Todd Phelps

Steve Adler and Todd Phelps chat after a mayoral debate on campus Aug. 27. Adler and Phelps were among five mayoral candidates who participated in the debate. 

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s Note: In the run-up to the November election for mayor, the Texan will be running Q-and-A’s with the candidates. Early voting began Oct. 20 and ends Oct. 31. Election Day is Nov. 4. Students can vote on campus at the Flawn Academic Center. This interview has been condensed from its original length.

The Daily Texan: Why are you running for mayor?

Todd Phelps: I grew up here, and I've been frustrated with our leaders and the direction they've been taking us, and there's an affordability and traffic crisis in Austin, and our leaders by their own admission have done nothing to address it... People I grew up with here in town, they can't afford to live here. They're having to move out... From a student perspective, if you went to UT, you get out, you don't want the rents to be so astronomical that you can't stay here if you choose to. And it's the first time I ever ran for anything... I've been talking about this problem for about 12 years, and decided you can't sit around and complain about something if you don't proactively get involved.

DT: One of the big issues for us, of course, is affordability. Affording not just a place to live after we graduate, but when we're students too. What sorts of things do you think you can do to help students on that front?

Phelps: I'm pushing for a residential homestead maximum exemption for property owners, but I want to expand those types of exemptions to rental properties and a lot of [multi-family] properties by working with the state so that those types of costs aren't passed through to people in the artistic community or students… Secondarily, from a student perspective, I think that we need to start running bus service, and even the Red Line, which we have existing, at broader hours in and out of downtown.

DT: Do you think the Red Line really helps students?

Phelps: No... I think if it ran broader hours, it might actually get some people in and out of the entertainment district... This is why I’m against the rail proposal exactly. Because that is going to cost students a lot of money, and it doesn't deliver... The taxes that are going to be assessed across the board on property values that students are renting in is going to be insane. [The costs are] going to be passed along [to students].

DT: What about the sound ordinance? Where do you stand on that?

Phelps: I've been shut down on this campus playing for parties before, where I wasn't shown a decibel reading. So I think first off, we need to make sure that the decibel readings are shown to anybody that gets shut down by the police, and I think that we can manage to have live performances properly where the sound won't travel past the perimeter of the properties within the ordinance.

DT: You mentioned you wanted to let transportation network companies into the market. What would be your ideal solution for that issue?

Phelps: A lot of people want to... have the ability to drive for a TNC and drive for a cab company. They're kind of held hostage in a way, with the stipend they have to pay to the cab companies right now, and the cab companies control X number of cabs... [I think] if you have insurance, and you pass a background check, you're good to go... [But] don't think that background checks are a catch-all... The city government should enhance our lives, not hinder it. Back to the sound ordinance and things like that. [The city is] looking for fees anywhere they can get them. It's the same with a 100 percent cell phone ban. I'm not for that. I think that texting obviously is dangerous. Answering a call in your car is sometimes very necessary.

DT: How do you think you could improve communication between City Hall and campus?

Phelps: We could start a communication conduit... and subdivide it into topics that concern students the most and have them weigh in... An app might be the best way, actually.

Steve Adler, candidate for Austin mayor, discusses efficient and environmentally friendly energy for Austin on Wednesday night.

Photo Credit: Ellyn Snider | Daily Texan Staff

Seven mayoral candidates discussed water conservation, transportation issues and curbing property taxes in a forum at the Austin Convention Center on Wednesday night. 

Businessman Todd Phelps, retired electrical engineer Ronald Culver, City Council Member Mike Martinez, aircraft technician Randall Stephens, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, retired technology writer David Orshalick and attorney Steve Adler sat down at a forum hosted by the City Ethics Commission and League of Women Voters of the Austin Area. The only candidate listed on the ballot that did not appear is activist Mary Krenek.

Adler said the affordability crisis in Austin has been exacerbated by the rising property prices. Cole said the increasing property tax rate is unacceptable.

“We have to remember that it has two components: rate and appraised value,” Cole said. “What is really getting out of control is the appraised value. We have allocated money to work with the appraisal district to fight the appraisal values. We also need to go to the legislature and make changes there. I do not support a rate exemption, I support a flat tax exemption.”

Orshalick said preemptive strategic planning would have stymied the water conservation problem, and that the best way to meet all their recommendations is by putting everything into one city plan.

“With one strategic city plan, we wouldn’t have to have these conversations every one, two [and] four years,” Orshalick said. “The Water Task Force found a lot of things for us to do. One of the recommendations of the Water Task Force was that we have a water master plan. I think that the recommendations are very good.”

Adler said he believed Austin needs to improve water conservation.

“People are conserving more and more water and expect their bills to go down, but they don’t, and they don’t understand why,” Adler said. “It’s because we have high capital expenditure that keep those bills up. We should be doing a better job with conservation and reuse. San Antonio reuses about 40 percent of its water. Austin reuses 3 percent.”

Culver proposed adding an express lane to alleviate traffic congestion on the highways. Phelps stressed the importance of legalizing transportation network companies to help with the traffic problem.

“We need to greenlight companies like Uber and Lyft immediately,” Phelps said. “We can create flow in this city. As far as the transportation system of the future, we need to look at something that’s smart and technology driven.”

Martinez said expanding access to different social services is imperative.

“We invest about $18 million a year in social service contracting,” Martinez said. “We estimate we have over 100,000 residents in Travis County who are eligible but not enrolled in food service programs.”

Stephens said the way to expand social programs would be bringing back Texan tax dollars.

“Our governor has correctly pointed out that we are a donor state, and I wouldn’t be ashamed to ask Congress to give us some of our money back to us,” Stephens said. 

The candidates also addressed the issue of rental properties not kept up to city code. Orshalick said the City Council was to blame for substandard housing.

“Social equity is part of my platform,” Orshalick said. “The fact that we have substandard housing in Austin, Texas, speaks very poorly of us. When it came time to pass a long-term rental ordinance — we started in 2009 and we still don’t have one. This would include automatic inspections of very rental property and ensure performance to city code. This is long overdue.”

Martinez said mandatory rental registration for landlords was necessary to help renters in substandard housing.

“We absolutely must bring these folks outside of the shadows,” Martinez said. “We must be able to contact these renters. We can’t do that unless we can access the people who own these rental properties.”

Mayoral candidate Todd Phelps discusses his position during a debate at the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse. The sold-out event, hosted by United Way for Greater Austin, was centered around discussion of affordability and education.

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

Five Austin mayoral candidates met Wednesday at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar Boulevard to talk about affordability and early childhood education.

The event, hosted by United Way for Greater Austin, sold out the theater in which the debate was held, prompting the organizers to open a second theater livestreaming the debate.

During the candidates’ discussion on affordability, candidate Todd Phelps said he thinks everyone should be able to live in Central Texas and that tax initiatives should help long-term residents who need relief. 

“We need to give them relief, and lobby state government and anticipate property value raises and protect people in that zone,” Phelps said. “Another way would be to not support initiatives and bonds that would push them out of town just because they would not be able to afford tax increases, and that’s what we’re looking right now at the rail bond tax.”

Council Member Mike Martinez said he worked to help Austin become more affordable by holding down property taxes through City Council.

“We [have been] doing everything we can over the last four years to lower or hold your tax rate flat,” Martinez said. “Providing that upward mobility ensuring that the entry-level position is not the only one you stay in when you enter the workforce. I’ll continue to push for a higher living wage than $11 per hour.”

Candidate Steve Adler criticized some of the current City Council's spending decisions and said they have had a negative impact on Austin's affordability.

"What have the incumbents done to make your life more affordable?" Adler said. "The middle class needs someone that will actually champion their cause."

The candidates’ discussion also focused on providing early childhood education opportunities. Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said child care is important to Austin infrastructure, citing her role as a mother and previous PTA member.

“I always say I went to City Council for rest because I have three boys,” Cole said. “I believe in child care because not only for economic development but for purely your sanity.”  

Cole said she has advocated for child care before, while working to promote equal pay for women so they can afford their own child care.

Martinez agreed with providing early educational opportunities and child care.

“We don’t create dropouts in their teenage years; we create them at the age of 4 by not providing that early childhood education,” Martinez said. “It is our responsibility as a community to understand that impact and issue that we face.”

Candidate Randall Stephens supported the idea of pre-kindergarten programs and after-school programs being supplemented by funding from tax-exempt organizations.

“I believe in a safe place after school and where a child can find a tutor, but, if the city can’t pay for that tutor, the tax-exempt organizations can,” Stevens said. “Austin is a city on the move, and by supporting our children we’re protecting the great nature and soul of the city.”

Phelps said he supports after-school programs — if there are sufficient funds.

“I think we need to make sure the money is there by not wasting money on frivolous things like the water treatment plan and bonds that don’t make sense,” Phelps said.

The November mayoral election is the first under the city’s new 10-ONE plan, which reformats City Council into 10 district representatives with one citywide, elected mayor.

On Wednesday, the mayoral candidates for the upcoming November election participated in a debate presented by KLRU and the Urban Land Institute. Although the discussion featured a variety of questions posed by moderator Jennifer Stayton, the conversation was consumed by the topic of transportation.

Stayton started the debate by asking the candidates about Proposition 1 — a more than $1 billion transportation bond proposal that would create a 9.5-mile light rail transit line. While the proposal would lead to what could be considered a more efficient and more modern method for public transportation, $400 million of the proposed funding would go toward road improvements.

During the debate, candidates Randall Stephens and Todd Phelps expressed opposition to Proposition 1, but unfortunately did not provide any viable alternative. In response to a statement by fellow candidate and current City Council member Mike Martinez, explaining Proposition 1’s place in a 50-year traffic solution vision, Stephens dismissed the proposition as insufficient in addressing the urgency of the problem. Phelps, an advocate for roadway expansions, including of Interstate 35, spoke against the increase in property taxes that would ensue, which has already caused a mass exodus of Austin residents. But his battle cry of “35 high and wide” does not help those who depend on efficient public transportation. Candidate Steve Adler expressed support for the proposition, but only because the city needs a solution sooner rather than later. Adler proffered the elitist idea of behavioral changes in the workplace, such as telecommuting and staggered work hours, which could only be applied to jobs in the service sector.

Martinez and current Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole were the only candidates to wholeheartedly support the proposition, unsurprisingly considering their current participation in the City Council, which voted in early August to place the measure on the ballot. But Martinez’s vision for Austin is unrealistic, at least for the near future. “I will continue my work as chairman of the Capital Metro board, and ensure that each year, millions of cars are removed from the road,” Martinez said during the forum. Though more affordable and better for the environment, public transportation is not everyone’s first choice, and his plan to alter public behavior seems to us unfeasible.

But Cole differs from Martinez in that she expressed equal support for roadway projects included in the proposition. “Roads are imperative to present a comprehensive package,” Cole said. This editorial board supports Cole’s advocacy for roadway improvements because while a rail will primarily help with inner city mobility, in the interest of expediency, Cole’s vision is a more pragmatic response to the transportation question.