Friday, July 29, 2016

Ott and Adler's #ATXCouncil budget expectations game....

“Talk no more so very proudly;
Let no arrogance come from your mouth,
For the Lord is the God of knowledge;
And by Him actions are weighed."
1 Samuel 2:3

The Austin City Council got its first look Wednesday at the city staff’s proposed 2016-17 budget, which includes $56 million in increased general fund spending, 435 new employees citywide and a tax and fee structure that will add $150 to the average homeowner’s annual expenses.
Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo described the budget as “scrambling to try to keep pace” with a city population that is expected to hit 937,065 in 2017, up from 842,743 three years ago.
Though the city’s tax rate is projected to be lower than last year, rising property values mean the bill for property owners will be higher, even with an increased homestead exemption approved last month. The proposed tax rate of 44 cents per $100 of property value is as high as the city can make it without possibly triggering an election.
City Manager Marc Ott told the council that an abundance of spending and committed funds had made this budget tighter than others in recent years.
“We’re feeling the full impact of that in this budget,” he said. “I cannot overstate the importance, in my view, of moving back to a more conservative posture.”
Mayor Steve Adler, who didn’t attend Wednesday’s budget workshop but spoke to reporters via phone from the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, called it a “good initial place to start,” but he emphasized that the council would certainly make changes.
“The council in any year needs to be conservative and prudent in spending taxpayer dollars,” he said. “We had a balanced budget last year, and we’ll have a balanced budget this year. I think what the city manager was saying is we can’t go outside of that.”
More fees & new costs
The proposed budget includes increases to all city fees, utility charges and property tax bills. The owner of a home with a taxable value of $278,741 (the average in the city) would pay $44 more in property taxes.
Monthly water and garbage rates, utility fees and drainage fees would also go up. The city’s staff estimated the total increase in taxes and fees for an average Austinite would be $150, a 4 percent increase.
Homeowners could have faced an even larger property tax bill if the council hadn’t voted last month to increase the homestead exemption to knock 8 percent off the value of a home for tax purposes, up from 6 percent this year. That change is expected to shave $23 off the typical homeowner’s tax bill.

Then, there's this:

Translation: Ott and Adler are playing Bad Cop/Good Cop.  Ott is proposing something so far out in left field that even council balks.  Then Adler plays the hero with a "more reasonable" spending hike and everyone is supposed to sing kumbaya.

This is one of the oldest games in the book.

And, keep in mind, this is on top of Austin ISD's obscene budget.

We're not necessarily crazy about homestead exemptions, and we certainly have issues with the Austin Neighborhoods Council, but amen on this:
But others said rising taxes were too much of a squeeze already, and the exemption was a little relief.
“Do (they) have any idea what the appraisal value for normal people is?” said Mary Ingle, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. “The homestead exemption is a necessary thing right now if you have examined a normal person’s tax bill.”
Ingle added that a proposed $720 million transportation bond could further add to homeowners’ bills. If voters approve the bond in November, it would incrementally add 2 cents to the property tax rate starting in 2018. Early estimates put the cost at nearly $60 a year for the typical homeowner.
Bottom Line: We'll see what happens during August, but if you know how to read between the lines, this is not a good sign.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: "The Death and Life of Great American Cities", by Jane Jacobs

"For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind."
2 Timothy 1:7

[Author's Note: We finished this book close to a month ago.  It's taken that long to digest.  While now is the appropriate time to commit these thoughts to writing, we will continue to unpack it in the coming months.]

The Death and Life of Great American Cities. by Jane Jacobs, is the most challenging book we've read in some time.  Written in 1961, the book details the failures of 'urban planning' wrought by the bureaucrats of that era.  Sadly, many of those attitudes have not only persisted among policy makers, it has expanded and become more entrenched.  All of Jacobs' predictions have, unfortunately, come to pass.  At the same time, however, Jacobs investigates and presents common traits of successful urban areas.  The problem is finding political will to implement them.  The final result is a product that, regardless of the political preconceptions one brings to the effort, will confirm some while rocking others to the core.

The biggest takeaway from Jacobs is that successful cities emerge from spontaneous order, not central planning.  Jacobs is SCATHING towards the ethos of the latter that, unfortunately, prevails to this day.  She decries a system where, "[O]nly supermen could understand a great city as a total, or as whole groups of districts, in the detail that is needed for guiding constructive actions and for avoiding unwitting, gratuitous, destructive actions" (410).  Residents of urban neighborhood are victimized by bureaucrats who "too often, we believe, make decisions about it from desks downtown" (122).  Even worse, "[E]xtraordinary governmental financial incentives have been required to achieve this degree of monotony, sterility, and vulgarity" (7).  Ouch.  And that's a small sample.

The biggest area where we were personally challenged was sidewalks.  In Jacobs' view, lively sidewalks are so essential to urban vitality that she devotes three chapters to the subject.  A widely used network of sidewalks is the foundation of public safety.  As Jacobs explains, safety is "kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls" (32).  When people use a city street for daily activity, it begets a sufficient number of eyes and ears to maintain public safety.  In the context of a city like Austin, which has a sidewalk deficit stretching back decades, this example illustrates how a modest expenditure on sidewalks could have an additional benefit beyond mobility.

Another critical component of successful streets is multiple uses over the course of the day.  Jacobs explains: "[T]he continuity of this movement (which gives the street its safety) depends on an economic foundation of basic mixed uses" (135).  For example, this concept would encourage the integration of residential and commercial uses over segregation via zoning laws.  When businesses serve their customers, in addition to the obvious economic benefits, it simultaneously creates a level of foot traffic that keeps residents safe.  And that's before we discuss the convenience factor we discuss the convenience factor of completing daily tasks within a short distance.

Speaking of zoning, another fun discussion was land-use restrictions for commercial locations.  Long story short: zoning restrictions create barriers to entry where competitive ecosystems had previously flourished.  This might be the greatest sentence of all time: "This protection -- which is nothing less than commercial monopoly -- is considered very 'progressive' in planning circles" (195).

That being said, nothing could have prepared us for Jacobs' discussion of the origins of sub-urbanization.  It turns out current suburban land use patterns are a New Deal legacy.  We quote Jacobs in full because there's nothing we can add:
The idea of diverting huge sums of money to thin suburban growth at the expense of starving city districts was no invention of the mortgage lenders (although they, as well as suburban builders, have now acquired a vested interesting in this routine).  Neither the ideal nor the method of accomplishing it originated logically within the credit system itself.  It originated with high-minded social thinkers.  By the 1930's, when the FHA methods for stimulating suburban growth were worked out, virtually every wise man of government -- from right to left -- was in favor of the objectives, although they might differ with one another on methods.  A few years previously, Herbert Hoover had opened the first White House Conference on Housing with a polemic against the moral inferiority of cities and a panegyric on the moral virtues of simple cottages, small towns and grass.  At an opposite political pole, Rexford G. Tugwell, the federal administrator responsible for the New Deal's Green Belt demonstration suburbs, explained, "My idea is to go just outside centers of population, pick up cheap land, build a whole community and entice people into it.  Then go back into the cities and tear down whole slums and make parks of them.  (310)
To put it mildly, this website has no use for the legacy of either Herbert Hoover or Franklin Roosevelt.

That's not to say, however, that density is a magic bullet.  Jacobs: "to assume that this is 'the' answer would be to oversimplify outrageously" (204).  To have a central planner decree 'let there be density' and dedicate large sums of money for this purpose would invite the same dangers giving central planners large sums of money always invites.  Instead, density should be encouraged over time, "densities should be raised...gradually rather than in some sudden, cataclysmic upheaval to be followed by nothing more for decades" (216); in other words, spontaneous order over central planning.

Jacobs makes several other fantastic points that we can't work into a coherent narrative, so we list them without comment:

  • Schools can't create 'good neighborhoods' (113).
  • A successful neighborhood has to be big and powerful enough to fight city hall (122).
  • The project that ultimately became the World Trade Center was doomed from the start (157).
  • "Public policy cannot directly inject private enterprise" (167).
  • Old buildings allow businesses that can't support new construction to be economically viable (188).
  • Cities are incubators of new industry (197); thus, it's completely natural for businesses to be in the city during their startup phase and move to the suburbs as they mature and need more space.
  • "The problem with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so" (271).
    • Author's Note: That's SERIOUSLY amazing....
  • Allowing neighborhoods to gradually 'unslum' on their own doesn't make special interests rich (288).
  • The federal tax code encourages slumlords (316).
  • Corruption gets "more inventive" over time (355).
  • Food trucks can add tremendous neighborhood diversity at minimal cost (396).
An online review cannot do this book justice.  It's taken a month to collect our thoughts to this point.  Read The Death and Life of Great American Cities for yourself with an open mind and an understanding that Jacobs doesn't fall neatly along the left/right spectrum.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Yet another Byron Cook scheme falls flat....

"And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart."
Galatians 6:9

Last fall, citizens in Navarro County organized a protest against their incumbent State Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) and asked Empower Texans, Texas Right to Life and others to join in. We stood out at Corsicana’s country club and waved signs in the rain, highlighting Cook’s record protecting illegal aliens and attacking the sanctity of life.

Former Corsicana Police Chief Randy Bratton Former Corsicana Police Chief Randy Bratton Unhappy with his lobby cartel donors having to drive past such a display, Cook and his political team coordinated with the city police to disrupt the gathering. The police were clearly uneasy with the task – though the chief of police at one point threatened to arrest me if the crowd didn’t disperse. At the end of the day, the police issued citations to me and Texas Right to Life’s president, Jim Graham.

The charge? Holding an illegal parade.


Today, the city dropped the charges “in the interest of justice.”
Read the whole thing here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

#ATXCouncil and Smoking: Another POINTLESS hornet's nest....

"Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things,
And revive me in Your way."
Psalm 119:37

We'd intended to comment upon the proposed expansion of the smoking ban, but Greg Harrison beat us to the punch:
A taxpayer-funded hospital district is hoping to expand an already existing violation of property rights by extending a previous ill-conceived municipal “smoking ban” to include all public outdoor patios — effectively criminalizing smoking (and vaping) in all public businesses.

The initiative comes from Austin’s Central Health, a publically funded hospital district in Travis County. Central Health’s Communication Director Ted Burton expects the initiative to come before Austin City Council between November and January — pending a councilmember sponsoring the initiative to bring it before council. Once the issue is brought up, it will require 3/4ths of councilmembers’ approval in order to be adopted.

Austin narrowly approved (by a 52% margin) the initial smoking ban back in 2005 — which removed a bar owners’ right to choose whether or not their establishment allowed smoking and imposed a blanket ban of indoor smoking in all public spaces. Adapting to the new regulations, property owners established ‘smoking patios’ to accommodate customers who smoke.
Obviously, this idea is dangerous and misguided.  We recommend Greg's piece in full for the policy ramifications.  We want to focus on something else.

If council chooses to go down this path, it will be yet another controversy that accomplishes nothing (ie. like Uber/Lyft and Short Term Rentals).  But the good news is that nothing has happened as of yet.  If council keeps it that way, they still have an opportunity to avoid inflaming the community.

Bottom Line: Remember what we said about "the other group of arrogant jerks."

Monday, July 25, 2016

#ATXCouncil District 7: Natalie Gauldin's PROMISING Launch!!!

"When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice;
But when a wicked man rules, the people groan."
Proverbs 29:2

We recently attended Natalie Gauldin's campaign launch party for council district 7.  We followed that up with an extended telephone conversation.  We don't expect to agree with her on everything, but we have substantial overlap on the biggest issues Austin will face over the next few years.

The biggest issue where we agree is housing and land use.  The biggest reason why housing costs in Austin have exploded in recent years are NIMBY-style restrictions that prohibit construction in the urban core.  This restricts the supply of housing (which increases the cost) while simultaneously pushing what construction does occur to the perimeter (which, of course, begets traffic).

Gauldin wants to expand 'opportunities and options' for land use.  She wants to lower housing costs by increasing property rights.   As one example, she wants to lift lot-size restrictions that incentivize building McMansions instead of multi-unit residences in the urban core.  She has recently led an effort to secure new construction in central Austin and also helped reduce restrictions on 'granny flats.'  In other words, her record includes tangible steps in the right direction.

Gauldin's priorities on council will be affordability and transportation...which segued into our discussion of technological regulation.  Council's actions over the last year related to Uber/Lyft and Short Term rentals were a distraction from her priorities.  Gauldin opposes both.  As future cases emerge, she would need to see meaningful public demand for regulation and data that proves the regulations in question would achieve their intended purpose before she would consider it.  This is a remarkably refreshing perspective for a member of the Austin city council.

In discussing taxes, without prompting she brought up the fact that 'fees' on Austin energy bills are actually hidden taxes.  She didn't know it when she brought it up, but that's actually one of our gigantic pet peeves in local governance.  On property taxes, she is unenthusiastic about expanding a homestead exemption that ignores the hidden tax burden on renters, but she wants to discuss more meaningful reductions in the tax rate.

We also discussed various scenarios for reforming the city bureaucracy.  We were pleased to learn she believes the city staff should serve the priorities set by the elected council, not the other way around.  This stands in contrast to an incumbent who has been a rubber stamp for the bureaucracy and voted to give the city manager a raise.

Speaking of the incumbent, did we mention that Natalie Gauldin is challenging Leslie Pool?!?  That, by itself, should tell readers everything the need to know.  We'd rather discuss the challenger's positives than the incumbent's negatives, but we can go there as necessary.

That's not to say we agree with Natalie Gauldin universally.  She has a higher opinion of the viability of bike trails and rail than this website.  That being said, her views on issues like bike trails and rail make her a better fit for the district.

Bottom Line: Housing costs and land use regulation are the biggest issue council must confront in coming years.  We cannot address Austin's affordability challenges unless we tackle housing.  While we do not expect do agree with her across the board, the early signs on the most important issues are highly encouraging.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Revelation 9:13-21 -- The SIXTH Trumpet Judgement!!!

Sixth Trumpet: The Angels from the Euphrates
Then the sixth angel sounded: And I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God, saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” So the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour and day and month and year, were released to kill a third of mankind. Now the number of the army of the horsemen was two hundred million; I heard the number of them. And thus I saw the horses in the vision: those who sat on them had breastplates of fiery red, hyacinth blue, and sulfur yellow; and the heads of the horses were like the heads of lions; and out of their mouths came fire, smoke, and brimstone. By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed—by the fire and the smoke and the brimstone which came out of their mouths. For their power is in their mouth and in their tails; for their tails are like serpents, having heads; and with them they do harm.

But the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and idols of gold, silver, brass, stone, and wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk. And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.
Revelation 9:13-21

Pastor Danny Forshee.  Great Hills Baptist Church.  December 14, 2014:

The Sixth Trumpet Judgment - Dr. Danny Forshee - December 14, 2014 from Great Hills Baptist Church on Vimeo.

  1. Decree (vv. 13-14)
    - Genesis 15:18
  2. Destruction (vv. 15-19)
  3. Defiance (Author's Note: Idiots) (vv. 20-21)
    A. Idolatry
         - 1 Corinthians 10:19-20
         - Daniel 5:23

    B. Murders (esp. Abortion)
    C. Sorcery
    D. Sexual Immorality
    E. Theft
  • There weren't even 200 million people on Earth when John originally wrote Revelation.
    • Illustration of why it describes future events.
  • Biblical scholars disagree on whether the 200 million man Army is demonic or human.
  • The Devil is an expert at convincing people that what he offers is better than what God has to offer.
  • All the forces of history are under God's sovereign control.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Abbott proposes new category of thought crime....

"Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong."
1 Corinthians 16:13

What could POSSIBLY go wrong?!?
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is asking state lawmakers to make it a hate crime to target police officers.

"You have a governor who has your back," Gov. Abbott told law enforcement last week, during a televised media conference the day after five officers were murdered in Dallas by a man deliberately targeting white officers.

Following the targeted killing of three more officers next door in Louisiana, Abbott announced a proposal Monday to make it a hate crime to attack law enforcement out of bias against police. The "Police Protection Act" would also increase penalties for crimes against officers and create an education program to encourage respect for officers among youth.

"Texas will no longer tolerate disrespect for those who serve," Abbott wrote in a statement Monday, "And it must be made to clear to anyone targeting our law enforcement officials that their actions will be met with severe justice."
Where to begin....

The abstract level: "Hate Crimes" laws are wildly unconstitutional and nothing good can come from this sort of expansion of government power, even to cover groups we like.

The practical level: While recent events in Dallas were horrific, the shooter is already dead.  Furthermore, even if he had been captured alive, he would have already been eligible for the death penalty.  There is no way anything Abbott is proposing could have prevented what happened in Dallas.

It gets better; look who wants to carry the bill:
Draft legislation by Dallas state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) would add discrimination against police and first responders to the hate crime section of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which currently includes prejudice based on "race, color, disability, religion, national origin or ancestry, age, gender, or sexual preference."
Then there's this gem, which could never ever in a million years backfire:
"We'd like to see it go a step further, so that the D.A. has to seek the death penalty in every case where an officer is killed."
In other words, we want to expand the scope of a poorly written statute while removing all discretion about how to interpret it when the inevitable case comes up that falls under its purview in a way we do not anticipate.

And all this despite the fact that anyone who kills a cop in Texas is already eligible for the death penalty as long as we enforce the laws that are already on the books.

To learn more about the unintended consequences of "hate crimes" laws, click here.