Criminal JusticeElections 2022Local NewsTaxes & SpendingTransportationWith New Mayor on the Horizon, Save Austin Now Unveils its ‘25 Ideas to Make Austin a World Class City’

The group behind reinstatement of the homeless camping ban lays out its policy proposals for the next Austin mayor and council.
October 21, 2022
A few days after Austin’s mayoral candidates laid out their priorities in a debate, activist group Save Austin Now has listed out its slate of policy proposals to pursue with the next mayor and council.

Save Austin Now — which rocketed to prominence in Texas’ capital city by securing a referendum in 2021 on the city’s year-long experiment in unregulated public camping, a vote it resoundingly won — is led by Republican consultant and Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak and Democratic activist Cleo Petricek.

Due to its effectiveness, but not unbridled success, the group is simultaneously praised and reviled in the Austin political world.

The group provided The Texan with its “25 Ideas to Make Austin a World Class City,” which details proposals in five areas: affordability, public safety, homelessness, transportation, and transparency.

“We started Save Austin Now three years ago with the goal of improving the standard of living for every Austin resident,” Mackowiak and Petricek told The Texan.

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“With the release of our ‘25 Ideas to Make Austin a World Class City’ plan we hope the new Mayor and council will seriously consider it to directly address the most pressing challenges we face with actionable, reasonable solutions.”

On its flagship issue, homelessness, the group calls for full enforcement of the camping ban voters passed in 2021 by a 3:2 margin. After that election, the city dragged its feet on enforcing the ban and adopted a phased approach spread out over two months. Today homeless camps still exist throughout the city, but there are fewer than at the peak in 2019 and 2020. In direct response to Austin’s referendum, the Texas Legislature passed its own statewide camping ban the same year.

Although the problem isn’t as visibly severe as it once was, Save Austin Now argues the ban is still not being fully enforced, illustrated by the tents and encampments on the side of public roadways, underneath overpasses, and on creek beds.

The city estimates it has 4,000 homeless people on any given day, but alternate estimates from members of the police department and elsewhere peg the total between 10,000 and 15,000. The city’s Point In Time counts have been canceled each of the last two years due to aversion to COVID-19, but the 4,000 number is a research model estimate.

But once the ban is enforced, homeless individuals need somewhere to go.

Save Austin Now recommends establishing a “Haven for Hope” in Austin, copying the 22-acre facility in San Antonio that has housed 1,700 people per day since 2010. What sets this facility apart is its strict prohibition on drug use and detox mandate. It also sets residency requirements like meeting education or job training goals.

The group aims to have the city identify at least five potential locations within six months. Save Austin Now also hopes to make it so that “any city taxpayer can bring a cause of action” against the city for failing to adequately enforce the ban laid out in the charter. Along with a handful of business owners, Save Austin Now sued the city last year to force the enforcement of the camping ban, but it did not reach any resolution.

They call for this cause-of-action standard in each section of their slate.

After their victory at the ballot, Mackowiak and Petricek told The Texan, “We are not done. This is only the end of the beginning.”

And just over a month after their victory, the pair launched their second fight at the ballot box — this time over police staffing.

As the city’s police department suffered — and continues to suffer — from a staffing deficit, Save Austin Now collected enough signatures to place another proposition on the ballot last November that failed by a slightly wider margin than the camping ban passed.

Had it passed, it would have set a two officer per 1,000 residents minimum staffing level at the Austin Police Department (APD). APD is struggling to meet staffing needs due in large part to the attrition within its ranks, driven substantially by the city council and district attorney’s posture toward its police department. EMS is struggling with a similar staffing crisis.

This staffing crisis has coincided with a violent crime trend featuring at least 55 homicides in Austin so far this year. Austin still has lower crime relative to some of Texas’ other large cities, but the trend is clear; it’s not the only urban center facing such increases in crime. Additionally, officer response times and 911 call wait times have ballooned as that office, too, struggles with its own staffing problem.

To tackle this public safety trend, Save Austin Now wants the city to establish a minimum staffing level — either the two per 1,000 number, or another standard arrived at by the Greater Austin Crime Commission. To provide a boost, the group hopes the council and new mayor will immediately order another cadet class or find some other way to provide a staffing boon.

They also call for vacancies at the 911 call center to be filled and for a restoration of “proactive policing” units like the “Sex Crimes Unit, Anti-Gang Task Force, Organized Crime Task Force, Motorcycle Traffic Enforcement, Lake Patrol”; the city has disbanded some units or cannibalized officers from specialized groups back into patrol beats.

Mackowiak called these staffing problems “truly dire situations.”

Austin’s population is booming; estimates peg the net growth at 130 people per day. While that feeds into homelessness and public safety issues, it is central to the city’s affordability problem.

Home and commercial property appraisals in Travis County each grew by over 50 percent on average. While that isn’t strictly proportional to what happens with tax bills due to exemptions, the city has continuously adopted tax rates above the no-new-revenue rate — the point at which no new tax revenue is collected other than from properties newly added to the rolls.

Save Austin Now’s blueprint calls for a two-year property tax freeze for city employees, teachers, nurses, and emergency personnel along with a freeze for senior or disabled homeowners.

The more complicated endeavor, something the city has long struggled with, is reforming the zoning code. The mayoral candidates each discussed this in detail on Tuesday, but Save Austin Now’s suggestions include limiting development fees, consolidating the convoluted review process and authority, establishing a 30-day response ceiling for the city regarding permit applications, and enabling other entities to assist with the review backlog.

Currently, it takes an average of 18 months to build a new house in Austin, largely due to the mass of bureaucratic red tape and delays builders must slog through. Save Austin Now believes these reforms would help reduce that building time down to six months, introducing more housing supply in the city and placing downward pressure on housing costs.

Another issue affected by population growth is transportation. The city’s preferred coping method for that congestion is the initially $7.1 billion, now $10.3 billion and growing light rail expansion plan called Project Connect.

They want the council to prohibit any new tax or fee increases from being thrown at Project Connect.

One of the reasons for the Project Connect cost increase is a planned mile-long tunnel underneath Lady Bird Lake connecting North and South Congress Avenue — the length of which is needed to prevent obstructing the view of the Capitol Corridor that is protected by state law.

Save Austin Now believes MoPac, infamous for its traffic congestion, should expand, enabled by moving the current Amtrak freight rail line further east.

Other transportation foci include expanding the airport both in terminal and runway and establishing a public-private partnership to finance it, along with a six-month long review to identify and fix road potholes in the city.

The final item Save Austin Now identifies is increasing transparency to “[r]estore taxpayer confidence in city government spending, root out waste, fraud and abuse, educate taxpayers on how their money is spent.”

This includes conducting a six-month audit of Austin Energy, Austin Water, Project Connect, the city’s transit board, its homeless spending, and the status of its bond-related debt.

Other items include making publicly available all contracts involved in the various purchases of hotels to house the homeless; multiplying the city’s capacity of voting centers; restricting in some fashion out-of-state political contributions; and the mandatory disclosure of city contracts over $5 million.

To accomplish these goals, Save Austin Now needs more friends in City Hall. Currently, they only really have one consistent ally in Councilwoman Mackenzie Kelly. Mayor Steve Adler, who isn’t seeking re-election due to term limits, has locked horns frequently with Mackowiak and Petricek. In his 2021 State of the City speech, Adler took tacit aim at Save Austin Now, blaming them for the city’s divisions and likening the group, half-run by a Democrat, to purveyors of “right-wing misinformation.”

While Save Austin Now has said it will not endorse a mayoral candidate, it has ruled out supporting state Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) due to her votes against the state’s camping ban and police-defunding prohibition. Virden’s priorities mirror much of Save Austin Now’s, but the big question is on former state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), the pack leader in the race.

On the council level, the group has endorsed three candidates: Clinton Rarey in District 1, Richard Smith in District 8, and Greg Smith in District 9. Should those three win — a difficult if not unlikely feat to pull off — and if the next mayor is receptive to their concerns, that’d give the group five out of 11 votes on the council. It’d also surpass the four votes required to place items on the agenda.

For a group that didn’t exist three years ago, Save Austin Now has made itself heard in the policy conversation — much to the chagrin of those that have run the city for the last handful of years.

A copy of Save Austin Now’s proposal can be found below.


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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.