Tackling the issues:
Author’s note: This is the first article regarding local candidate forums. Two forums, including candidates for Austin Mayor and Austin City Council First Ward were held on Tuesday morning; however, for spacing purposes, the City Council First Ward story will run online later in the day today and in the Saturday, Sept. 12 paper.
Austin Mayor candidates Jeff Austin and Steve King answered submitted questions as part of a live candidate forum Tuesday morning on KAUS AM 1480. The forum was sponsored by the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce.
The first question put forward to Austin and King concerned the housing tax abatement.
King said he felt the housing tax abatement was a success.
“Prior to the initiation of the housing tax abatement, we had about three housing starts a year,” he said. “What the abatement has done is really incentivize those that are looking to build homes in Austin. I believe we’ve had 40-plus homes built in the short, three-year period of having that abatement. The payoff in the end will be, once they get on the tax rolls, that home is going to be on the tax rolls for the next 75 to 100 years.”
Austin agreed it was a success and said he felt it should be continued.
“The big thing is there have been some spec homes built and not just people building who were planning on building,” he said. “You get some extra homes. We do need a lot of housing stock in Austin; we’re short on housing.”
Austin and King were then asked if the housing fund initiative should continue to be funded given the uncertainty surrounding how much Local Government Aid (LGA) the city could receive in the coming years.
“This program I think we could fund because it really doesn’t cost us anything,” Austin said. “We did have money set aside in the budget for a housing initiative which, when we took a deep dive earlier this year into the budget and really looked at it, we decided that the money we were setting aside we could use in other places right now given the current conditions of the economy with dealing with the pandemic. We do have some of that money built up so if we do have a project come along, we do have monies available to use and can dip into reserves if needed.”
He added that he would like to see money put back into the housing initiative, but will have to see how LGA will be affected.
King said the city’s recent housing survey shows the city is in need of all levels of housing, but the city has to take a step back given the current situation.
“My willingness to take a step back on investing in housing would have been different had we not had those 83 units open up at Flats on 21,” he said. “We also have some potential for 30-some townhome units to be built by Kuehn Motors. I think if there is a time to step back from the $200,000 a year housing initiative, now is the time based on what we’re probably not going to get in LGA and those new housing starts we’ve initiated through the taxing abatement and the new apartment complexes.”
Austin and King were then asked how they would promote racial equality.
“Being the mayor, you have to be intentional in most things you do, and this is no different,” King said. “You have to be intentional in creating awareness. First off, is there racial inequality? You have to answer that first. I think I’ve seen some positive signs.”
King cited the emergence of diverse candidates running for local offices and the interaction of kids of all races at Austin High School as positive signs. He also said he would put people of different races on city boards.
“I think long-term, we need to look at what else is out there nationwide,” he said. “I think we need to learn what other people are doing from around the state and around the country and potentially look into what they are doing to build equity among the races.”
Austin said that in the short-term, he would like to build relationships with multicultural groups.
“When I was first elected to the council 14 years ago, immigration was a big thing and it was a negative,” he said. “People just did not want any immigrants coming to our town. Now you look in just 14 years at the difference, how we’ve opened our arms to these people, how they’ve come to our community and become part of our community, and I think that’s it – just reach out and build those relationships. Find out if there are issues and work to overcome those. I think Austin has always been a leader in that and we should continue to be.”
The mayor candidates were then asked about how they would ensure public safety, particularly in light of recent shootings in Austin.
“I think we have a very active police department,” Austin said. “I know a lot of the police officers; they’re very caring and very concerned about Austin […] These are different times that have put everybody in a different mood and has caused some actions that we probably wouldn’t see normally, so we need to work with groups and police to stay on top of these things.”
King said fighting crime meant addressing addiction, abuse and poverty issues.
“I’ve had a 32-year career in probation and parole and I’ve seen first-hand what crime can do to a community,” he said. “Austin does have a very responsive police department. I think the basis of crime is, and I see this everyday, we have a lot of broken folks who come through our office through addiction and abuse, and that addiction and abuse drives crime. Those shots fired are happening in every community; it’s not just an anomaly in Austin.”
Austin and King were then asked about how they would address the issue of unkempt nuisance properties throughout the city.
“I value the property I own and I want to keep it up as best I can for everybody, not just myself,” King said. “When you drive through neighborhoods and see dilapidated housing or some junk piled up along the home, it does grate on you. The City of Austin and the residents of Austin need to understand that our remedy for this is complaint driven by the citizens. We don’t have an inspector driving around looking for dilapidated property.”
King noted that some blighted properties are privately owned while others are rental properties. He said he believes the rental ordinance has helped in addressing rental property issues, but said something creative should be done to get housing back up.
“I think we’re doing a good job of enforcing the ordinances that are there,” Austin said. “The (Housing and Zoning) department is very active in getting out and getting these taken care of. We’ve passed ordinances in the past for rental housing and I think that’s on the right track now. Going forward, I would like to see a program in the future for homeowners where we provide either grants or low interest loans to people so they can get money to do some of the repairs they need to do.”
Austin also advocated creating a database of people who do the work so people know who to contact.
Lastly, Austin and King were asked what traits from previous mayors they would implement if elected.
“Being able to lead council and direct them, make sure they do their due diligence and look at all of the sides of each issue and, in the end, do what is best for the residents of Austin,” Austin said.
“My style would be one of consensus building and leveraging my relationships I’ve built in my time as a county employee, as a state employee and working as a city councilmember for 12 years,” King said. “I’d leverage my contacts with Hormel Foods Corporate and Mayo, our largest employers, and continue to build those relationships because I think those two entities are major drivers in Austin and need to be recognized as such. I would also leverage my relationship with the Hormel Foundation Board, who are an absolute gift to the citizens of Austin with what they provide.”