New council members sworn in, get to work in first meeting
Published 10:54 am Wednesday, January 4, 2017
The two newest Austin City Council members like what they see in the city of Austin, and they’re ready to serve and help the city take additional steps forward.
Laura Helle and Paul Fischer were sworn in and served at their first Austin City Council meeting Tuesday, and the two have spent time meeting with department heads and going over budgets and the capital improvement plan.
“I feel like I’m up to speed and ready to tackle the issues and give things really thoughtful solutions, hopefully,” Helle said.
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Both praised the city department heads and overall city staff as being high-caliber workers.
“We’re well positioned to look at the gaps in our community and work toward bridging over them,” Helle said.
Like Helle, Fischer also noted he was pleased the majority of city workers were pleased with the city’s state and how it’s well-positioned moving forward.
“The city’s in a good place,” he said.
For Helle, housing will be a key issue facing Austin in the coming years, and she said it’s one she has heard about often on the campaign trail. The city of Austin has made some progress in addressing a shortage of workforce housing.
It formed an ad hoc housing committee to research the issue and solutions and passed a tax abatement to help spur development, but Helle is eager to do more for workforce housing and overall housing.
From her past work as director of vision creation with Vision 2020, Helle said Austin needs at least an additional 200 units by 2020.
But during the housing crisis — and even in 2015 — Austin was adding very few new residences per year.
“If you figure that your housing stock is eventually going to age out, we’re behind,” she said.
Helle also questioned the Austin Housing and Redevelopment role as a landlord in the community in low-income housing. She’d like to see more HRA properties sold to the private sector and questioned if HRA rates are artificially keeping rental prices low, which could be stunting growth. She recalled talking to developers during her time with Vision 2020 who were hesitant to build in Austin because of low rent costs.
Helle is also interested in diversity, especially in ensuring the public offices and boards reflect the population of the community.
Right now, she argues the council, public staff and various local boards are predominantly white and don’t reflect Austin’s diverse community. She’d like to see more people of color getting involved so the boards and different public entities mirror the community’s demographics.
“You need to reflect your community or you can’t be serving it very well,” she said
She’d like to take a proactive approach in reaching out to people and educating people about potential opportunities.
She admitted that will be a difficult challenge, and she admitted the Austin Area Commission for the Arts board, for which she serves as executive director, doesn’t yet meet this goal.
But she’s hoping the city can make headway through education efforts and by removing any barriers that may keep people from getting involved, such as work schedules.
Helle is the executive director of the Austin Area Commission for the Arts. She is married to teacher Matt Stobaugh and has an 8-year-old daughter.
To Fischer, big issues like the Austin Community Recreation Center were decided last year, so he and Helle are coming onto the board at a good time when they can oversee and discusse many big issues from the beginning.
“I think this is a great time to get on the council,” he said.
Fischer is excited to expand on his experience serving six years on the Brownsdale City Council, where he became familiar with things like local government aid and the governing process.
But he said Austin is a much different animal with its larger staffing levels. Fischer moved from Brownsdale to Austin in December 2015.
“I’m excited and look forward to the challenges ahead,” he said.
Paul Fischer is an account manager for Alpha Media and is active with Vision 2020 and the Salvation Army. He has two children, Evan and Katara.