Austin City Hall notebook: Homestead exemption boost delayed, permitting surge nets dozens of new development staffers

City Council members gathered virtually for a regular meeting June 3 in one of their last meetings ahead of council's nearly two-month summer break. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
City Council members gathered virtually for a regular meeting June 3 in one of their last meetings ahead of council's nearly two-month summer break. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

City Council members gathered virtually for a regular meeting June 3 in one of their last meetings ahead of council's nearly two-month summer break. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

The Austin City Council's June 3 meeting included preliminary or final approval of several measures related to the city's property taxation and the ongoing response to homelessness, and also featured a lengthy public hearing and council deliberation over a proposed East Austin redevelopment project. The session proceeded with 10 members, with District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly off the dais, and is set to be followed by a special meeting June 7 and another regular meeting June 10 leading up to council's nearly two-month summer recess.

Homestead exemption increase delayed, senior exemption approved

A $25,000 increase to the homestead tax exemption for Austin seniors and disabled residents was unanimously approved by City Council via consent June 3, while the passage of a proposal that would double the homestead exemption for all eligible city homeowners was pushed back one week.

That percentage-based change would see the city's exemption doubled from 10% of a property's value to 20% and was pulled by District 4 Council Member Greg Casar for discussion Thursday. The exemption jump is a more significant increase than council has considered in the past due to a change in state-level calculations allowing the city to approve such an increase this year without losing revenue in other areas, officials said.

After pulling the item, Casar repeated his preference voiced during a work session June 1 for a flat rate exemption system rather than a percentage change—a move not currently allowed in Texas—to more proportionally support homeowners with lower-value homes. He also requested to delay final consideration of the exemption item until June 10 by passing it on first and second reading only in order to add an item to next Thursday's agenda focused on support for city renters alongside the measure targeted at homeowners.

"I think that the right path for my vote would be to move this forward, but to also move forward a substantial increase in our tenants’ assistance. Our rent assistance program could run out of money as soon as the end of this month, and we really don’t want folks to lose their homes," Casar said. "The homestead exemption is about a $25 million shift in taxes off of homeowners, and so I would want to see if we could get to $20 [million]-$25 million in additional tenant assistance."

Casar's move was backed by a few council members who agreed on the need for additional renters' assistance and more equitable tax breaks on lower-income homeowners. District 3 Council Member Pio Renteria disagreed with the decision not to move the item through its third and final reading, saying the state's limits on exemption adjustments are not council's fault and that even small measures of relief are necessary for residents at this time. District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool also expressed discomfort at council's tradeoff of the proposal alongside a separate measure for renters.

“I’m against how we’re doing it because I firmly believe that we don’t need to hang this over into one more week in order to assure that we also provide additional support to folks who have gotten significant support from us already. ... I don’t want anyone to walk away from our meeting here today with any sort of feeling like we are not fully committed to everybody who lives in this city no matter what their economic status or any other status," she said.

The exemption change's first and second reading only was approved 10-0. While delayed, the measure is likely to see near-unanimous passage next week given support voiced so far by a majority of council members.

Opposition to Oak Hill parkway redesign persists

A series of eminent domain items related to the reconstruction of Oak Hill Parkway served as a springboard Thursday for a rebuke by council members and residents of the state-led transportation project moving forward in southwest Austin.

The items up for council's consideration Thursday were related to the relocation of city water utilities away from the proposed parkway's right-of-way, rather than construction of the parkway itself, and passed 8-2 with Pool and District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo opposed. However, several Oak Hill residents calling into the meeting moved the discussion toward their resistance to the overall widening of Hwy. 290 and Hwy. 71 in their area and prompted some council members to request legal support for local opposition to the freeway expansion.

Tensions over the Texas Department of Transportation-led parkway redesign came to a head earlier this year following a March vote by the Austin Community College board of trustees to allow construction of a concrete batch plant at its unused Pinnacle campus for use by Colorado River Constructors for the parkway's development. The temporary plant concept prompted a public meeting between CRC and residents in April, and the ACC board in May allowed CRC to use the campus but prohibited its use as a batch plant.

With the parkway project still moving forward, however, Oak Hill residents said they remain concerned over a batch plant's pending placement anywhere near their neighborhoods given the potential for increased traffic, noise and air pollution. Several also requested legal action on behalf of the city to halt or alter TxDOT and CRC's progress overall, in line with a similar move made in Harris County for further environmental review of the state-led I-45 redesign there. According to TxDOT, the Oak Hill project is still expected to break ground this year with completion in 2025 or 2026.

“We believe that two threats to our community are so important that we are pursuing every available avenue to stop them. Right decisions now mean sustainability, while wrong decisions now mean blight and ecosystem disruption," caller Karon Rilling said.

Pool and other officials expressed shared sentiments over the project, with Pool requesting more information on the batch plant placement process and a report from city staff about possibly backing up resident opposition in court.

“I want to know why the city of Austin is not filing an amicus brief in support of the residents and the environmental advocates," Pool said. "The situation is beyond distressing, and I continue to believe we didn't have to be in this place today if we had been stronger and more resolute in our voices and our positions even two years ago.”

Development Services staffing

The city Development Services Department said it is being overwhelmed with permitting requests given Austin's rising level of development and population, and this week requested the addition of 41 full-time staffers to accommodate its increased workload.

The department said the new positions could be accommodated by the city's revenue from fees associated with the permitting surge without requiring any budgetary shifts. While the hirings were projected to be budget-neutral, District 10 Council Member Alison Alter said she was not certain the move is presently necessary or financially workable. She also told the department to avoid requesting permitting fee hikes, and asked for staff consideration of ways to make the city permitting process more accessible for city residents regardless of staffing.

"When you compare the volume levels from 2019 to 2021, the difference seems marginal, and the positions we’re adding also don’t appear to fully align with the stated need. I also continue to be concerned about whether the projected revenue from an increased volume of permits will be sufficient to cover the costs of these positions without a fee increase," Alter said. "I’m going to expect DSD to deliver on making these positions work without increasing fees further."

The item was approved via consent with additional direction from District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen for staff to consider prioritizing certain projects' review times and to evaluate similar staffing needs in other permitting areas.

Homelessness funding

Council members continued their focus on Austin's homelessness crisis to cap their Thursday meeting with a discussion stemming from their June 1 work session that will likely carry over to a specially-called meeting June 7.

The enforcement of Proposition B's camping ban and the city's related push to find or create temporary housing such as sanctioned campsites remains a priority for council, but consideration of the camping plan was put on the back-burner until Monday. Council and Homelessness Strategy Officer Dianna Grey spent most of their time Thursday talking through the city's plans to pay for permanent housing for the homeless through existing initiatives and the recently-announced "summit plan" to revamp Austin's homeless response and housing systems, as well as the outlook for $84 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding that may be directed toward homelessness.

No action on that funding was taken June 3, as council tied their more general homelessness talks to three separate items that were approved together to conclude the afternoon session. Those included the waiver of $4.31 million in development fees for planned expansions of nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes' Community First Village of RVs and tiny homes for the homeless, and a $5.16 million agreement with Integral Care to provide permanent housing for disabled and chronically homeless individuals.

The final approved item centered on a resolution asserting council's support for the concept of "guaranteed income," or direct cash assistance. Via that document, council also directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to both develop a plan for the expansion of such assistance programs locally and advocate for the topic at the federal level.


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