Mayoral candidates discuss transportation, rental properties, water conservation at forum

Jackie Wang

Seven mayoral candidates discussed water conservation, transportation issues and curbing property taxes in a forum at the Austin Convention Center on Wednesday night. 

Businessman Todd Phelps, retired electrical engineer Ronald Culver, City Council Member Mike Martinez, aircraft technician Randall Stephens, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, retired technology writer David Orshalick and attorney Steve Adler sat down at a forum hosted by the City Ethics Commission and League of Women Voters of the Austin Area. The only candidate listed on the ballot that did not appear is activist Mary Krenek.

Adler said the affordability crisis in Austin has been exacerbated by the rising property prices. Cole said the increasing property tax rate is unacceptable.

“We have to remember that it has two components: rate and appraised value,” Cole said. “What is really getting out of control is the appraised value. We have allocated money to work with the appraisal district to fight the appraisal values. We also need to go to the legislature and make changes there. I do not support a rate exemption, I support a flat tax exemption.”

Orshalick said preemptive strategic planning would have stymied the water conservation problem, and that the best way to meet all their recommendations is by putting everything into one city plan.

“With one strategic city plan, we wouldn’t have to have these conversations every one, two [and] four years,” Orshalick said. “The Water Task Force found a lot of things for us to do. One of the recommendations of the Water Task Force was that we have a water master plan. I think that the recommendations are very good.”

Adler said he believed Austin needs to improve water conservation.

“People are conserving more and more water and expect their bills to go down, but they don’t, and they don’t understand why,” Adler said. “It’s because we have high capital expenditure that keep those bills up. We should be doing a better job with conservation and reuse. San Antonio reuses about 40 percent of its water. Austin reuses 3 percent.”

Culver proposed adding an express lane to alleviate traffic congestion on the highways. Phelps stressed the importance of legalizing transportation network companies to help with the traffic problem.

“We need to greenlight companies like Uber and Lyft immediately,” Phelps said. “We can create flow in this city. As far as the transportation system of the future, we need to look at something that’s smart and technology driven.”

Martinez said expanding access to different social services is imperative.

“We invest about $18 million a year in social service contracting,” Martinez said. “We estimate we have over 100,000 residents in Travis County who are eligible but not enrolled in food service programs.”

Stephens said the way to expand social programs would be bringing back Texan tax dollars.

“Our governor has correctly pointed out that we are a donor state, and I wouldn’t be ashamed to ask Congress to give us some of our money back to us,” Stephens said. 

The candidates also addressed the issue of rental properties not kept up to city code. Orshalick said the City Council was to blame for substandard housing.

“Social equity is part of my platform,” Orshalick said. “The fact that we have substandard housing in Austin, Texas, speaks very poorly of us. When it came time to pass a long-term rental ordinance — we started in 2009 and we still don’t have one. This would include automatic inspections of very rental property and ensure performance to city code. This is long overdue.”

Martinez said mandatory rental registration for landlords was necessary to help renters in substandard housing.

“We absolutely must bring these folks outside of the shadows,” Martinez said. “We must be able to contact these renters. We can’t do that unless we can access the people who own these rental properties.”