Mayor says Austin should embrace change in State of the City address

In his State of the City address Feb. 5 at a Real Estate Council of Austin luncheon, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said the city needs to embrace change to continue the success it has seen.

Leffingwell also announced the inclusion of a resolution on the council agenda for Feb. 14 that will direct the city manager to draw up plans to include in an ordinance that creates an independent governance body for Austin Energy.

"More and more, every year, this is the object of unbridled enthusiasm on the part of nearly the entire country," Leffingwell said. "Austin, Texas, is today, I think without question, is one of the most widely admired and most emulated cities in America, and increasingly, our reputation is global. In a lot of ways, we've arrived at a place where most cities are still working hard to go."

In his address, the mayor stressed the importance of the community embracing change to tackle the various issues facing the city, including transportation, traffic, demographic changes and Austin's growing popularity as a tourist destination. He said the Austin area has the fastest-growing population of residents between the ages of 55 and 64 in the nation as well as the second-fastest growing population of residents age 65 and older in the nation. The mayor also noted that the Hispanic population in the Austin community has grown from 22 percent in 1990 to about 37 percent in 2010.

"So who we are, fundamentally, is going to change and keep changing, regardless of most of the choices we might make," Leffingwell said. "So the real challenge we face isn't just to stop complaining about change, or even just to start accepting change. Our challenge and our responsibility if we want to protect Austin for the next generation and beyond is to desire change, to seek it out, to work for it, and most of all, to bend it to our will."

The key to the city being able to adapt, embrace and capitalize on change is creativity, the mayor said. A critical area to employ this creativity is in the realm of traffic congestion. Leffingwell said he would like to see a "robust and truly multimodal transportation system" to help address the issue, including urban rail.

"So my commitment here today is this: that I will work on this issue every single day, except weekends, while I am mayor with the goal of having a public vote on urban rail before I leave office," Leffingwell said.

Leffingwell made the announcement about the initial steps to establish an independent governance body for Austin Energy in a question-and-answer session after his speech.

"We have outgrown the system that we've had. [Austin Energy] has been and still is a department of the city, much like the police department or the library department. But in fact, it is about a $1.3 billion a year business. It's about half of our total city budget. That's why it's important."

Despite the challenges facing the city, Leffingwell feels Austin has put itself in a good position to continue to grow its economy.

"But all in all, I'm here to tell you this: that I believe, wholeheartedly, the state of our city today is the strongest it has ever been in our 173-year history, and it's getting stronger every day," Leffingwell said.

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