District 10 City Council candidates share their views on key Austin issues

Election day is Nov. 8.

Election day is Nov. 8.

Four candidates are vying to represent District 10 on Austin City Council: incumbent Sheri Gallo and challengers Alison Alter, Rob Walker and Nick Virden. District 10 encompasses the 78730, 78759, 78731 and 78703 zip codes, which include parts of Northwest Austin.

Community Impact Newspaper asked each candidate a series of questions in advance of the Nov. 8 election. The candidates' answers are listed in the order of their place on the ballot. Answers have been edited for style, grammar and punctuation.

Sheri Gallo

Sheri Gallo, District 10 City Council candidate Sheri Gallo, District 10 City Council candidate[/caption]

What will be your top three priorities if you are elected?
1. Affordability—for Austin to be more affordable the City Council must control spending, slow down financial burdens from increasing property tax and utility bills, and make it easier to bring new housing stock across all economic levels and into all areas of the city.  Addressing financial relief for our community is a priority for me, and in good conscience I could not support a budget that increased property taxes and raised utility bills and therefore voted against the 2016-17 budget. I will continue to support increasing the senior tax exemption to keep the tax bills of our senior and disabled population from increasing every year. Allowing our senior population the option of staying in their homes and aging in place not only is the best option for most seniors but adds stability to neighborhoods.  I will also continue to support the commitment the council and I made last year to reach a 20 percent homestead exemption in four years. As chair of the Austin Energy Oversight Committee, I am very proud that we were able to lower utility bills for all rate classes beginning in January.

2. Transportation—for decades our community has chosen to not fund traffic infrastructure improvements to address the traffic congestion resulting from our increasing population. A recent Mobility Talks survey showed that over 90 percent of the respondents in District 10 depend on vehicles for their transportation needs.  I am committed to finding ways to build more lanes for vehicle traffic, to remove stoplights on heavily traveled major roadways wherever possible, and to improve signal light synchronization with smart signals which incorporate the latest technologies such as the Adaptive Signal Program which adjusts lights automatically for weather, time of day and special events.  In addition, safe routes to schools for our children is a high priority for me.

3. Listening to neighbors and neighborhoods in all of District 10—Our new 10-1 City Council finally gave people from all geographic areas in the City of Austin the ability to elect a council member who would specifically represent them.  I took this responsibility of representation very seriously.  I promised when elected to not only be a good leader but to also be a great listener.  My pledge was to represent District 10 in a way that gave everyone in District 10 the opportunity to have their voices heard. Over the past two years, my District 10 staff and I have spent our days, evenings and weekends attending over 500 neighborhood meetings and community events.  I have hosted eight town halls on a variety of subjects and brought city staff expertise to our District 10 neighborhoods.  My office publishes the best weekly newsletter at city hall, which contains both District 10 and citywide information, encourages the District 10 community to participate in surveys and shows in a very transparent way how my staff and I are representing the District 10 constituency.

What skills or expertise do you have that make you the best choice?
As the incumbent I have spent the last two years as an Austin City Council Member learning the tremendous amount of information that is necessary to know to make appropriate policy decisions while running the 11th largest city in the country and managing a $3.7 billion budget.  I have lived in District 10 for over 55 years.  I grew up here, and I also raised my family here.  I have held leadership positions in my children’s schools as PTA president at Doss and Project Graduation Chair at Anderson High School.  I have operated a local business for 35 years, surviving multiple economic downturns and experiencing first-hand the struggles companies face with city regulations.  I have given back to my community by serving in leadership positions on numerous non-profit boards.  All of these experiences lead me to one of the best decisions I have ever made—running for Austin City Council in 2014.  What I learned was that my depth and diversity of experiences in District 10 gave me a unique perspective.  I knew that this part of Austin has many different voices and opinions.  My style of leadership is to first listen to the concerns of my constituents and then make decisions that are the best for both District 10 and the city as a whole.

What challenges, both short-term and long-term, do you see the city of Austin facing, and how should the council act on those challenges?
The biggest challenges are affordability and traffic.  Protecting the character of our neighborhoods and our environment are also vital to our quality of life in Austin.  We must also control spending, reduce taxes and make investments into traffic solutions that include multiple transportation options.

If citizens were to vote against the mobility bond, how else would you work to improve traffic and mobility issues in the city?
For decades, Austinites have been unwilling to fund transportation infrastructure. The traffic congestion we see now is the result of doing too little for too long. The mobility bond is our opportunity as a community to fund traffic congestion solutions citywide.  As we all know, different parts of the city require different approaches.  The high density areas of our central corridors will see congestion improvements from better bus service and safer choices for walking and biking.  However, most of the low density areas in District 10 depend on their vehicles for transportation, and the congestion improvements for these areas should be addressed with adding additional vehicle lane capacity and the improvement of intersection signal synchronization.   My hope is that the mobility bond will pass because there are some very important infrastructure investments which are critical to District 10; projects such as adding vehicle lanes, left turn lanes and sidewalks to Spicewood Springs Road between Loop 360 and Mesa Drive that I made sure were included in the bond package. Projects such as creating non-signaled intersections at Westlake Drive, Courtyard/2222/Lakewood and Spicewood Springs on Loop 360 to improve traffic flow.  It took Austin 30 years of not investing in successful transportation solutions to create the current crisis. We must all acknowledge that is going to take more than one bond package to make things better.

Does affordability need to be improved in Austin? If so, how will you work to address affordability?
Addressing affordability is critical. Recently, Austin’s poverty rate has declined—not because people were climbing out of poverty, but because families were fleeing Austin for more affordable communities. Reducing spending, increasing the homestead exemption, reducing utility bills, making our transportation system and land use policy work better, creating a more diverse housing stock and improving the ability to get more housing and apartments built quickly and at a lower cost  are all solutions that will have the greatest impact on addressing affordability for everyone in Austin.

Rob Walker

Rob Walker, District 10 City Council candidate Rob Walker, District 10 City Council candidate[/caption]

What will be your top three priorities if you are elected?
1. Assuming the mobility bond is defeated (really, it’s the im-mobility bond since so little goes to traffic), I will work diligently for quick passage of my $500 million Traffic Relief and Flood Control Bond, of which 70 percent will be for traffic congestion relief (3.5 times that of the mobility bond), and it won’t raise taxes.

2. I will do my best to seriously scale back the Austin Oaks and The Grove Public Improvement Districts (PUDs), both of which are traffic congestion time bombs, community unfriendly, and environmentally flawed.  I would push for our city to buy back The Grove [at Shoal Creek] and turn it into a northern Zilker Park.

3.  The city/central health share of our property taxes has risen 45 percent faster than inflation on a median-priced home since 2005.  This is excessive, and is more than three times the rate of inflation.  Mandates account for some of this, but nowhere near enough.  As a CPA, I will comb through the budget in cooperation with Elaine Hart, former city CFO and now city manager, to determine and rectify the causes with the intent of reducing property taxes going forward.  As one constituent said to me, “It’s death by a thousand cuts!  Our council keeps approving small increases in our property taxes touting the merits of each increase and how little each costs.”  Our Council needs to say “No” a lot more often when it comes to proposals that raise our taxes. I will also lobby the legislature for a 5 percent cap on residential property annual tax increases versus the current 10 percent cap.

What skills or expertise do you have that make you the best choice?
I have been practicing as a CPA with three employees in Austin specializing in international tax for 14 years.  Our clients are from over 50 nations, and I regularly deal with the complexities of tax treaties.  Previously I taught cost accounting and taxation at Georgetown University in Washington, DC for 10 years focusing on budgeting and project cost analysis.  I have earned a BA in economics from Rice, an MBA in finance from Stanford, and a PhD from UT in tax and finance.  This expertise, I believe, makes me uniquely qualified to serve our city and its citizens in making careful budgetary and policy decisions to help restore the livability of our city.

What challenges, both short-term and long-term, do you see the city of Austin facing, and how should the council act on those challenges?
The Austin metro area has experienced massive growth in the past five years, adding 250,000 people.  The magnitude of this growth was not expected in such a short time, and has put our infrastructure under great strain.  Our council needs to act quickly and meaningfully on traffic congestion relief.  The mobility bond is not a viable or rational solution to our city’s needs because less than one-seventh goes to traffic congestion relief and two-thirds goes to corridor beautification.  In the next year, the council needs to approve my alternative $500 million Traffic Relief and Flood Control Bond, of which 70 percent will be for traffic congestion relief.  This will be phase one of a long-term traffic relief and public transport plan.

In addition, our council should no longer provide tax incentives to businesses to move here until the growth subsides to at or below normal.  It’s like buying cigarettes when you have emphysema.

Property taxes have been rising much faster than inflation and are severely stretching our citizens, particularly those on fixed income.  If elected I will work with my fellow council members to roll back the increases in taxes.  Long term, our Council needs to lobby the Legislature for a 5 percent cap on residential property annual tax increases versus the current 10% cap.  Our council also needs to lobby the legislature to repeal the “equal and uniform” property tax provision that was added to the Texas Statutes in 1997.  It has enabled large businesses to avoid material amounts of property taxes at the expense of our homeowners.

If citizens were to vote against the mobility bond, how else would you work to improve traffic and mobility issues in the city?
If elected, I would immediately begin working with my council colleagues to approve my $500 million Traffic Relief and Flood Control Bond of which 70 percent would be allocated to congestion relief.  $150 million will be allocated to upgrade the entire length of 360 to a limited access four-lane highway with flyovers at each end.  This will benefit four districts.  Another $200 million will be for other traffic congestion relief projects throughout the City, $55 million of which is included in the Mobility Bond.  $50 million will be for improving dangerous intersections and safe-route-to-school sidewalks. $150 million will be for flood control projects in south and east Austin.

All told, this bond issue will financially benefit all 10 districts nearly equally, will not raise our taxes because it will be funded from the city’s current bond capacity, and it can be passed within a year.

Does affordability need to be improved in Austin? If so, how will you work to address affordability?
Given the increase in property values in our City, affordability means smaller dwellings, whether apartments, small houses or mobile homes. CodeNEXT, the revision of our city’s longstanding zoning code, needs to allow for building affordable apartments and small homes throughout our city.

Also, the mobility bond needs to be defeated because the $482 million (plus $1 billion later on) for corridor beautification will gentrify corridors in currently affordable areas of our city, displacing lower income families to the periphery.  It makes no sense to me that our mayor and a majority of the council approved this essentially anti-affordability corridor-gentrification plan at the same time that they are lamenting and trying to fix the lack of affordable housing.

Nicholas Virden

Nicholas Virden, District 10 City Council candidate Nicholas Virden, District 10 City Council candidate[/caption]

What will be your top three priorities if you are elected?
My top three priorities if elected would be affordability, especially related to property taxes and housing growth, mobility, and technological innovation.

What skills or expertise do you have that make you the best choice?
The skills that make me the best choice for this position are the fact that I was the President of Young American for Liberty at UT Austin, growing the club from zero to 140 members and increasing social media outreach to 2,000 people a week all while working in the political trenches, advocating for issues like LGBT rights, lower taxes, cutting wasteful spending, and bringing bi-partisan support for the most pressing issues that face us at the federal level. I’ve also worked in the Texas House of Representatives and Senate, so I understand the legislative process. And, I’m not just a policy wonk: I’m a people person and a great listener, something that’s necessary on issues as complex as what municipalities like Austin take on.

What challenges, both short-term and long-term, do you see the city of Austin facing, and how should the council act on those challenges?
The city has short term and long-term housing, infrastructure, and property tax problems that will eventually cripple the city and increase Austin’s income segregation. The council needs to lower effective tax rates so people can afford to live in houses once they purchase them and live in any part of town without their rents going up 6 percent or 7 percent a year. Also, loosening zoning and land-use laws and streamline permitting for building residential and commercial properties would go a long way to reducing insane appreciation rates and give a warm welcome to our new neighbors instead of giving off these snooty, elitist attitudes that you see in expensive East and West Coast towns.

If citizens were to vote against the mobility bond, how else would you work to improve traffic and mobility issues in the city?
If Austinites were to vote against the mobility bond, I would work toward instituting adaptive signal timing in the entire city. Council Member [Sheri] Gallo has already commandeered $900,000 for District 10, meaning that the total cost would be somewhere in the $10 million to $20 million range for the entire city, which is 1/70th to 1/35th the cost of the bond. Also, funding Vision Zero to increase intersection safety and even just repaving our neglected neighborhood streets and main thoroughfares would go a long way to providing a smoother, faster commute.

Does affordability need to be improved in Austin? If so, how will you work to address affordability?
Affordability most certainly does need to be improved in this city. We have to balance growth with beauty, but the truth is we need to build more housing of all types, relax rules like minimum parking or set-back requirements that increase our urban sprawl and limit land dedicated to housing, and even promote building town centers like The Domain in more places around town so that suburban Austinites can walk or bike from their quaint, character-filled neighborhoods instead of wasting gas driving far from home to reach entertainment, shops, and necessities.

Alison Alter

Alison Alter, District 10 City Council candidate Alison Alter, District 10 City Council candidate[/caption]

What will be your top three priorities if you are elected?
1. Manage growth—Austin’s unique character and quality of life will continue to attract new residents, employers and visitors. I will work to manage growth responsibly and make it pay for itself, while we preserve our neighborhoods, our iconic venues and landmarks and quality of life.

2. Get Austin moving—by addressing our traffic and connectivity issues. I will work with our city’s Transportation Department, Capital Metro and private transport innovators to find affordable and efficient solutions to our traffic problems. I believe we can find new mobility solutions by seeking out new traffic technologies, investing in our aging infrastructure and encouraging walkable neighborhoods and thoughtful redevelopment of urban centers.

3. Keep Austin beautiful—Austin is loved for its parks and green spaces. I will fight for more open spaces, for all new developments to include park and green space. I will also advocate for more awareness and resources to protect our environment, watersheds and tree canopies.

What skills or expertise do you have that make you the best choice?
District 10 needs someone who is going to put community first and not treat our city like a giant cash register benefiting a few special interests. My experience as a neighborhood advocate, an educator, business woman and mom has taught me to balance priorities, allocate resources fairly and manage budgets. My academic training and work experience prepares me to ask the right questions, connect the dots across policy areas, and see the bigger picture.

What challenges, both short-term and long-term, do you see the city of Austin facing, and how should the council act on those challenges?
Austin faces many challenges, but they all come back to the question of how we choose to respond to growth. We can act like a victim or we can proactively make choices about how and where we want to grow and who benefits from prosperity. We can choose to embrace the talent and energy of new arrivals and recognize that Austin is attractive because there is much to celebrate and preserve in our culture, diversity and environment. Right now, it seems that we have lost sight of the bigger picture and instead are making choices one zoning case after another.

If citizens were to vote against the mobility bond, how else would you work to improve traffic and mobility issues in the city?
Either way, we are going to need to better integrate our land use and our transport choices and improve collaboration across governments and agencies across the region. A recent example of this need is Capital Metro’s announced plans to stop running the bus No. 19 which otherwise would have been a key transport link for the proposed Grove at Shoal Creek PUD. If the bond fails, some things we can do include working to incorporate the adaptive and synchronized signaling projects; collaborating with private transport innovators to prepare our infrastructure to adopt autonomous and connected vehicles, and implementing road impact fees on new developments to generate additional funds to deal with traffic congestions. The fact remains, however, that we have significantly neglected our transport infrastructure and the changes or upgrades we need to get Austin moving are very expensive to implement. To fund transport infrastructure improvements, we will have to work very hard to design a subsequent bond that garners majority support should this year’s bond fail.

Does affordability need to be improved in Austin? If so, how will you work to address affordability?
Yes, affordability is a key issue in Austin. I would like to see us adopt a broad-based, low-rate linkage fee for affordable housing which could raise on average $50-60 million a year (half a billion dollars over a decade). Such funding would allow the city to provide substantial low income housing, geographically dispersed, and for greater longevity. It also is important that we not just focus on new units, but also be mindful of how we can preserve existing affordable housing. I will advocate for reform of state funding formulas to keep a bigger share of our tax dollars to improve our schools across the city and reduce our tax burden. AISD is sending more than $400 million to the state to fund schools elsewhere.
By Marie Albiges
Marie Albiges was the editor for the San Marcos, Buda and Kyle edition of Community Impact Newspaper. She covered San Marcos City Council, San Marcos CISD and Hays County Commissioners Court. Marie previously reported for the Central Austin edition. Marie moved to Austin from Williamsburg, Va. in 2016 and was born in France. She has since moved on from Community Impact in May 2018.


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