Paul Robbins is an Austin-based environmental activist and consumer advocate. Though best known for his work on the Austin Environmental Directory (a sourcebook of green products, services, organizations, and issues in Central Texas), he has worked on a number of other projects as well. This Web site has started to compile them.
Shonda Novak – American-Statesman, Thursday, March 24, 2016
The developers of the high-profile Seaholm project in downtown Austin are seeking a buyer for the hub of office, retail and restaurant space — a move that has reawakened debate over what the public benefit has been from the redevelopment project.
A potential sale of the nearly completed project has sparked criticism from some observers who say that what was built doesn’t live up to the community’s desire — and a former Austin City Council’s vision — for a significant civic use for the former power plant building.
“I think the city gave away the crown jewels,” said Paul Robbins, a longtime Austin environmentalist, referring to Seaholm and other former city-owned properties nearby. “We gave away most of that land to private development and didn’t get a whole lot in return.”
A July 20 American-Statesman editorial took issue with the Austin City Council for planning to issue bonds for buyouts of the homes of Onion Creek flood victims, since these bonds will be sold without voter approval. Upon reading the editorial, I wondered why the Statesman set its threshold for protest at such a low level. The Austin City Charter specifically states that all revenue bonds, including those that finance Austin’s electric and water utilities, be approved by the voters. Yet this Charter provision has been ignored for 16 years.
Article 7, Section 11 of the Austin City Charter clearly reads: “All revenue bonds issued by the city shall first be authorized by a majority of the qualified electors voting at an election held for such purpose.”
The tradition of utility bond approval by Austin voters goes back as far as 1890. However, this practice of voter approval began to be attacked for various reasons beginning in the 1980s.
In 1984, the City Council approved bonds without voter approval to finance the skyrocketing cost of the South Texas Nuclear Project. The council did this because the city was legally required to pay for cost overruns, and believed voters were so outraged by these overruns that they would not vote to keep up payments. The decision was taken to court, which ruled that the city had the right, but not the obligation, to sell bonds without voter approval. The public was so outraged by the episode that the City Council continued to seek voter approval for all other revenue bonds.
In the mid-1980s, several city purchases of buildings were financed with certificates of obligations, which are similar, though not identical, to revenue bonds. While technically complying with the charter, these transactions also raised hackles in the electorate.
Beginning in 2000, the city began purchasing large long-term supplies of renewable energy. These contracts were, in essence, virtual debt. However, they were not revenue bonds, so again, they were not precluded by the charter. Most of these transactions made good business sense and were good for the environment, but the expensive purchase of electricity from a biomass plant in East Texas is still controversial, and the complete terms of this contract have never been made public.
The last revenue bond election in Austin was held in 1998. There was no official reason given for their cessation after this. There were several contributing factors though.
1. A lot of bond money already had been authorized.
2. There was an economic recession in 2001, so growth-related expenditures were limited for a time.
3. The electric utility was over-collecting revenue to buy down debt so it did not need to borrow a lot of money.
4. Some public officials found it convenient to “forget” what was in the charter.
I began protesting their forgetfulness in 2006. The City Council-appointed Charter Revision Committee recommended in 2011 that this section be updated to mandate voter approval of projects costing more than $50 million. However, the City Council never placed the issue of voter approval on the 2012 Charter election ballot for voters to approve.
So here we are today, with a new water treatment plant exceeding a half-billion dollars in cost that will not be needed for a generation, a $2.3 billion biomass contract that continues to raise electric rates, and an acute affordability problem for the majority of Austinites. While voter approval of debt is not a panacea, it is part of a checks-and-balances system that needs to be resuscitated.
The new 10-1 City Council to be elected this fall could be a turning point to enlist more citizen participation in city government. I urge voters in the upcoming November election to ask candidates if we will be allowed to participate in our Charter-prescribed right to economic self-determination. Or will we continue to be ignored by a government that thinks it always knows best?
Austin mayoral candidate Brigid Shea, suggesting city leaders have failed to bird-dog affordability, referred to water costs in a March 5, 2012, op-ed article in the Austin American-Statesman.
To our inquiry, Shea said by email that she drew upon a report posted online in February 2012 by an Austin environmental activist and consumer advocate, Paul Robbins, who edits the Austin Environmental Directory.
We rate Shea’s two-part claim Mostly True.
Love is in the air at City Council chambers
First, self-described consumer advocate and environmental activist Paul Robbins – a prickly-pear if ever there was one – was read a proclamation by Lee Leffingwell naming Downtown’s first district chilling plant for him. “This may be the first award the city ever gave for stubbornness,” said Robbins, whose spent 30 years advocating for smart energy policy in Austin (his Austin Environmental Directory is here)
Who’s Paul Robbins, and what’s a cooling plant?
Daniel Mottola, Austin Chronicle, July 27, 2007