AUSTIN (KXAN) – A new television ad from candidate for Austin Mayor Steve Adler goes after his opponent Mike Martinez.
“I think it’s a stretch and it’s a reach, but it’s politics and we’re in a knock-down, drag-out race for this mayoral election and we’re going to fight to the very finish,” Martinez said.
Both candidates spoke with KXAN News as we analyzed the claims.
“I don’t think there’s a lot different,” said Adler in response to a question about why he was airing this ad now. “Throughout this campaign we’ve been talking about the facts and issues that have most concerned the voters. We’ve been examining what’s been happening in the city and we’ve been talking about it.”
The new ad starts looking back to September.
Misleading: “At a press conference Mike Martinez said city fees are too high and promised to lower them. Four days later he voted to raise them again.”
The Adler campaign provided a video uploaded to YouTube September 4, 2014. Martinez says in the video that he wants to “de-layer” the fee structure and “fight against regressive fees”. He says “fees need to be built back into the general fund so that it is a progressive policy.”
Four days later, on Sept. 8, Austin City Council approved the budget and fees. Martinez voted for both. A city news release shows increased fees including a $0.75 hike for the Clean Community Fee and a $0.60 hike in the drainage user fee, two charges he highlighted in his speech four days before.
Still, Martinez did not specifically say he would lower fees. He said he would “fight against regressive fees”. The Martinez campaign argues that the claim lacks context. The curbside trash collection fees stayed flat for the people who use the smallest trash carts, while they increased for the people who use the 96-gallon carts. In city council meeting on November 20, Martinez also voted for a water fee change that lowered the fee for customers who uses less water, while increasing the cost for the highest users.
“It’s a stretch at best,” Martinez said. “When we vote on fees we vote on every fee in the city and fees are used sometimes to discourage folks from things like putting trash into the landfill.”
Mostly True: “Martinez has voted to raise taxes and utility rates, while ending free bus service for seniors.”
Martinez has voted to raise property tax rates, but he’s also voted to lower rates. Martinez has voted in favor of every yearly property tax adjustment since taking office. The majority of them were decreases in the property tax rate from year to year. Still, the property tax rate has gone up by more than 8.5 percent since Mike Martinez took office.
“There’s a difference between taxes and tax rates,” Adler said. “And I think people in this city know that their taxes have gone up. If the tax rate goes down by less than property values are going up, you end up with a tax increase.”
This year, for example, the average homeowner will see the city portion of his/her property taxes go up by about 4.5 percent, based on the city’s figures. Adler points out that even a decrease in the property tax rate from year to year can actually be an increase in property taxes. This year’s rate, despite being lower than last year’s property tax rate, is 4.9 percent more than the rate that would allow the city to bring in the same amount of money by taxing the same properties as the year before, known as the “effective tax rate.”
“However, revenue realized from the effective tax rate is typically not sufficient to maintain a balanced budget in an environment of increasing cost drivers, such as increased demand for services that accompanies population growth, employee bargaining agreements, and health insurance and pension costs,” the city’s 2014-2015 budget proposal explains.
“We had to raise rates at the Austin electric utility for the first time in 17 years in 2012. It was [a] very difficult, painstaking rate process, but it was forced upon this council because all the previous councils for the last 17 years chose not to make these difficult decisions,” Martinez said. “We have to create a utility that’s sustainable; it’s our largest asset to our citizens. It provides about $100 million a year in additional revenue to pay for core city services…”
As far as ending free bus service for seniors, Martinez says the decision came after a report from the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission. At the time, Capital Metro’s reserves were dwindling and were well below federal standards. The commission wrote that “While fare increases are difficult, requiring only a portion of its ridership to bear the burden of these increases is not equitable or sustainable, especially in bad financial times.” It also recommends that Capital Metro “Charge a bus fare of 50 cents for groups currently riding free ($1.7 million in revenues) and charge $2 for paratransit rides ($155,600 in revenues).”
“We voted to raise our fares on seniors and disabled to $0.50 per customer, per passenger. We believe it was a modest increase. It’s still one of the most competitive rates in the country,” said Martinez. “But we were required to do that based on legislation that was filed at the legislature and based on a review of the Sunset Advisory Commission.”
“We’re in a position to be able to return those fares for seniors and disabled folks,” said Adler, saying that the reserves have improved.
Misleading: “He voted for corporate tax breaks for some of the biggest companies in America but won’t give Austin families real tax relief.”
Martinez voted for deals including an economic development program with Apple in 2012 and one for Facebook in 2010. The graphic on the screen clarifies that the ad is also talking about subsidies, not tax breaks alone.
“We have used tax incentives as a way to create a vibrant economy, as a way to create good jobs,” Martinez said. “I led the effort to change our economic incentive policies so that we could have economic equality. So that if companies come in and ask for a tax break, they have to pay $11 an hour minimum wage, they have to pay prevailing wages, they have to provide healthcare benefits and domestic partner benefits, and workers compensation insurance and OSHA safety training. These are now requirements for our incentive policies.”
The claim about real tax relief is subjective and the graphic on the screen – “Opposes 20% exemption for Homeowners” – shows the ad is referencing the fact that Martinez does not support Adler’s plan.
“We’re talking about the 20 percent homestead exemption,” said Adler. “This is an exemption that Houston and Dallas and Fort Worth give its citizens, Travis County gives its citizens. It’s a tool that will help the people that need it the most.”
Martinez did vote for a budget that lowered the property tax rate this year.
“That’s not real tax relief,” Martinez said. “Providing homestead exemption is not going to do anything for the most needy in our community. Fifty five percent of Austinites rent and are arguably the most needy in our community. A 20 percent homestead exemption would make their rents go up, make their cost of living go up.”
The ad ends with opinion.
“Martinez… content with the status quo. He seems content with the status quo, not offering solutions. Mike Martinez is hurting the middle class, It’s time for a new way forward,” the narrator says.