Q & A with James Nortey

Keep Austin Wonky interviews County Commissioner candidate James Nortey about his affordability plan.

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James Nortey is running as a Democrat for the open Precinct 1 seat on the Travis County Commissioners Court. Precinct 1 covers East and Northeast Travis County.  Election day for the Democratic primary is March 1st.  Early voting starts February 16th.

Last week, Nortey released a new affordability plan (PDF). Here’s what he told Keep Austin Wonky about the plan and his vision for Travis County.

1. KAW: We all carry around stories from Austinites – whether they be friends or family, or folks we meet through advocacy and politics – that shape how we think about policy. What are stories that were on your mind as you developed your affordability proposals?

This is a great question.

I’ve heard story after story about the struggles ordinary Austinites like us face every day. But it’s not just Austinites. I’ve also heard stories from folks in Pflugerville, Manor, and the unincorporated parts of Travis County as well.

As I’ve criss-crossed the Precinct, I’ve met a single mother who works two jobs and doesn’t know how she is going to be able to afford her property taxes this year. I’ve met a senior who has lived in East Austin all of his life and can’t believe that the number of African Americans in his neighborhood is dwindling down while his cost of living keeps skyrocketing up. I’ve met a woman who moved here to find a job. She’s wondering how it can be that all the papers say the local unemployment rate is low, but she can’t find a job within 20-minutes of her home that pays a good wage.

These stories and the people behind them are the reason I’ve prioritized affordability in my campaign, the reason I’ll prioritize affordability as County Commissioner, and the reason I put out a detailed plan on affordability.

But let me emphasize a broader point about the nature of our affordability crisis. While the pain of the affordability crisis affects those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder most severely, our affordability crisis hurts everyone.

When more people live further from their jobs and public transportation options, all of us spend more time in our cars and exacerbate community problems like traffic congestion and poor air quality. Even our community’s economic competitiveness may be threatened if employers cannot attract workers because the cost of housing is too high.

2. KAW:  There are a lot of initiatives detailed in the white paper.  Tell us a bit about how you’ll go about prioritizing and implementing them in your first term. What would you say to a voter that asks: “Alright, Nortey. But how will you get this done?”

Perhaps the most important thing the county can do to alleviate our affordability crisis is invest in affordable housing. If I am fortunate enough to get elected, I would meet with my colleagues on the Commissioners Court in my first week and begin negotiating a substantial, sustainable figure for affordable housing that we can incorporate into the FY 2017 budget.

The county must also strive to keep taxes affordable and fairly distributed. Necessarily, this means that we will not know how much we can dedicate until we get into the budget.

In my first year, I would reach out to stakeholders at various cities and other taxing jurisdictions in order to build a relationship. I would begin these conversations by exploring all of the ways we can partner on things like future housing market analyses, joint tax planning, and establishing housing goals that will stabilize the market and help folks who are struggling to keep up with rising rents and mortgages.

Simultaneously, we need to engage stakeholders from every part of our community for long-term planning and implementation discussions about where to develop affordable housing and how it we can ensure that it is built around transit opportunities and job centers. The outreach and implementation will take several months to coordinate, but these long-term conversations can begin right away.

3. KAW:  One of the refreshing aspects of your affordability framework is that you properly contextualize both the size of local property taxes, the state’s role, and income stagnation. Do you have a target of how big County government should be relative to median County income? Do you want to keep it about the same share as now? Might there be special circumstances where a bump in the share is warranted?

I don’t measure the success of county government by how big or small it is. My primary measure of the success of county government is how people are doing. Are people spending more or less time in traffic? Are my constituents’ incomes and job opportunities shrinking or expanding? Are we reducing the number of kids that we’re funneling into the school-to-prison pipeline?

The State of Texas is shirking more of its responsibilities onto local governments without proper funding. In our currents times of income stagnation, Travis County needs to use every tool in the toolbox to reduce the cost of living and increase incomes and job opportunities.

We can give taxpayers a better bang for their buck by coordinating affordability and economic development opportunities across jurisdictions to maximize services and reduce costs. In this way, we can increase the county’s efficiency and effectiveness without necessarily increasing its size.

4. KAW:  You embrace the need to rigorously evaluate existing programs and departments for effectiveness. Are there existing models of public sector performance evaluation approaches you are considering studying and replicating at the County?

I’ve given this quite a bit of thought, but I haven’t found a perfect model. I see the benefits of Zero-Based Budgeting where you start from a “zero base” and justify every expense as opposed to just reviewing the variance from last year’s approved budget. I also see the value in implementing a bonus pay function on top of cost of living adjustments that could incentivize employees to achieve set goals.

However, these models have potential implementation flaws and they are things that need to be negotiated with my colleagues if I am elected. I’m open to listening to suggestions on the best way to review public sector performance.

5. KAW: What are some of the funding options you’d be willing to consider to expand affordable housing (i.e. subsidized, means-tested units)? This framework suggests the County’s general fund, bonds, and TIFs might be options. Which option do you see yourself moving on first?

I recommended a range of funding options in my affordability proposal, including general fund, tax increment financing and public improvements, because I believe we’ll need a mix of these funding options to meet housing demand while keeping taxes affordable and fairly distributed.

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Nortey visiting Community First! Village

Which option I push for first depends on where things stand when I take office. If the county is still negotiating a Public Improvement District policy, I’d jump feet-first into that conversation. And as I mentioned above, I’ll work to negotiate a substantial, sustainable figure for affordable housing funding during my first meetings with colleagues.

6. KAW: You’re spending a lot of time talking to voters. One of the most interesting things about campaigns is how they try to educate citizens about emerging social trends and economic changes that they might not fully be aware of.  As you chat with voters, are you noticing any particularly important “information gaps” that we need to do a better job addressing in Austin?

The most critical information gap I’ve seen is that so many residents (regardless of where they are on the economic spectrum) have no idea what role county government plays in our lives.

Residents are beginning to expect more attention from all levels of government—including county government which has historically been more passive. There are those that believe that county should only be active in the incorporated areas outside of cities. I reject that notion.

We all live in a county and we all pay county taxes, we should all enjoy the benefit of county services. This is precisely why my affordability proposal is so important. County government may not have all the powers that municipalities have, but it still has a vital role to play in lowering our costs of living.

7. KAW: What’s your favorite chart you came across as you were developing this affordability approach?

Well, it’s not a chart, nor is it my favorite, but I find myself thinking about the map below almost every single day.

According to a study, by the Equality of Opportunity Project (a collaboration between Harvard, UC-Berkeley, and the US Treasury), Travis County ranks among the worst counties in the United States (bottom 13%!) in helping poor children climb the income ladder.

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This reflects long-standing challenges facing our schools, a shortage of job and career training programs, and a lack of good jobs at good wages to balance out the rising cost of living in our county. The objective data, coupled with the anecdotes I heard from so many residents, inspired me to write this plan to tackle our affordability challenges.

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And that’s it for the Q & A with James. You can visit his website for more information about his platform and campaign. And remember, last day to register to vote is Monday, February 1st.

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