Austin American-Statesman Endorses Affordability Effort

Posted August 19, 2013 by Bill Oakey
Categories: Austin Affordability

On August 17th, the Austin American-Statesman published a lead editorial, along with my guest editorial calling for property tax relief and a stronger City and County focus on affordability. See both editorials below, and then use the provided email addresses to contact City Council Members and Travis County Commissioners. We should ask for reasonable cuts in the ongoing budget discussions. There is still time for some tax relief. Please be courteous and respectful in your correspondence with the local officials. The facts in the affordability issue are on our side. Our voices are being heard. So, let’s give it our best shot!

Austin American-Statesman, August 17, 2013

City, County Must Stop Its Binge On Tax Hikes

The Austin City Council is either unable or unwilling to stop itself from raising taxes to near or at maximum legal levels — despite larger revenues, windfalls, and growing tax bases. In doing so, city officials have shown themselves to be drunk on tax hikes, and it’s time to implement a 12-step program.
How else can their actions be explained? Year after year, without much — if any — consideration for the public’s ability to pay through-the-roof tax bills from the city, county, school districts, hospital district and Austin Community College, elected officials have continued to impose steep tax hikes. Other cities, such as Round Rock and Cedar Park, have held the line on taxes, even while giving employees a pay raise and expanding city services.

Certainly, well-financed local governments provide services to residents and take care of parks, libraries, schools, roads and people in need. But there are limits – points at which more harm is being done than good when taxes are raised beyond certain levels. As local contributor Bill Oakey notes in his commentary below, the current system is not sustainable for most city residents whose wages have not kept pace with ballooning housing costs, electric rates and tax bills. It’s disheartening that the public’s ability to pay has been an afterthought in budget decisions.
That concern continues to be trumped by other priorities, such as providing substantial yearly pay raises and benefits for city and county employees and, in some cases, pay raises elected officials have awarded themselves; tax rebates for private companies that relocate to Austin or Travis County; and tax breaks for homeowners of historical homes in upscale neighborhoods. The steep and continued increase of tax bills is curious given all the additional money generated by new construction and businesses, a rebounding economy and larger revenue from higher property values. Elected officials tout growth as a counterbalance against such steep tax increases. Yet that benefit is not showing up in our tax bills.

That situation caused Austin City Council Member Laura Morrison to pose this question, “What do we have systemically in our business model that, even with growth, we can’t keep up with expenses … and (because of higher rates) are taking more and more of a bite out of people’s incomes?”

That question deserves an immediate answer. And neither the council nor the commissioners court should approve budgets until that question is answered and budgets are adjusted to reflect the financial realities of people who are paying the bills. Taxpayers should be getting a break, given all the extra money the city and county are taking in.

But the binge continues.

American-Statesman writer Sarah Coppola reported in recent editions that Austin’s property tax rate would increase from 50.29 cents per $100 of property value to 51.14 cents. That rate is just below the highest rate the city could choose under state law — 51.34 cents — without triggering a possible election to limit the increase.

Under the proposal, the typical Austin household would pay $173 more in property taxes, utility bills and other fees next year if the budget is approved in September. Austin would add 365 jobs to its nearly 12,400-person payroll, including 23 jobs in the planning department to review, inspect and permit new construction. Local attorney Bill Aleshire has a good recommendation to address planning department expenditures, including new jobs: Make the department a self-supporting enterprise from user fees. Council Member Mike Martinez, citing 900 positions in the city that are vacant, doesn’t see the need to add hundreds more. We agree. Council Member Bill Spelman is challenging the idea that Austin needs an additional 47 police officers in jobs that can be filled by non-civil service employees, who earn considerably less than police officers.

To give taxpayers a break, the council should take the long overdue step of granting home owners tax relief through a homestead exemption, as the county already offers.

For its part, the county also is on a bender regarding its expenditures. Earlier this month, two county commissioners, Margaret Gomez and Ron Davis, voted themselves and about 40 other elected officials a 3 percent pay raise. They were joined in that arrogance by retiring County Judge Sam Biscoe. The proposed budget for the next fiscal year also includes 3 percent across the board pay raises for all employees, though employees received hefty pay raises this year and the year before.

Though county tax bills will rise nearly 3 percent for the average homeowner, the tax rate will decline by a wee bit, about 1.1 percent. Taxpayers could and should get a bigger break, given the windfall to the county budget from rising property values. Officials seem unaware that most residents don’t share their affluence or ability to pay ever-increasing tax bills.

We’re not advocating that the city, county and other taxing entities practice strict austerity. Perhaps smaller tax increases are warranted in some cases, but they should be justified. We are arguing for tax sobriety.


Oakey: Dollar signs can be danger signs


Let’s get straight to the bottom line. The Austin city budget has increased a whopping 73.7 percent in the past 10 years, from $1.9 billion to $3.3 billion. Travis County’s budget increased 93.6 percent between 2003 and 2013, which means that it nearly doubled. Right now, the Austin area is experiencing one of the biggest economic booms that the entire country has ever seen. The glow looks great in the national spotlight. But look out for the danger signs.
We surged from becoming America’s 17th largest city in 2000 to 11th place this year. But not without a hefty price. The layer upon layer of related cost increases and future spending proposals can be summed up with one word — unsustainable.

Local property taxes have increased 38 percent in the past decade, and rents have skyrocketed 49 percent. And yet, the median income in Austin, adjusted for inflation, has stayed virtually flat since 2000. The tax rates for the city and county alone have gone up 25 percent in just four years. Homeowners whose tax appraisals have increased during that period have seen even higher increases. And that does not include Austin Community College, Central Health, area schools, and water and electric rate increases.
When many people think of 21st-century Austin, they envision young high-tech whiz kids and innovative entrepreneurs who bring new companies with good-paying jobs to town. We hear about Formula One and the X Games, and an impressive schedule of music and cultural festivals that attract more tourists every year. But beneath the veil of prosperity lies an inescapable fact. The Austin population is a diverse demographic mix.

According to U.S. Census figures, one in five Austinites lives in poverty. Interestingly, poverty has spread to our suburbs at a growth rate that ranks number two nationwide. The Brookings Institution released a report that shows we have the nation’s fastest-growing population of “pre-seniors,” ages 55 to 64, and the second-fastest-growing senior population. And yet, our city and county older-than-65 homestead exemptions have never been indexed for inflation or rising home values, and are woefully inadequate.

Estimates of the number of people moving here range from 100 to 158 per day. Those who landed a good job or who sold their home in a West Coast market can live quite comfortably in Austin. But their arrival in older neighborhoods has driven up property values and priced a lot of longtime Austinites out of their homes. Many of the tens of thousands of residents who were already here before the boom started now face economic uncertainty.

Some of these problems are not unique to Austin. San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and other cities have gone through similar growing pains. But the accelerated pace of the Austin transition gives reason for local government officials to wake up to the harsh realities of affordability. If anyone thinks the past 10 years of tax increases and high housing costs were hard to swallow, just ask yourself this. How long could you sustain the same pace, if not even higher costs going forward?

Over the next 15 months, voters will need to decide on some very expensive bond propositions. ACC is considering a half-billion dollar bond election for building renovation and expansion. Next year, we may see a $275 million election for the first phase of the urban rail project. Add to that a proposed new Travis County Civil Courthouse for $300 million to $345 million. More water and electric rate increases are forecast. Worst of all, the Austin City Council continues to raise property taxes to the legal maximum year after year.

So, what can be done to bring the area’s perceived needs and the cost to fund them in line with the public’s ability to pay? I have read dozens of consultant reports and internal planning documents. But nowhere have I ever encountered the phrase “the public’s ability to pay.” Policymakers should heed the warning signals. For many Austinites, there are only two options: cut the family budget, or load up the car and watch Austin fade away in the rear view mirror.

If local officials really want to tackle this problem, they must first recognize how serious it is. Then they need to schedule some joint planning sessions and get down to the business of doing whatever it takes to make Austin more affordable.

Oakey is a retired accountant and a consumer advocate
Contact members of the Austin City Council:

Mayor Lee Leffingwell:

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole:

Council Member Kathie Tovo:

Council Member Mike Martinez:

Council Member Laura Morrison:

Council Member Bill Spelman:

Council Member Chris Riley:

Contact Members of the Travis County Commissioners Court:

County Judge Sam Biscoe:

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty:

Commissioner Bruce Todd:

Commissioner Margaret Gomez:

Commissioner Ron Davis:


Las Vegas Panorama From My 50th Floor Terrace at the Cosmopolitan

Posted October 2, 2012 by Bill Oakey
Categories: General Fun

Taken With the New iPhone 5

“Side By Side” Art Book and Video

Posted February 21, 2011 by Bill Oakey
Categories: Artwork

I am pleased to introduce my first softcover art book, in collaboration with my good friend, Debbi Smith Rourke.  “Side By Side” is a collection of my photographic artwork, presented along with fabulous oil and pastel renderings of those photos painted by Debbi.  These images are collected from my travels to Canada, Alaska, and other locations, as well as here at home in Austin and the Texas coast.

To commemorate the launch of this book, Maria and Roy Gatling with the website,, have posted a video interview of Debbi and me.  You can view the video here:

Or, you can watch it here from YouTube:

If you would like to purchase the book, priced at $30.00, please contact me at

Art and Splendor in Dallas

Posted April 15, 2010 by Bill Oakey
Categories: Artwork

On Saturday April 10th, I went on a fabulous art field trip, the Dallas Art Trek, sponsored by the Austin Museum of Art.  This event was a photographer’s dream, as we were invited to tour three private homes of prominent art collectors.  We visited the estates of Nona & Richard Barrett, Jennifer & John Eagle, and Eric & Debbie Green.

Where Will Apple Be in Five Years?

Posted April 2, 2010 by Bill Oakey
Categories: Tech World

It was spring 2005, just five years ago, and I found myself standing in front of the Apple Store at Barton Creek Mall.  The big signs advertised the arrival of the new iPod Mini.  I was able to look at one, but they were all sold out.

As a long time Windows user, I had no interest in Mac computers.  I used to make fun of them in fact, because everybody knew that Windows computers ran all of the most popular software.

Well, I went back and bought the iPod Mini, later to be renamed the Nano.  Then, within a couple of short months, I was back in the store.  This time I walked out with a dual processor Mac G5.  Gradually, I became converted.  Every night I started listening to podcasts about the latest Mac rumors.  And I bought Apple stock –  for $43.00 a share.

In that summer of 2005, one of the rumors was that Apple might come out with a video iPod.  Most of the media people doubted it would happen.  Steve Jobs didn’t think anybody would watch video on an iPod.

Fast forward to 2010.  Microsoft, Dell, Sony, Google, and lots of other companies have tried to outdo Apple, or at least catch up with them in innovative product design.  A recent survey found that 22% of Blackberry users want an iPhone.

After the Kindle came out, people began asking if Apple would  develop an electronic book reader.  Most of the media said it would never happen.  Steve Jobs allegedly said that people don’t read enough books.  Now, this weekend the iPad will be released.  It’s a heck of a lot more than a book reader.  It’s a whole new category of touch screen portable device.  Its most popular use probably hasn’t even been discovered yet.  Who ever heard of Facebook five years ago?

So, where will Apple be five years from now?  It’s hard to know for sure, but this week they passed Walmart in total market capitalization.  Some of the things that are coming are pretty interesting.  The Internet may be 100 times faster.  Computers and other devices will zap data back and forth wirelessly.  In the  spring of 2015, people will be lined up around the block at Apple stores all over the world, wanting to be among the first to get “it.”  Whatever “it” turns out to be.

I still remember the panic that I felt that first May afternoon in 2005 when I opened up that big Mac G5 computer.  I couldn’t find my installation disk with all the instructions and software drivers to get my Internet connection set up.  So, I called my nephew who is from an entire Mac family.

He just laughed. “Uncle Bill!”  he insisted.  “You don’t need a software installation disk.  With a Mac you just turn it on and everything works.”  I still use windows every day, but only to look out at the trees, the flowers, and the clouds.

Delicious Homemade Bread

Posted February 6, 2010 by Bill Oakey
Categories: General Fun

If anybody likes homemade bread as much as I do, you should check this out.  I’ve been enjoying it a lot lately, and you won’t believe how easy it is.  I am using a Panasonic bread maker that I got from  All you have to do is buy Krusteaz bread mixes at the grocery store.  They come in several flavors, including sourdough and cracked wheat.  I’ve tried both of those and they’re fantastic!

Just dump the bread mix into the bread maker’s pan and put in a cup of water.  Close the lid and then pour the package of yeast into the cup on top of the lid.  That’s all there is to it.  Just press the Start button, and within about an hour, you’ll be treated to the wonderful smell of homemade bread.  It takes 4 hours for it to finish.  If you want it hot and ready for breakfast, you can set the timer to have it done first thing in the morning

Of course the bread maker comes with several recipes for making it from scratch. There again, you don’t have to do anything manually.  Just measure the ingredients and dump then into the pan. One little tip.  Place the bread maker on a solid surface, like directly on your kitchen counter.  If you put it on a thin cutting board (like I did once) it might vibrate and shift, and could fall off the counter.

Here’s a link to the bread maker I got on

And here’s a link to the types of bread mixes from Krusteze:

Who’s Driving Your Car?

Posted February 5, 2010 by Bill Oakey
Categories: Tech World

Until all the recent news stories about Toyotas with acceleration problems and brake problems, I never realized how overpowering computer software  is in making a car go these days.  No wonder the guys who grew up with cars as a hobby can no longer look under the hood and fix anything.

Just try to imagine as you are barreling down the highway at 70 miles per hour that Microsoft Internet Explorer is about as reliable as the innards of your hifalutin’ jalopy.  You turn onto a neighborhood street after exiting the highway.  It’s been raining just long enough to make the roads perilously slick.  You start to skid and suddenly you slam on the brakes.  Well guess what?  Those brakes do not engage or fail to engage because some guy with grease on his hands put in a mechanical device and tested it to make sure it worked.  No, what determines your ability to stop is a few million – yes I said million – lines of software code.  According to the New York Times, it’s up to 100 million!

Each computer in a car is called an electronic control unit, and there are about 30 of them in a modern car, more than in some jet fighters.  The recent Toyota problems which have led to serious injury and death worldwide are probably just symptoms of a much bigger problem waiting to happen.  Not only do all of the millions of lines of computer code have to be written correctly, each of the 30 separate computers in your car has to communicate with each other precisely and accurately.

So, from now on just remember.  Whenever you get behind the wheel of a car, drunk or sober, it isn’t really you who’s doing the driving.  Every turn of the wheel, tap of the foot, or finger on a button triggers a whole mess of interwoven lines of software code.  If any of it gets fouled up, sort of like the tangled heap of twisted lines on a fishing reel if your cast is off, then all the computers under the hood and in the trunk will have a quick little chat to decide what happens to you and your car.

And once you back the car out of your garage, you don’t get a chance to plug it into the Internet when Microsoft issues the latest round of updates for Patch Tuesday. That only happens if enough people complain after they leave the hospital, and the car company agrees to do a recall.  In the meantime, happy commuting in your computers on wheels.  (I don’t even own one of the things)!

Here are two interesting New York Times articles on this: