No kidding, Austin tax bills are squeezing some out

Many longtime Austin homeowners move to outlying areas, including Buda, to seek property tax relief. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

If you were in denial or, better for you, were blissfully oblivious to the reality that the tax squeeze is choking many Austin families, a report in Sunday’s American-Statesman laid that truth bare for all to see. Not that many of us didn’t already know.

Just like you can bank on old-timers grousing about Austin turning into a metropolis they hardly recognize anymore, you can count on your property tax bills rising year after year. The tax bite is forcing many Austin homeowners to seek relief elsewhere, and to pack up and move to outlying cities like Buda that are more tax-friendly to family pocketbooks.

Those decisions aren’t easy, especially when you consider that children are affected, as the report by Melissa B. Taboada, Mary Huber and Claire Osborn pointed out.

“We were trying to hold on to living in Southwest Austin where our kids were being raised. It became too much,” said Barbara Johnson, who saw her property taxes creep up over the years. Her family moved from Circle C in Southwest Austin to Buda, where their tax bill is estimated to be $3,000 less.

If there’s a boomtown in America with the “it factor,” it’s Austin. Construction cranes fill the city skyline, building the newest high-rise that will become the next shimmering luxury condo complex or hotel or office tower. Already among the fastest-growing cities in the country, Austin is considered a worthy suitor for Amazon HQ2 and its 50,000 employees. The city makes all the national “best” lists, and visitors flock here from all over. Many don’t leave. Signature homegrown events like ACL and South By Southwest are hot tickets across the country, adding to Austin’s swagger.

But there’s a flip side to all that sheen, one Austin Mayor Steve Adler addressed during his 2014 election campaign. His stump speech staple invoked “the tipping point,” the idea that the city had reached the cusp of a status quo it could no longer afford to follow.

The message, of course, was that Austin needed new leadership, but it went deeper than that. Adler mused too about the danger of Austin becoming two cities, one of haves and have nots. Continuing with the status quo, he said, risked widening that divide.

RELATED: Latinos had income gains but not all the news is rosy

Many Austinites can relate. As their home property values rise – and wages don’t keep up — they are being priced out of those very homes. And it’s happening across the city, in affluent neighborhoods and in working-class enclaves. Flight to the suburbs doesn’t always offer immunity, either. There are growing signs that property tax bills are rising there too.

It’s not surprising then that some residents grumble that Austin is becoming a playground for the wealthy.

A painful irony: property taxes are high here and real estate prices are soaring, but Austin is a steal for people from California and other parts of the country where real estate prices are sky-high.

For those who live here already, a different story. Just in the last five years, the average home value in Austin has risen $80,000 to $343,000, and the property tax bill has surged 21 percent. The tax bill on an average value home is now $7,600 a year, an increase of $517 over last year.

Finding a silver lining in all of this is like finding an Austinite who was born and raised here. Good luck.

But more people are talking about surging property tax bills, and there may lie the key to change. Training a spotlight on the growing cost of living in Austin is good. So is holding elected officials accountable and demanding they hit the brakes on rising taxes.

It won’t be easy. Not when state and local taxing entities heavily rely on property tax revenue to pay for schools and local services. Indeed, the biggest bite of your property tax bill goes to pay for schools.

It won’t be easy, either, when the blame is thrown around in crisscross  directions. Overhauling the school finance system is the only solution, some argue. But some conservative lawmakers say it’s the school districts that need to curb spending. The local school districts, however, say they could do more with their revenue if they didn’t have to help subsidize property-poor districts under the school finance system. And local taxing entities frequently tell you they’re trying to offer relief by reducing their tax rates even as they rake in more of your tax money.

Taxpayers are too savvy for that misdirection now. Lower tax rates don’t mean a thing if soaring property values raise your tax bill. Those who can’t afford to live in Austin anymore will attest.

No, the status quo isn’t good enough anymore. But at least we’re talking about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s time for FAA to pass stricter hot air balloon pilot regulations

Law enforcement and investigative teams examine the scene of a hot air balloon crash that killed 16 people near Lockhart, Texas, on Saturday, July 30, 2016. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded during a hearing on last week that lack of oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of commercial balloon pilots contributed to the deadly balloon crash two years ago in Lockhart, which killed 15 paying passengers and the balloon pilot.

The loss of so many lives might have been avoided on July 30, 2016 had stricter FAA safety regulations been in place — as suggested in 2013 by its own agency safety investigator and by the NTSB in 2014. Since the tragic incident, family members of the victims and state lawmakers also have called for improved safety regulations.

Unfortunately, many don’t expect the FAA to act on families’ requests or the NTSB recommendation. One sign that the agency might be reluctant to act, experts say, is the aviation agency’s recently appointed deputy administrator, Dan Elwell. Elwell previously served on the Trump administration’s “deregulation team,” tasked with reducing the number of federal government regulations.

It’s shameful that the FAA didn’t budge after its own safety experts recommended change four years ago.  It will be incomprehensible if it doesn’t act now.

A cocktail of prescription drugs — including oxycodone, Valium and enough Benadryl to approximate the effects of drunken driving — contributed to pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols’ pattern of poor decision-making that caused the crash in Lockhart, an NTSB investigation found. Safety board officials also found Nichols had a lengthy criminal history involving drunken driving and drug convictions that he never disclosed to the FAA.

During last Tuesday’s hearing, the NTSB recommended that the FAA require medical checks for commercial balloon pilots — as it does for helicopter and airplane pilots. Currently, the FAA only requires that balloon pilots be certified and their balloons be regularly inspected by authorities.

Medical checks detect the use of prohibited medications, potentially impairing medical conditions and any history of driving while intoxicated.

The FAA shouldn’t just “carefully consider” the NTSB recommendation, as it stated after the hearing. It should rush to implement it.

Until now, the FAA has not articulated why their rules exempt hot air balloon pilots from medical certificate requirements.  Countries such as England, Canada and Australia require the certificates for their balloon pilots, the American-Statesman’s Jeremy Schwartz reported.

Instead, most safety measures enacted in the ballooning industry have come from a Balloon Federation of America (BFA) volunteer program designed for its member pilots. Pilots who participate in the program are assigned one of three levels of safety accreditation defined by the safety requirements the pilot has met. Consumers can use the program to select a hot air balloon ride company or pilot based on those safety accreditations.

It’s a great effort by the BFA. However, the program, though comprehensive, doesn’t apply to every balloon pilot. Some balloon pilots — like Nichols in the Lockhart case — aren’t BFA members.

Balloon customers need to know that their pilot’s track record and experience is trustworthy, regardless of association membership.

Why isn’t the FAA implementing the NTSB’s recommendation?

In 2013, an FAA safety inspector raised balloon pilot concerns and made suggestions similar to those later made by the NTSB. FAA Chief Michael Huerta overruled the FAA safety inspector’s recommendations. Why? High cost and low risk, the The Wall Street Journal reported.

It’s true. The risk of hot air balloon accidents is low and fatal hot air-balloon incidents are rare.

Between 1964 and 2014 — before the Lockhart crash — balloon crashes killed a total of 114 people in 67 incidents in the U.S., according to a National Transportation Safety Board database.

The deadliest air balloon accident prior to Lockhart occurred in February 2013 when a hot air balloon caught fire over Luxor, Egypt killing 19 of the 21 people on board.

Human error is bound to lead to accidents without stricter pilot regulations in place. Requiring medical certificates, as the NTSB recommends, is one way to lower that human error probability.

Meaningful action taken now by FAA would further minimize the risk of fatal balloon incidents.

But as I mentioned, not many believe the FAA will act on potentially life-saving recommendations.

State Rep. John Cyrier, a Republican representing Lockhart, said last week that there’s no question in his mind that it will require an act of Congress to enact the safety board’s recommendations. “It’s going to take citizens and everyone involved to ask their congressmen to make this happen,” he said.

The FAA shouldn’t let it come to that.

 

When will more state agency workers at HHSC get their raise?

Mary Ramirez, a Health and Human Services employee from Houston, marches on Congress Avenue during the Texas State Employees Union rally at the Capitol on Wednesday April 12, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The number of Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) administrators making more than $200,000 a year or more has reached a new high, according to a recent report by the Dallas Morning News. Meanwhile, the agency’s low-level workers, who have gone without pay raises for years, continue to be overlooked when it comes to getting more compensation.

That has to change.

Until our state leaders address the issues associated with overworked employees on HHSC’s front lines, the agency that began a massive overhaul last year for recurring inefficiencies can expect such troubles to continue.

Yes, the state has made changes at HHSC after state reports uncovered the inefficiencies. The reports found they were due in part to overworked and underpaid staff.

As a result of the findings from state reports, the state approved $150 million in emergency funding for CPS to hire 829 employees – including 550 caseworkers and investigators – as well as to fund a $12,000 pay raise for 6,000 special investigators and caseworkers.

Though CPS is not an HHSC agency anymore — a move approved by the Legislature earlier this year — it’s important to note that the majority of low-level CPS employees were left feeling the sting of not getting pay raises. Veteran CPS employees who play crucial roles shielding kids from abuse felt betrayed, the Dallas Morning News reported.

I’m guessing that’s how most employees at HHSC are feeling right about now. After all, over the past 13 months, under the direction of the commission’s newest executive commissioner, Charles Smith, 10 top commission officials have received five-digit pay raises ranging between $10,000 and $72,000 each, according to a Morning News review of open records.

HHSC now has 11 administrators making well over $200,000 a year. Yet, since his arrival last year, Smith has not advocated for pay raises for his agency’s more than 33,000 rank-and-file workers.

Thousands of the commission’s lower-level employees “haven’t had a real pay raise” in years, Texas State Employees Union president Judy Lugo told the Morning News. That has meant some staff turn to CHIP for their children’s health insurance, and many are on food stamps, Lugo said.

More than 7 million vulnerable Texans depend on HHSC programs for the poor, elderly and disabled. The employees who help them should receive raises, Lugo said.

I agree.

The recent overhaul at HHSC did not happen without a reason. During its once-a-decade review of HHSC, the state Sunset Advisory Commission found that five agencies — HHSC, the Department of Aging and Disability Services, Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, Department of State Health Services and Department of Family and Protective Services — were wrought with inefficiencies brought on by various factors, including miscommunication and redundancy.

If state leaders were serious about improving those agencies — all now part of HHSC — they should consider increasing the salaries of more low-level employees.

 

Latinos had income gains, but not all the news is rosy

Bladimira Martinez takes notes while her daughter and business associate, Yessenia Ramirez, conducts business in Pflugerville last month. Martinez recently started her own cleaning company after years of working for others at or near minimum wage. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The headlines have been heartening lately for Latinos in Austin and across the country, at least when it comes to narrowing the income and education gaps that have dogged the nation’s largest minority group for years.

Recently, we learned that Latinos in the Austin-Round Rock metro area saw a hefty 17 percent increase in median household income from 2015 to 2016 — rising from $48,160 to $56,306, according to new census data.

RELATED: Why Austin-area Latinos saw a big boost in household incomes

Encouraging, yes, but it’s not time to get carried away just yet. It’s true that household incomes rose for Austin-area Latinos, but they still trail whites by a large margin.

Still, closing the income gap offers hope for anyone who believes in the old cliché that a rising tide lifts all boats. And for some time now in Austin, Latinos and African Americans have lagged behind whites in terms of quality of life barometers like income and educational attainment.

Attempts to close gaps led the city to launch Hispanic Quality of Life and African American Quality of Life initiatives, which I covered many years ago. The reviews were mixed. Some minority residents said they didn’t accomplish nearly enough. Some Austinites said the city should help all residents, not just certain minority groups. Regardless where you stood, many of the issues the initiatives sought to address back then are still around.

But back to the good news. Another reason to be encouraged is that there’s plenty of demographic evidence around to believe that if the Austin region will continue to prosper, the future will depend to a large part on the young and fast-growing Hispanic population.

In Travis County alone, 47 percent of the child population is Hispanic, researchers with the Community Advancement Network (CAN) found.

“When I speak to groups, I tell them, ‘That’s our future right there. That’s what the community is going to look like in 20 or 30 years,’” Raul Alvarez, who heads (CAN), told me.

Latinos already make up about 32 percent of the roughly 2 million overall population in the Austin-Round Rock metro area, according to 2016 census data. That’s no secret. What many people don’t know, however, is that demographic experts expect that the Latino population will become the largest portion of the Central Texas workforce sometime in about the next 15 years.

Such projections, however, increasingly lead to worries that Latinos will be left behind because as skill requirements for some careers rise, comparative lack of education could leave a growing share of the local Latino workforce stuck in low-wage jobs.

RELATED: The promise and the challenge of the Latino job puzzle

But there’s good news on that front, too. According to experts, one of the logical explanations behind the Latino income increase is that Latinos are reaching higher education levels.

The percentage of Texas Latinos ages 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree increased between 2015 and 2016, the American-Statesman reported recently.

A new report by the Pew Research Center also found that among Hispanics nationwide, the high school dropout rate is at a new low – 10 percent, continuing a decline spanning several decades. Moreover, as the Hispanic dropout rate plummeted, the share of Hispanic high school graduates who enter college rose, Pew reported.

CASTILLO: A new giving network answers why Latinos need a hand

While encouraging, the new income and education benchmarks aren’t all rosy, and pronounced disparities between minorities and whites persist.

Those figures showing the U.S. Hispanic high school dropout rate is at a new low of 10 percent? They don’t tell the full story: the Hispanic dropout rate was higher than for any other racial and ethnic group.

And though Austin Hispanics may have closed the gaps when it comes to income, they still lag far behind whites, whose median household income in 2016 was close to $74,000 – 31 percent higher than that of Latinos ($56,306) and 48 percent higher than that of African Americans (49,871).

And when income is measured another way – per capita –Hispanics in Central Texas make less than half of what Anglos on average make per year, according to the Austin Community Foundation.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that though Hispanics comprise only about a third of the overall Travis County population, they make up 55 percent of all Travis residents living in poverty, according to CAN, which keeps an annual Dashboard on its website that measures socioeconomic indicators.

It’s even worse for children. CAN researchers found that Hispanic children, although comprising 47 percent of the child population, make up 74 percent of all Travis County children living in poverty.

For Alvarez, that figure may be more troubling than anything else.

“That’s important because it says Hispanics are overrepresented in terms of family and poverty, and they’re going to face challenges that other populations are not going to face,” Alvarez told me.

In other words, there’s good news for area Latinos, but there’s much work to be done.

 

Will Amazon’s HQ2 home be the old Motorola campus?

Eightfold Development of Austin has proposed its campus in East Austin for Amzaon’s HQ2 headquarters and envisions a main building in the shape of Amazon’s Alexa cloud-based voice device.

Austin is cited as one of the key cities for Amazon’s secondary headquarters, known as HQ2, that the company wants to build somewhere in North America. But even if the Austin City Council came up with the financial incentives to lure Amazon – and successfully hurdled the politics of awarding publicly-financed tax abatements and other sweeteners to a rich outsider – there would be the question of where Amazon could locate in Austin, given its gigantic footprint and many preferences.

After all, the e-commerce behemoth has not been shy about detailing the perks and features it expects from communities bidding on its $5 billion project that is projected to generate 50,000 jobs. And Austin leaders, while expressing their huge interest in luring Amazon, also have been clear about their preference that Amazon fits with Austin values and not the other way around.

In addition to incentives, Amazon is asking for “an urban or downtown campus, a development-prepped site,” adding “We want to encourage states/provinces and communities to think creatively for viable real estate options, while not negatively affecting our preferred timeline.”

And that’s not all. Amazon wants to be within one to two miles of major highways, with a building or buildings that can initially accommodate up to 500,000 square feet by 2019 and up to 8 million square feet (33 buildings) beyond 2027. And that’s not all.

Amazon wants to be near, within 45 miles of an airport, have restaurants, retail, cafes and other amenities on its site. It also wants access to public transportation on its second-home site.

There’s more, but that alone is a big challenge for Austin in providing those features on a site within minutes of downtown.

On Tuesday, I toured such a place. A place that time had forgotten, but is being revitalized and readied for Amazon – or something else. It’s the old Motorola plant and campus at 3501 Ed Bluestein Boulevard in East Austin.

Set off the road on 100-plus wooded acres, it is less than five miles from downtown and about six miles to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Within 12 months, the site will yield about 500,000 square feet of office space with a potential of 5 million to 9 million square feet ultimately as it is built out. The latter will require zoning variances to build taller than the 60 feet now permitted.

Touring the campus is a throwback to Austin before the city was discovered by Formula One, Apple, Google and the hordes of hipsters that have relocated to the city. Then, Austin was laid back, weird and, goodness knows, affordable. A single mother of two, as I was in the late 1980s, could rent a house in East Austin and still put food on the table.

Developer Adam Zarafshani of Eightfold Development is touting the campus for Amazon, but makes clear even without Amazon, the campus, an ugly duckling when Eightfold acquired it, is being transformed into a swan through an $800 million, five-year redevelopment.

Where now there are abandoned buildings under renovation and redesign, he envisions a mixed-use community, complete with an urban farm, cafes, wellness and health clinics, computer labs and space for arts organizations and other nonprofits. He says he already has partnerships with Huston-Tillotson University, Austin Free-Net and Fusebox, a nonprofit arts organization, which will lease space or get it for free. It will be, Zarafshani says, a city within a city, with about 3,000 housing units, many that would be rented at rates teachers can afford. And it will be sustainable, with 75 percent of its power coming from solar energy, he says.

It’s the kind of development that compliments East Austin rather than insults it. It won’t displace long-time residents or drive up neighborhood property values, since it’s in a part of town known more for industry and commerce than for homes and neighborhoods. And most of the buildings are being renovated rather than raised. There will be a museum on site telling of Motorola’s history in Austin, featuring many items, such as an old cappuccino machine and era furniture, reclaimed from the renovation.

There are panoramic views and trails. And the campus has an Austin Energy power substation that was built for Motorola. And the Capital Metro Green line – that proposes to connect Austin with passenger rail service to Manor and Elgin – runs alongside the southeaster corner of the property.

With so much competition – upwards of 200 cities in the United States and Canada – vying for Amazon’s HQ2 project, it’s anyone’s guess which city will prevail when Amazon makes its decision next year. Even if Austin beats out the competition, there is no guarantee Amazon will choose the Eightfold site. But bids are due on Oct. 19 and Eightfold believes its development would be just the right fit.

Perhaps. But with or without Amazon, the old Motorola campus is being revitalized, rebuilt and repurposed. After a 12-year sleep, it’s a welcome awakening.