Council’s checklist: How did city leaders fare on 2012 goals?

Published 4:31 pm Saturday, January 5, 2013

It’s a new year for the Austin City Council, which means new priorities for the city.

The council made strides in its 2012 priorities, though several were vague in nature. Last year’s priorities consisted of reviewing the city budget to see where cuts and savings could be made, increasing and maintaining collaboration between the city and other organizations, supporting the new Housing Improvement Program, supporting the city’s Sustainability Task Force efforts, supporting Vision 2020 efforts, and increasing public outreach efforts and communication between the council and Austin residents.


Reviewing the budget

The council spent several months at the beginning of the year reviewing the city’s budget one department at a time. Council members say they came to realize the only way to further cut the city’s budget would be to either cut city staff positions or cut city services.

“That was a real eye-opener for most of the council,” said Council Member Steve King. “The main budget goes to employees. There’s not a lot you can really tinker with or cut unless you’re going to cut the employees.”

Council Member Roger Boughton said the city’s fiscal situation was handled well last year, as city taxes for homeowners decreased due to county reappraisals on businesses raising commercial and agricultural property taxes.

Boughton doesn’t expect the city to need to cut staff any time soon, as long as state legislators don’t scrap Local Government Aid funding over the next few years.

“As long as the state keeps coming through on LGA, I think we’re fine, we’re in good shape,” Boughton said.


Collaboration with others

One of the constant priorities of the city council each year is to increase and maintain collaboration with other organizations and governmental entities in order to be more efficient. Though council members point to a list of ways the city cooperates with local and regional units of government, several could think of few ways the city increased its partnerships this year.

Arguably the biggest partnership the city made was to align itself under Vision 2020, Austin’s community improvement project.

“That’s going to make significant changes to our community,” Boughton said.

The council followed through on its priority to support Vision 2020 when it gave $10,000 to Vision 2020 organizers last year. Several council members and city officials are involved in Vision 2020’s Top 10 Ideas committees as well. City Administrator Jim Hurm said last month city officials will most likely help secure grant funding from state and federal sources for Vision 2020 projects as they come up over the next few years, but Council Member Janet Anderson said the council will have to review each project as it comes along before deciding whether to fund it.


Getting HIP

The council was largely quiet on the Housing Improvement Program throughout 2012, as the initiative between Austin’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, Mower County, and Riverland Community College among other organizations acted low-key throughout the year. HIP officials bought a vacant home from the Mower County Board of Commissioners in July 2011, and Riverland carpentry students spent most of the year renovating and improving it.

The home sold last week for about $74,500, but Family Housing Manager Karen Mattson said HIP officials spent more on improving the house than they got back from the sale, though the home will go back on tax rolls and contribute money to the city in that way.

HIP found ways to further its goal of improving Austin’s housing market by doing smaller improvement projects on four homes owned by area senior citizens in 2012, according to Mattson. HIP officials are putting together a process to do similar small-scale projects, like fixing a roof for lower-income housing, and invite the public to contact the HRA with project requests.


Keeping Austin green

Though Austin’s Sustainability Task Force met in 2012, task force members have yet to implement projects to improve Austin’s environmental practices, though Anderson said the task force has been busy meeting and working on several initiatives under the GreenSteps Cities program.

“We’re working on each of those best practices,” said Council Member Judy Enright.

That didn’t stop the city council from focusing on a few sustainability issues this year. The council joined the Minnesota Solar Challenge, a U.S. Department of Energy program which will help 20 Minnesota cities, including Austin, develop and implement solar energy practices. The council issued a moratorium on solar panel permits while Community Development Director Craig Hoium works with Minnesota Solar Challenge officials on solar energy ordinances, which Hoium expected to have finished at the end of February.

Yet the city’s Sustainability Task Force could have several initiatives ready for 2013, including a possible project to replace city lights with energy-efficient LED lighting throughout Austin.

The task force was organized in late 2011 under the GreenSteps Cities program, which gives city officials and residents ideas and best practices to make a community more environmentally friendly and sustainable.

“That is a voluntary program,” said Anderson, who also represents the council on the task force. “There’s 49 cities in it right now, so it’s also a good networking tool.”


A cup of coffee

Anderson and former Council Member Marian Clennon were responsible for another kind of networking altogether. The council members came up with Coffee with the Council, a public outreach initiative started in early 2012. Anderson and Clennon proposed a few council members hold regularly scheduled informal sit-downs with residents at cafes and coffee houses throughout the city so Austin residents could discuss their concerns or questions.

The monthly meetings began in March, but council members and city officials grew frustrated with the project by mid-summer as meetings came to be dominated by only a few people who sometimes discussed county or state issues instead of things the city could act on. The council canceled all Coffee with the Council meetings for 2012 in July, though council members are expecting to re-tool the monthly informal meeting for 2013.

“If it had a more defined format, or an agenda, I’m certainly open to it,” Anderson said. “I definitely want to establish it again.”


Looking ahead

Council members are expected to create 2013 priorities later this month, and several council members have specific initiatives in mind. King hopes the council focuses more on the city’s flood mitigation projects, as the city’s efforts to curb flooding in the Cedar River are expected to wrap up this year, while efforts on Turtle Creek and other local waterways could start in 2013.

“We need to continue with our flood mitigation,” King said. “With regard to that decorative stone floodwall, I think it’ll be a major project.”

Boughton expects the HRA to continue focusing on improving Austin housing stock through HIP, hopes the council resurrects Coffee with the Council and said the biggest thing the council should focus on is Vision 2020.

“It’s our one opportunity to be different than any other city,” he said. “It puts our stamp on the city for the 21st century.”

Incoming members Jeremy Carolan agrees, as he said the city should continue to make Vision 2020 a priority after he won a city council seat this past November. Both Carolan and new Council Member Michael Jordal said in November Austin needs to keep taxes low and make sure the city’s budget is kept lean, a sentiment shared by the other council members.

Anderson hopes the city works on restarting Coffee with the Council, redesigning the city’s web site and increasing its social media presence, and taking steps to make Austin a more welcoming community to new residents, among other goals.

“Social media is a great way to reach more people effectively, and we’re hoping that that’s part of our redesign,” Anderson said.

In addition, Anderson hopes the council takes another look at enacting rental property ordinances. The council has in the past taken steps to come up with regulations for rental properties in Austin, but council members tabled the issue in 2011.

“We want to be more proactive,” Anderson said. “Can’t we all work together and make it more renter friendly here in town?”

Enright agrees, as she campaigned on getting rental ordinances passed when she was first elected to city council. She said she isn’t as eager to pass a rental ordinance now, as she believes property owners, residents and city staff need to come together and research other rental ordinances in order to best serve Austin.

“I don’t believe it’s something that can be done quickly,” Enright said. “That is something that a lot of people will be affected by. It needs to be a fair ordinance, but it also has to protect the renter, the landlord and the neighbor.”


—Council Member Jeff Austin was unavailable for comment .



Breaking down the Austin City Council’s progress on its 2012 priorities:

1. Review the budget, find areas to cut
—The council reviewed the budget over several months at the beginning of 2012.
—Council members found serious cuts couldn’t be made without cutting staff, and therefore city services.

2. Support Vision 2020
—The council gave $10,000 to Vision 2020 organizers for start-up costs last year.
—Almost every council member and city leader is on a Vision 2020 committee

3. Collaborate with other government units and find efficiencies in government
—The council didn’t go out of its way to add more collaborations, though city officials drew up a list of almost 100 ways the city collaborates with other agencies.
—The city did end up collaborating with several organizations in new ways, like the new baseball diamond at Todd Park paid for by Austin Public Schools and increased Vision 2020 ties.

4. Support Housing Improvement Program
—HIP officials sold the program’s first home in late December for $74,500, didn’t recoup the cost of renovating that home. HIP also worked with Riverland Community College students to do smaller projects around town, will set up a program to help people find ways to get smaller home improvement projects done.
—The council didn’t actively support HIP (there wasn’t much to support), but council members are encouraged by HIP’s progress and support the program.

5. Support Sustainability Task Force and environmental practices.
—The city’s Sustainability Task Force broke into subcommittees, worked on smaller projects. The task force is discussing the costs/benefits of switching the city’s lights with LED lighting.
—The council joined the Minnesota Solar Challenge in November, should get solar energy panel ordinance recommendations in February.

6. Work on public outreach efforts
—City Council put together Coffee with the Council, which ran from March to July.
—Council members cancelled the informal meetings until 2013, and most hope the initiative continues in some form.