It is not unusual for legislators to pass pay raises for themselves. It’s understandable to ensure that our public servants are well fairly compensated. You don’t want the level of pay so low that you only attract mediocrities or create an environment in which accepting bribes is the only way for a legislator to make ends meet. It’s sensible to try to make sure that those in public employment have pay that keeps pace with out-of-control inflation. Sure, we don’t all just get to say “today, I make 10% more,” but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
But a 40% pay raise…is a bitter pill to swallow.
Austin City Council voted to increase their pay by 40% last week by an overwhelming margin. Out of the eleven members, only three opposed this egregious hike in pay; Paige Ellis (D8), Vanessa Fuentes (D2), and the redoubtable Mackenzie Kelly (D6).
This raise is more unseemly than most for reasons beyond its staggering scale—can you imagine what you would do with 40% more in your paycheck? No, the timing of this massive spike is particularly galling in a few ways.
First, there’s the obvious; the economy is slowing down. Inflation is essentially giving all of us a major pay cut, and the cost of living in Austin is growing rapidly, forcing many people who have spent much of their lives in the city to look elsewhere. As businesses struggle to find workers, workers struggle to find jobs that cover their needs, and goods still seem oddly short on the shelves, the image of Council Members giving themselves tens of thousands more dollars is irritating. It’s bad policy and it’s political malpractice. Bill Clinton once famously said, “I feel your pain.” The current council seems more interested in cementing its own gain.
Second, anyone with an eye on local issues and a memory that stretches back to last year may recall Save Austin Now’s fight for Proposition A, which would have refunded APD, and required certain levels of staffing. Those individuals who recall this ballot measure may also recall what we were told about the city budget. Simply put, we were led to believe that any increases in APD’s funding would need to be taken from other vital services. Now, the cost of the pay raise for the council—about $340,000/year—pales in comparison to what Prop A would have cost. But the argument that there simply wasn’t any more money in the budget was made so often, that I heard it in my dreams. Then we find out that the city had a surplus of $20 million (from its large sales tax on local businesses), and the first thing the Council does is give itself a raise. Perhaps the reader will understand why this particular vote got under the skin of many in Austin.
Third and finally, pay raises usually follow good, if not excellent, performance. Very few of us have the option of just choosing to make more money. Most have to prove to an employer that the work they have done is deserving of increased compensation. And any honest review of the Council’s performance lately would certainly be “mixed” at best. Let’s start with the good.
Life has returned mostly to its pre-pandemic normal in the city, with large events taking place and schools opening as they should. Our city is still a boom town with thousands of new people flocking in every week. That, of course, is primarily due to the excellent business environment provided by the state government, from which every major city benefits.
Now, let’s get to the bad:
- Failure of basic services. We have had three water shutdowns in four years. One of them was caused by rain. How was the city not ready for rain? Another was just a misunderstanding. Nothing went wrong—someone just thought it had and told everyone the water was unsafe. Our electrical grid is suspect. The whole state’s grid is probably inadequate for our needs and deserves a major investment, but the city has become undeniably worse in recent years. Lately anytime we get more than a sprinkle I hear from across the city of power outages.
- A gutted police force. APD is nowhere near fully staffed. As a result, APD is pulling detectives from desk work and sending them on patrol, has scrapped the DUI department, makes next-to-no traffic stops (meaning there are more reckless drivers, and yes; more traffic deaths), and has retired the sex crimes unit. Let me reiterate; there is no sex crimes unit in the city of Austin. This most basic service that every city should provide the victims of unspeakable crimes—overwhelmingly poor women of color, for the record—was cut because of the Council’s rash decision to remove about one-third of the police budget.
- Rising crime, especially murders. Given that in 2020, APD’s funding was slashed, it is sadly unsurprising that we have had more murders in the past couple of years than our city has ever experienced. While we are not on track to set another new record for the number of homicides in the city, in 2020 and 2021, we hit all-time highs, and have established a new normal. While our murder rate is lower than that of poorer major cities, such as Houston, we are no longer the surprisingly safe, pristine city we once were.
- Homelessness. In 2019, the council removed a ban on homeless camping, leading to a massive surge in shanty towns under our bridges and homeless on our street corners. These sprawling camps were dangerous places of open drug use and casual violence. The homeless, for whom we should all feel deep compassion, were left to their own devices, preyed upon by human traffickers and drug dealers, and left to freeze and die in large numbers during winter storms. Too many of these men and women are drug-addicted or mentally ill—or both. They are not capable of making rational, long-term decisions. They should be cared for, as Community First! Village does. Instead, the Council’s response was to buy a hotel, house an infinitesimal percentage of the homeless, and pretend that the open camping wasn’t a major threat to the city’s wellbeing. The vast number of fires that broke out in these camps should dispel the idea that these were safe spaces. With no action being taken by elected officials, the voters of Austin mobilized to pass Proposition B. right before its passage, Kitchen and Kelly spearheaded the admirable H.E.A.L. Initiative which banned camping in a few key areas but left most of the city open to the blight of massive homeless camps. Even after the passage of Prop B, the council dragged its feet to enforce the law, taking many months before finally going about the sad business of clearing out the dangerous camps that had become all too common in our city.
- The rising cost of living. Despite this loss of safety, people continue to move to the city. Not to the dangerous parts, mind you; to the nice areas. But the ever-growing population has not been met with a commensurate investment in housing. There have been a number of luxury condos built, but for those who do not make mid-six-figure incomes, finding a home has become an increasingly difficult process. And forget about buying a home. The cost of a house in Austin has skyrocketed, leaving many longtime residents with no choice but to leave. The Council doesn’t set home values, and they don’t decide on rent in the city. But they have made building new homes so expensive that most investors don’t see the possibility of making a return on their investments in building new affordable units. Similarly, the Council’s fixation on increasing non-car traffic by adding bike lanes and increasing walkability has left our major roadways clogged and everyone outside of the dense urban core—most Austinites—underserved.
In conclusion, this council’s record is one of failure. Our budget is bloated. Our taxes are too high. And, our services are too low.
The Council is in the thrall of a small population of wealthy downtown dwellers who don’t have to see the effects of terrible policies elsewhere in the city.
The Council Members didn’t deserve a raise. Most deserve to be fired.
But most importantly, the city deserves better.
Are We Rewarding Failure? | SARCTweet
South Austin voters’ voices were loud and clear on Election Night.
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