be aware of your surroundings and avoid parking under trees.
Resources, FAQs, and Updates
Austin Energy and other utility crews are making progress. However, while more than 600 Austin Energy and utility workers are working to restore power, as of 7PM on Sunday, February 5, more than 32,000 customers are still left without power.
Currently, Austin Energy is focusing on the most complicated restoration efforts— outages with unique and complex damages.
Residents should stay away from downed power lines in or near their yards.
Call 512-322-9100 to report a downed power line; if the line is sparking, call 911. Never touch a power line or any items in contact with a power line.
Customers without power can check the outage map on Austin Energy’s website at outagemap.austinenergy.com and report their outage online or by texting 287846.
If your property has experienced damage to electrical equipment, please call an electrician. Individual repairs must be made before Austin Energy can reenergize power to your property.
This may also affect power restoration to your neighbors. Austin Energy’s Electric Service Planning Application form can be found here: https://austinenergy.com/.../electric-service-design.../espa
Reminder: Austin Energy personnel will be identifiable with badges and in Austin Energy vehicles. Residents are asked to work with them on allowing access as needed.
Residents driving on Austin roads are asked to remember to slow down and move over for any utility crews working in the field to restore power.
As of 5PM, 32 traffic signals are not working. Crews will be placing temporary stop signs in many of these locations. Drivers are reminded to approach all intersections cautiously and treat all dark traffic signals as an all-way stop.
* Anyone needing food can find access Central Texas Food Bank resources here
* Red Cross: Residents can call 1-800-RED-CROSS to request help. For more information, visit the Central Texas Red Cross Get Help page.
Repairs and Permits
The City’s Development Services Department will work retroactively with homeowners, business owners and contractors to permit and inspect emergency repairs to ensure work was completed safely. That means that work can begin quickly on repairs.
Types of repairs that will require permits include:
* Ruptured or damaged water lines
* Main electrical service
* Structural damage
Storm Debris Management
The Texas Forest Service is assisting in debris gathering and ensuring the right of way is clear. They will be focusing on areas with large tree canopies and areas with large old growth and heritage trees.
Austin Resource Recovery (ARR) crews are working to collect storm debris.
Downed Tree Limbs: Request a collection of downed tree limbs due to the storm by contacting Austin 3-1-1 via its mobile app, online request form or calling 3-1-1 (512-974-2000).
Austin Water has also extended hours at Hornsby Bend Biosolids Treatment Plant on 2210 S FM 973 on Sunday for brush drop-off, from 8:00 AM until 4:30 PM Material will also be accepted during regular business hours, Monday–Saturday.
Residents with physical limitations or financial needs requiring help cleaning up winter storm debris can request volunteer assistance through the Austin Disaster Relief Network.
* Food Safety for Power Outages. Refrigerated or frozen foods may be unsafe to eat after losing power. Find out what you can do to keep food safe during a power outage, and when you need to throw away food that could make you sick.
This winter weather event has not impacted Austin Water and Wastewater Treatment Plants, and water storage levels remain healthy. Austin Water continues to work closely with Austin Energy to restore power to pumps and lift stations throughout our service area.
But we do need your help to conserve water to reduce demand on the system. Ways you can help us:
* Shorten shower times
* Avoid unnecessary toilet flushes
* Avoid washing clothes for as long as possible
* Postpone washing dishes if you can
* Check all faucets, shower heads, and under cabinets for drips.
* Check water heaters.
- Watson Wire: Winter Weather Updates and Going Forward
Providing clear, accurate and timely communication is essential during an emergency, and once again, the city has not delivered. As mayor, I accept responsibility and apologize that we have let you down.
This has been a persistent challenge over the past several years and your frustration is absolutely warranted. Over and over again, we see the same failure.
Something will change— beginning with communication.
We will use any and all available techniques to ensure that our communication will be clear, frank, and happen in real time.
As I’ve said from day one, my goal is to do good by doing better. The City let its citizens down. The situation is unacceptable to the community and it’s unacceptable to me.
I can assure you that going forward we will do better.
I was joined by Travis County Judge Andy Brown and City Manager Spencer Cronk yesterday for the local disaster declaration.
On Friday afternoon, I declared a local state of disaster within the City of Austin. This declaration will help pull down federal resources and make the clean-up process easier.
We need to better understand what worked and what didn’t in our response and what should happen going forward. I’ve consulted with Council Member Pool, who chairs the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee, and we are working to organize a thorough review that will be transparent and geared at holding people accountable.
Resources, FAQs, and Updates
As of 8AM today, more than 76,000 Austin Energy customers are without power, and over 400-line workers in Austin are restoring outages. Crews are focusing on “Critical Load” circuits which include hospitals, nursing homes, and fire stations. They’ve successfully restored most, but the work is not done.
As a word of caution, folks should never touch a downed power line or a tree limb making contact with a downed power line. Please assume these lines are energized and stay away from them.
You can call 512-322-9100 to report downed powerlines.
Cold load pick-up will be an issue as Austin Energy restores power to more customers. As crews work to restore power, circuits can become overloaded because of lights, electronics, and thermostats left on before the outage.
Residents can help Austin Energy avoid cold load pickup by:
* Turning off their thermostats.
* Turning off or unplugging any fixtures or appliances.
* Only leaving on one light to indicate when the power is back on.
Reminder: Austin Energy crews will always be clearly identifiable with badges and in Austin Energy vehicles.
Austin Resource Recovery and Fallen Tree Limbs:
You can call 3-1-1 or 512-974-2000 to request a collection of down tree limbs. Austin Resource Recovery (ARR) crews will assess and collect them as soon as possible. Have the limbs at the curb ready for collection.
If you have physical or financial needs and want help cleaning up winter storm debris, you can request volunteer assistance through the Austin Disaster Relief Network. Complete this form: link.adrn.org/ws-cleanup-request.
Limited collections resumed on Thursday. Carts, bulk, and brush items should be left at the curb to allow crews to catch up over the next several days. Collections will continue into the weekend, and normal operations will resume on Monday.
Austin Water's treatment plants are currently operating at normal levels and meeting the community's water demands.
I am proud of our folks who are currently responding to life and safety issues in our community. First responders, line workers, and City employees are working hard and trying their best to safely respond to the needs of all Austinites.
There’s still a lot to do, and I am committed to getting this right.