On issues such as coronavirus mitigation, public safety and the police “reimagining” endeavor, and homelessness, Adler was quick to declare success or, at least the prospect of success.
“[T]oday we can say the state of our city is the strongest in the country,” Adler told the limited crowd made up of city councilmembers and city staff.
“By just about every traditional and frequently used measure, Austin is the envy of cities across the country.”
To support this claim, Adler pointed to the city’s low unemployment rate of 4 percent, the more than 60 companies with plans to move to Austin bringing with them a planned 16,500 jobs, and the $7.1 billion Project Connect transit plan that will now cost more with the underground tunnel set to run beneath Lady Bird Lake.
Austin is booming — both in population and in home value. The 2020 census showed a 21 percent population increase since 2010, placing the city just shy of a million residents. Austin’s median home value grew nearly 40 percent year over year, a monetary growth of over $150,000 per home from this time in 2020.
The heart of Central Texas weathered the coronavirus unemployment wave better than most other parts of the state. Once the pandemic hit and government-mandated lockdowns began, the metropolitan area’s unemployment rate jumped to 12.7 percent but then dropped to mid-5 percent in four months.
But the city was incredibly ham-handed with its closure and other restrictive orders — policies that, mixed with the pandemic’s natural decline in commerce, played a part in about 1,500 businesses across Austin folding.
During this recent wave of coronavirus, Adler has battled with Governor Greg Abbott over local mask and vaccine mandates. “It is so hard for me to understand how we can be facing such risks, know exactly what we need to do, and have our governor affirmatively trying to stop local school boards from doing what all the experts say is best to keep our children safe,” he said.
He also stated, “I will do everything I can do to…[establish] a vaccine mandate for city employees or alternatively a testing mandate.”
Abbott’s executive orders currently prohibit government entities from issuing either mask or vaccination mandates and local officials, especially in urban centers, have taken steps to defy those decrees. Currently, both issues are working their way through courts and are at varying stages of resolution.
A parallel trend since the pandemic’s dawn is a violent crime increase. Austin, historically a low-crime city, has experienced a significant increase in homicides to the point of topping the nation’s largest cities in the percent uptick.
The trend really kicked off at the start of the pandemic but has continued since, and most notably after the city cut and redirected $150 million from its police department budget. Through July, Austin experienced a 68 percent increase in its homicide rate and has added multiple more in August, including three in the month’s first week.
Austin is outpacing every other large city in Texas in rate increase and only trails Houston and San Antonio in the raw number of homicides through July — two cities that are 139 percent and 49 percent higher in population, respectively.
The Austin Police Department announced the city’s 54th homicide of the year on Thursday.
Austin remains a much lower crime city than many of its counterparts, but the trend is obvious and has alarmed many quarters of the population. Adler acknowledged the trend in his speech while also juxtaposing the raw numbers against the likes of Houston and San Antonio. “We should, and we are, working to take illegal guns off the streets with initiatives to fight gun and other types of violence in our city,” he added.
Going to bat against his political opponents, Adler then turned the speech’s direction, saying, “Despite all that is good around us, there are some who want to polarize and divide our community with misinformation. While we should be celebrating our shared successes, there are those who seem to seek out ways to foster fear and engender hate.”
While names were not stated, Adler’s offensive was aimed squarely at Save Austin Now — the activist group headed by Republican Matt Mackowiak and Democrat Cleo Petricek — and other like-minded entities. Save Austin Now was instrumental in the reinstatement of the public homeless camping ban, a direct broadside against the city’s lax policy Adler and Councilmember Greg Casar championed back in July of 2019.
The political conflict has only continued with Save Austin Now’s successful petition drive to place a police restaffing proposition on the November ballot.
Mackowiak and Petricek responded to Adler’s speech, saying, “Steve Adler’s state of the city should have been a short apology for destroying standard of living in a thriving city in two short years. His twin disaster of a homeless camping ordinance and an absurd ‘defund the police’ budget cut have made life in Austin worse for everyone.”
“After predicting a ‘close’ election in May, he lost 58–42. In November, a majority of Austinites will raise up and demand an adequately staffed police department.”
Councilwoman Mackenzie Kelly, the only conservative on council who was elected in 2020 largely on a pro- public safety and camping ban platform, told The Texan of the speech, “COVID, Public Safety and Homelessness continue to be at the center of ongoing discussions at the City. We have a lot of work to do to make the city a safer place, including correcting the staffing crisis at the police department.”
The Austin Police Department (APD) is currently operating with about 300 fewer street officers than it had two years ago and has pulled officers from specialized units off those beats for basic patrol duty.
On the first issue of contention between Adler and what became Save Austin Now, homelessness, Adler pointed to the 600 new housing units the city has made available through multiple multi-million hotel purchases since the pandemic’s outset. The last homeless population count done by the city in 2020 set the city’s bar at 2,506 and its 2021 survey was canceled.
The city’s Homeless Outreach Street Team announced last week that it had rehoused 100 homeless individuals from living on the streets into shelters.
In all, over $100 million has been spent on homelessness since the camping ban was originally rescinded. Adler said during the speech he “expect[s] the City Manager to enforce” Proposition B, but sources within the APD said that a standing order exists prohibiting officers from making Class C Misdemeanor arrests without approval from a supervisor.
Camping in a public area is a Class C Misdemeanor offense and without approval, only a citation may be issued. As of earlier this month, no arrests had been made during Proposition B’s phased re-enforcement and no citations had been issued since July 20.
Last week, a group of business owners, along with Save Austin Now, sued the city for failing to enforce the reinstated camping ban. Part of the filing included testimonials from the business owners about problems they’ve experienced since the July 2019 recission.
One such incident occurred to dance studio owner Stuart Dupuy who said, “Someone broke through the roof, stole the cash register, and smashed the glass door on their way out. We’ve been broken into three times in the past 18 months.”
Austin is safe, Mayor Adler asserted. But if it is unsafe, it’s not due to the crime rates or the release of violent offenders from jail that stem directly from a 2017 city policy. The threat to public safety comes instead, he suggested, from “right-wing misinformation” propagated by the mayor’s and his allies’ critics.
“The rise of hyper-partisan media outlets and right-wing alternative news sites, disinformation campaigns on social media platforms, and contempt for experts’ opinion pose a danger for Austin, and for our country,” Adler stated.
In what is set to be his second-to-last State of the City address in his current span as mayor, Adler jumped headlong into political conflict defending his policies that have brought the city under a spotlight of controversy.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.