Criminal JusticeElections 2022GunsLocal NewsTaxes & SpendingAustin Mayor Steve Adler Touts ‘Disruptive’ Tenure in Departing State of the City Address

Since Adler is term-limited and cannot seek re-election, Thursday's address will be his final State of the City as mayor.
August 26, 2022
In his final State of the City speech, Austin Mayor Steve Adler used one word more than any other to describe his two-term tenure: disruptive.

Given the events of the last few years, it’s hard to argue with that assessment — although Austinites assessing the benefits and drawbacks of that disruption may not necessarily agree with Adler’s own assessment.

Adler’s tone was one of pride in the “big things” accomplished during his time at city hall.

Among those “big things” was the city’s robust response to the coronavirus pandemic, which issued strict closure orders of businesses, mask mandates, and ramped up spending; the various mobility bonds passed, including the $10.3 billion and growing Project Connect light rail expansion; the medley of diversity and equity initiatives undertaken including the establishment of the more robust Office of Police Oversight, paired with racial sensitivity trainings; and one of the largest funding cuts to a police department in the country.

“Austin holds itself to pretty high standards. And we’re not comfortable celebrating our successes while our fellow Austinites are still struggling,” Adler told the crowd of colleagues and supporters.

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“When I took over, the number one priority was mobility. And now we live in the city’s golden age of mobility.”

The golden age of which Adler speaks is marked by the expansion of bike lanes and sidewalks across the city, but it’s Project Connect that is his crown jewel. Austin voters approved partial funding of a $7.1 billion light rail project through a 20 percent city tax increase in 2020. But due to inflation, increases in property value, and an unplanned problem with Capitol Corridor obstruction, that cost grew 77 percent — and may yet grow larger — before ground is even broken on the project.

Adler’s parting message on transportation reform to the burgeoning metroplex was to keep pushing the envelope and open the checkbook when necessary.

He then turned to the city’s efforts on a variety of progressive cultural bailiwicks, touting the $10,000 per day critical race theory-imbued racial sensitivity trainings for the city’s police and average citizens along with the city’s goal to reach 100 percent carbon neutrality by 2035. Adler was instrumental in progressing a universal basic income pilot program and the measures taken to push back on state laws outlawing abortion.

Recently, Adler supported efforts by the government to raise the minimum wage for city employees to $22 per hour, look for ways to prevent adults under the age of 21 from purchasing AR-15-style rifles, and decriminalize low-level marijuana possession.

He then called on the city to subsidize community college education to the point of no cost to the student.

In introducing Adler for the speech, his Chief of Staff Leslie Varghese described her boss as “the most progressive mayor in the State of Texas.”

Asked after the speech if he believes the city is safer than when he took office in 2015, Adler said yes.

“I think our city is much safer now than when I first took office and I say that because the underlying issues that lead to crime are things that we have fundamentally addressed,” he told The Texan.

Not an hour before Adler’s speech began, the Austin Police Department announced the city’s 51st and 52nd homicides of the year — which occurred within a mile and a half of each other. Austin’s homicide total this year is essentially on par with its record-setting rate last year.

Compared with the totals in other cities, as noted by Adler, those numbers are substantially less. But compared with itself, the trend is clear. In 2010, the city experienced 38 homicides with a rate of 4.9 per 100,000 in population. In 2015, Adler’s first year in office, there were 23 homicides with a rate of 2.6 per 100,000.

But last year, the city faced 88 homicides, posting a rate of 8.9 per 100,000. This year’s 52 homicides are one shy of the number through August 2021.

While Austin may still be substantially safer than the likes of Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas, its homicide situation is worsening.

Adler further contended that while the rate is high, it’s lower than at certain points in the past. From 1982 to 1986, Austin faced a spike in its homicide rate — peaking at 15 per 100,000 in 1984. The city then went through three decades of rapid population growth and plateauing homicides before jumping in the last few years.

Many categories of crime, and especially homicide, have increased across the nation. While external factors such as the pandemic have played a role, local policies also contribute to the problem. One of the most significant and least-discussed examples — undoubtedly among the “big things” Adler’s tenure has accomplished — is the city’s 2017 ordinance directing municipal court judges to prioritize personal bonds for poor and minority defendants.

Earlier this month, a repeat offender who had been granted personal bond by an Austin municipal judge, as well as in Hays County, shot two people — killing one and paralyzing another.

Not all, or even most, of the defendants granted personal bond in conjunction with this policy kill while out, but there have been recurring instances since the 2017 ordinance. While it wasn’t mentioned in the speech, that policy had a dramatic effect on the state of the city during Adler’s tenure that will continue after he leaves.

Ask his detractors — such as those behind Save Austin Now, which the mayor speaks of as antagonists — and the mayor’s legacy is a rising cost of living, a continuous and growing bout of homelessness, and a blow to public safety due to rising crime rates, progressive bail policy, and police staffing cuts.

The first issue Save Austin Now grappled with Adler over, which was the very reason for its existence in the first place, was homelessness.

After the city rescinded its homeless camping and lying ban in July 2019, encampments cropped up on Austin’s boulevards and creek beds and under its overpasses. The political recoil spawned Save Austin Now and a resounding rejection by voters on the May 2021 ballot.

Adler still defends the intention — to bring people out from the woods and creek beds — but acknowledged the city’s handling of it was clumsy.

“I think that election helped us as a city get in a position where we can end homelessness,” he said. “So that election, I think, on balance helped our city advance.”

The mayor lauded the hundreds of millions the city has injected into housing efforts, whether generalized or homelessness-focused, and prefaced the coming $350 million housing bond Austin voters will decide on this November.

But the issue looms so large that it is atop the list of importance among the candidates hoping to succeed Adler in this year’s mayoral election.

On Thursday, Adler declared Austin “is poised to be the first major American city to end homelessness.”

The last “point in time” in 2020 homeless count tallied 2,506 homeless individuals in Austin; both the 2021 and 2022 counts were canceled “due to coronavirus.”

Save Austin Now co-founder Matt Mackowiak objected to the mayor’s claim, saying the city’s homeless population is at least 5,000 and that law enforcement estimates the tally could reveal between 10,000 and 15,000.

Economically, Austin weathered the effects of the pandemic better than almost anywhere else in Texas for the very same reason it’s become difficult for those of modest income to remain in the city: becoming a commercial hub to which new residents and businesses are coming in droves, driving up the value of land and the cost of living.

This year’s speech was different from last year’s — during which Adler pointed the finger of blame for Austin’s problems at “right-wing misinformation,” a tacit shot at Save Austin Now. A similar shot was taken, but it was not as thematically prevalent.

Instead, the outgoing mayor’s focus was on the disruption ushered in by the policies of his tenure — a disruption that, regardless of each Austinite’s opinion, leaves much for his successor to address.


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Brad Johnson

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.