This is the last of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Jimmy Paver on his candidacy and the issues identified in the AustinDistrict7.org candidate scorecard. The interviews are organized as follows:
Residents in far north and northeast Austin have complained repeatedly about insufficient police resources. Crime in northeast Austin is like whack-a-mole, shifting from area to area in response to where police resources are currently focused. Yet police/fire/EMS is expensive, taking up 62% of the City’s operational budget. Any answers on these challenges?
I know that this is a problem, where police officers on patrol are pulled out of their particular area to service a more severe crime area. The cost of public safety is a necessary one. Without saying we’re going to add more police officers, or we’re going to cut – let’s have an auxillary force that services the more severe crimes and leaves these people on the beat. I think there is probably a better way internally to provide services that are consistent to particular neighborhoods’ high crime. Working on policy ways that the Austin Police Department can provide that may be a solution. Throwing money at a problem is not always.
Do we have enough police now?
Where crime is rampant, we obviously don’t have enough police. That’s the bottom line. Crime is a function of a lot of things, but police officers are the best deterrent we have. Organized neighborhoods as well. I hazard to say with the number of people that we have coming here, granted a lot of them aren’t going to live in the eastern part of District 7, that we would probably need more police officers. But, we have a spending problem on that front. We’re looking for the best solution for the community to reduce crime, either with the police department, or through budgetary measures.
A lot of land in District 7 subject to development or redevelopment is on flood plains subject to flash floods, or in areas subject to wildfires. Some suburban communities have only one or two evacuation routes in the event of a disaster. Climate trends could make these risks worse. But taking away property owner entitlements is always tricky. What tools, including land use requirements, should be considered?
I think it’s a justifiable concern, considering there’s been more extreme weather patterns and more development, with corresponding environmental impact. I think based on the threat – let’s take historical data, let’s look at how often in a given period this has flooded, and then look at the impact of a given development pattern on flood or fire. Then decide how to use that should a development want to go there. If there’s any threat, ways of exit…
I’d be willing to look at [restricting development in some places] if it will reduce the risk. I say that not in an absolutist way – I can’t lock myself into saying, “We just won’t develop.”
You would take it on a case-by-case and consider context.
I would be willing to change the zoning to reduce the risk if I thought it justified.
I have a letter from the owner of Dan’s Hamburgers, a local small business, describing the pain and expense of doing a simple remodeling. Other small business people have complained about sky-rocketing utility rates or other forms of red tape. What are the top 3 things City Council can do to help small business?
I think that we need to streamline the permitting process and the efficiency by which the planning departments talk to one another. All of these permits languish too long in planning. I have personal experience in dealing with this, just in getting site development permits, even replacing windows in my home. So I understand the frustrations that small businesses face.
I think that is not a question of just throwing more money into permitting, but just making it more efficient. Let’s set some deadlines for review, for getting things back to people. The cost of energy for these mid-level utility users and businesses is far too high, and I think that we need to find a way to basically not screw the middle businessman.
You take a small category of people and businesses that you think can take the hit, and you move their kilowatt hour charge. Usually the first notice they get is when they get their bill. I think that’s something people have to pay attention to closely. Small businesses operate with small margins. We need to ensure that we’re not hitting them with costs that push them out, resulting in a non-diversity of services and local business. That’s another thing that I would say.
The other thing is let’s look at the ways in which we have local businesses and in particular places and try to protect some of that. I’ve seen a lot of local business leave from Burnet Rd as of late. Mi Victoria, some other places. Let’s think about where those businesses are, and promoting their longevity. Frisco’s, Omelettry. I’d like to protect the places where local business exists, and not have Chili’s, Starbucks.
Are you thinking of a tool that supports specifically local businesses, or site-specific businesses?
Small businesses themselves, one of the things I’ve been thinking about internally, for this district, let’s build a small business coalition, of people who can at least coalesce around protecting themselves. Part of the problem is that they’re all out on their own. If they had an organized force like …
That’s not a City Council structure…
No it’s not. It’s a suggestion for them to protect themselves – something just as useful or more useful.
Local economist Brian Kelsey recently described Austin’s business incentives policies as wildly successful, contributing to a soft landing after the 2008 recession and robust growth since. Other commentators claim the policies favor big business and fuel gentrification. According to the City Budget, Austin has allocated about $43 million for FY 2014 in business development and incentives. Some of this goes to support local music and cultural assets, and to create blue collar jobs. Most of the $13.2 million in economic development funding targets a few strategic sectors: clean energy, biotech, digital media and wireless. Does Austin have the right economic development strategy?
$43 million targeting those industries, when they’re coming probably with or without that, I think seems excessive. We’ve done incentives and attracted quite a few employers here. But I also think that Austin is a self-perpetuating machine at this point. Moving money over to that, I would have to get into the specifics on how that money would be spent. Abatements is also a big part of this. That wouldn’t be included there, but as far as incentives are concerned, I’m not for none of them, but it seems to me at this point we’ve incentivized enough growth to really jumpstart what we’re doing.
Assuming you were able to implement your policy goals, what structural changes could one expect in the City budget? Where would spending increase or decrease?
Our debt levels are fine, but we continue to incur debt and pay it down at a rate, we could pay it at a higher rate. That would be a place in which I would see us spending a little bit more. I think the economic development department is a big one, it doesn’t need to be as big as it is. But again, I would have to look at that carefully, see how many employees are there, how much we’re doing.
You don’t want to be backed into a corner
No. I’m not going to be backed into a corner. There’s lots of tools down at the detail policy, there’s places to save money. I’m for providing some relief, and that means some cuts on the expenditure side. From a public safety standpoint, there is ongoing negotiation for some of what they’re doing, whether it be police pension, some of the things going on with firefighters. City employee jobs are good jobs. They’re solid, they have good retirement programs. I think that should all be respected. But I also think to the extent that they are far over and above what a city of comparable means and methods would be, that that’s something worth looking at.
I’m not saying that we don’t need more of each in public safety, but I think there are things previously negotiated many years ago that could be looked at in terms of saving the City some more money. I’d be willing to look into that.
I’m actually surprised that you’ve pointed out two possible areas to control costs. You haven’t really named an area to spend more or cut taxes
You’re getting to the underlying philosophy on some of what this is. We’re spending a lot of money. That’s not debatable. In terms of what we need to spend more money on, I think those are harder questions that we’ve talked about. A little bit more on transportation. A little bit more making things more affordable for people. But getting into where all of these sacred cows are and which ones you’d add or cut is a hard thing to do.
It’s the sausage-making.
Exactly. The only thing I can ensure you of – the best possible decision given the benefit as I see it to a community of people, whether they be public safety employees, or people who need to get around in their community. Whereever I see the best use of those resources to affect the most people as the case is made, will be where I come down on it.