Austin City Council District 10's Runoff (Still) Centers Around Homelessness, Police Funding And Prop A
At its core, the runoff race for Austin City Council's District 10 looks to be a West Austin referendum on decisions already decided.
Incumbent Council Member Alison Alter faces first-time candidate and real estate broker Jennifer Virden in the runoff.
Alter, who was first elected in 2016, faced a crowded field in the general election, spending much of her time defending her record at City Hall – including her leading the charge on a citywide wildfire-mitigation code and her disapproval of the city's land development rewrite.
But Virden has been running largely against that record and against council's votes to cut police funding and scale back the city's ban on camping in public.
She's also staunchly opposed to property tax hikes that could come as a result of Proposition A, a property tax-funded plan to build out light rail and expand Austin's bus system that sailed to passage in November.
At the city-sponsored runoff forum hosted by the League of Women Voters this week, Virden put her platform bluntly.
"There is nothing more important than reinstating the camping ban and restoring funding to our Austin Police Department," she said.
KUT and the Austin Monitor were slated to hold a candidate forum this week, but Virden declined. The quotes from both candidates below are all from the League's forum.
Let's start with APD.
Virden wants to rollback those cuts to APD, and she said she doesn't believe there's systemic racism in the department, despite some high-profile investigations, suspensions and resignations related to instances of racism in the department – which she says are "extremely disturbing" but ultimately isolated incidents.
Virden also disagrees with council's decision to suspend the department's cadet classes for the next year and a half. She says it could make it difficult for APD to recruit new officers and retain its current patrol officers, who she argues may be overworked in light of the pause in classes.
"That is not something I ever would have been in favor of on the dais," she said. "I think it's one of the most dangerous things we've ever done for the City of Austin."
Alter cites reports from third parties that have suggested the city revamp its training of police – reports that argue the department hasn't had the best track record in policing equitably. Alter says when cadet classes come back online, they'll have courses on the history of policing and how officers are viewed in the community at large.
"One of the things that a police officer needs to be able to do is they need to address various communities across the city and understand their own cultures – and where they're coming from and how they communicate to keep everyone safe," Alter said.
On the issue of homelessness, Virden wants the city to reinstate its ban on camping, and she wants to lean more on large-scale shelters to house people living outdoors. She cites the Community First Village run by the nonprofit Mobile Loaves and Fishes as an example.
Alter said "that's not a plan," because the city is limited in how much financial support it can provide to Community First, as the property is outside the city limits. If council were to do something similar in Austin, it would first have to find land and an organization to run it, which takes time.
She believes the council's current plan to retrofit hotels to serve as transitional housing is the right way to address the proliferation of camps. It's quicker, she says, and better suited because hotels and motels could be retrofitted across the entire city.
"The models that we have with the hotels that we have adopted – that we are moving forward with – are ones that get set up and run much more quickly," she said. "It is much easier to take an existing building and convert it than it is to create new organizations."
It's worth noting Alter did vote against the rollback of the camping ban, though she supported rolling back ordinances banning panhandling and resting in public. It's also worth noting D10 had the second-lowest count of homeless folks during the Austin area's last point-in-time count.
Then, there's Prop A – the plan to build out light rail in Austin and bolster the city's bus system, among other improvements.
It's been top-of-mind for D10 voters for a couple reasons. For one, the affluent district pays a lot in property taxes – which, along with federal matching money, will help fund the $7.1 billion plan. Two, many in District 10 argue they won't see as much of the eventual fruits of its labor, compared to other districts. It's slated to get expanded bus service and a couple park-and-rides.
Virden says it was "irresponsible" for council to put that to voters. Voters in District 10 largely voted against it, and the seven precincts Virden won in the general election overwhelmingly voted against Prop A.
"In District 10 we would absolutely have no way to board that train or any of the projects, but we bear the most financial expense for it," she said. "So I just want to make sure District 10 hears me say that – that I definitely will take that into consideration when I'm voting."
Alter said council's plans to require developers and builders to pay fees to use the city's right-of-way could offset some of that increase in property taxes, but Virden says those fees don't exist in a vacuum; those fees trickle down to consumers.
But Alter says things like Prop A are part of the job. She argues that, obviously, the District 10 seat on the dais represents District 10, but there's still a larger collective responsibility to the entire city, whether it's transportation or homelessness or policing.
"You don't just represent your own district. One of the things I've really enjoyed about being a council member is learning about the opportunities and challenges in different parts of the city," she said. "All of these things combine to make up the fabric of our city, and District 10 has a responsibility to lead."
Early voting for the District 10 race runs from Dec. 3 - 11.
Election Day is Dec. 15.
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