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Guest Commentary: Reimagining local government: A positive vision for Austin’s future

By Jason Baskin

Austin City Councilman

“This is how things have always been done.”

These eight words are a powerful force in government. So many things are done because that’s what we did last year, last decade, or even last century.

Unfortunately, these eight words hamstring us today as our residents and small businesses face unprecedented challenges. Operating city government the same way that we’ve always done is no longer sustainable. We are going to have to make hard choices. That is why I am proposing the creation of a plan to reimagine city government.

Our residents and businesses are facing major challenges. Many of our residents have less money to help provide for their families because they’ve lost their job or had their hours reduced. Small businesses are fighting for survival as they go multiple months without revenue, and the reality is that some of them will never reopen their doors. Local charities are experiencing higher demand for services while worrying about decreased donations. The “new normal” for our local economy is going to look much different moving forward than it did even a few short months ago.

These pressures make our current model of operating city government unsustainable. A 60 percent increase in the tax levy over the past five years was already putting pressure on our citizens and small business owners, even before COVID-19 hit. We are now facing the need for double-digit tax increases for at least the next two years just to cover current operating costs if no changes are made. Nearly 70 cents of every dollar the City spends is on employee wages and benefits, by far the largest cost driver. Moreover, approximately half of the City’s revenue comes from state Local Government Aid (LGA). This is a much higher amount of LGA than our peer cities and these dollars are at high risk of being reduced in future years as the state grapples with a budget deficit exceeding $1 billion. Our current operating model limits our flexibility to solve the key challenges Austin faces such as reinvigorating our economic base, improving housing, and ensuring that we remain a vibrant community where people want to live.

The traditional solutions to tough times like these are to either raise taxes or slash services. Neither of these solutions is ideal because they either further increase the burden on struggling residents and businesses or create negative long-term impacts on our community.

There is a better solution. I am proposing the creation of a plan to reimagine how local government operates. The goal of this plan will be to streamline operations to create the flexibility needed to minimize taxes while optimizing service delivery. This plan will put all ideas on the table, look at best practices from cities across the country, and think outside the box. For example, if multiple units of government are performing a similar function, are there ways to combine resources, much like we do with 911 dispatchers? Or are there tasks that can be done more cost effectively by the private sector? We will need to get input from all key stakeholders, including the community, local businesses, and city employees to create the best plan to make Austin successful in the short and long-term.

The benefit of creating this plan is that it allows us to create innovative solutions to address today’s challenges. It helps us break out of the traditional mold of doing things the way we’ve always done them and creates a wider range of options to consider when making the hard choices facing us in 2021 and beyond. It also ensures that the voice of our entire community is heard.

Austin is a wonderful city with so many great things to offer. Our collaborative spirit and willingness to work together to solve common problems is our greatest strength. By leveraging that strength to think differently about how we operate local government, we can ensure that Austin emerges from these challenging times a stronger and more vibrant community than ever.