AUSTIN - Rob Walker knows money.
He’s an International Tax Certified Public Accountant who earned a Bachelor’s of Arts in Economics at Rice University, a Master’s of Business Administration in Finance at Stanford University and a PhD in Tax and Finance at the University of Texas at Austin.
When the Duluth, Minnesota native moved to Austin to earn his PhD, he deiceded this would be his home.
“I have lived in Austin for 20 years. I got my doctorate here, I met my wife here, and lived in District 10 for 17 of those years; three when I was in the doctoral program at UT,” Walker said.
Walker left Texas at one point in his career but didn’t stay away too long.
“We moved back here in ‘02 basically from Washington DC, where I taught at Georgetown University for 10 years.”
Once in Austin, he built a CPA business.
“We work with clients from 50 countries and various tax treaties. I have three long term employees, and I have been a CPA for many years and it's just been a real blessing working with people with different nationalities and backgrounds and languages. In fact I've learned how to say thank you in about 35 languages,” said Walker.
His history as an accountant and knowledge of finances is partly what motivated him to run for the Austin City Council to represent residents in Central and West Austin.
“When I saw things going on with our council, I’ve just felt that they haven’t dealt effectively with issues. The number one issue being traffic and then we also have a serious issue with our taxes going up at triple the rate of inflation in the last 10 years. So these are issues that I thought 'you know, I can bring my expertise,’” said Walker.
“I think I will bring a unique set of skills to the council, and a sharp pencil to really help our city move forward, but without the escalating expense in taxes that we have seen over the last 10 and more years.”
Walker has thought about running for council before but wanted to wait until his children were older.
“It was almost sort of a call, I have had a long interest in politics, but because our kids were small, both my wife and I are late blooming parents so we have a son 16 and a daughter 18, so I was hesitant to get involved when they were smaller because I know that it is a big time demand. But a friend of mine said 'listen when they're teenagers they can be involved in the campaign and that'll improve their world view’ and so it’s a plus not a negative. So that took that sort of block away.”
And to put it frankly, Walker believes he is better suited for the job than incumbent Sheri Gallo.
“I think that I can do better. I like Sheri Gallo, we’ve had nice conversations together and I find her a very pleasant and personable person. I don’t hear her speaking out on the issues very strongly and I haven't seen really the decisions on the council to hold down taxes. Now I realize that there are 10 people on the council and trying to negotiate between them is a challenge. So I would just say, with due respect to her, I know that she’s had some real challenges on there, but I think that with my financial tax and budgeting background and experience, I will bring a sharp pencil to the council that will help in areas where the council has not had that type of expertise in the past, at least in the recent past.”
ON THE ISSUES
Q: Are you for or against Proposition 1, Austin’s Mobility Bond, and why?
“I am against the bond. Initially I thought we need to do something, we got to do something, so when I got into the details of the bond I realized that this is not really going to help traffic very much. Less than 1/7 is for traffic congestion relief $101 million out of $720 [million]. When you consider the full build out of the bond, the additional $1.1 billion for the corridors on top of nearly the half a billion that’s already in the bond, that’s $1.8 billion. That means that 1/18 of the bond is for traffic congestion relief. So I think we need to do something else and quickly because nobody expected Austin to grow this fast. We have added 250,000 people in the last five years to the Austin metro area and I think our policy makers were blinded sided by this growth, and then to come up with a bond that does really so little for traffic, and even in a sense obstructs some traffic when you consider that 24 lane miles of roadway are going to go away with the corridor construction, I just think we need to come up with and alternative.”
“The biggest chunk is for 360. Of the $101 million for traffic congestion relief, that's $46 million. But TxDOT says those three overpasses at Westlake Drive at Courtyard and at Spicewood Springs are going to cost $110 million. So assuming TxDOT matches funds at $46 million, you've got $92 million but the cost is $110 million. So I said to a representative, ‘well what's going to happen then? We’re going to be $18 million short’ and he said, 'well I guess we're only going to be able to build two of the overpasses.’ And then once those are done, and it's going to take some years for that to happen, that's merely going to kick the traffic bottlenecks down to the other intersections, such as Lakewood, Lost Creek, the lights down at Barton Creek Mall. So it's not a long term effective solution for 360.”
Q: What action do you believe the city needs to take to address traffic congestion?
“I am proposing what I call the Traffic Relief and Flood Control Bond. It’s a $500 million bond that will not raise our taxes because it will be funded out of our city's current debt capacity, bond debt capacity. And 70 percent will be for traffic congestion relief. Now why flood control is a part of it? Well we need to spread the funds across the district, it is important to balance it out. So the flood control will be more beneficial in the South and East Austin, so they will get their share of the funds in this. The traffic congestion relief part, the 360 part, is sort of the lynch pin of it because we really need to build out 360 as a limited access, four-lane freeway for its entire length with fly overs at either end. TxDot has said that’s going to cost $300 million. This bond will allocate $150 million to that, with the expectation, and the reasonable expectation based on the experiences of Dallas and San Antonio, that TXDot will match those funds. It also includes the better aspects of the existing bond such as traffic signalization which costs about $20 million, the certain intersections that are unsafe, safe sidewalks to schools, there's $50 million in for some of those things and then some of the others are in with the $350 million traffic portion of the bond.”
Q: How can the city increase affordability related to the cost of houses in Austin?
“The one way to get affordable housing is to build smaller housing on smaller lots given the market pressures. We’re in a boom right now. Austin has seen a number of booms and busts, I've been through those. I was through the boom in the early 80s and then the bust in the late 80s. And then we saw a little drop off just after 2000. So unfortunately I think really the only long term, the only solution, is for the growth of Austin to slow down and our city needs to stop subsidizing businesses to come here. It's a little bit like offering cigarettes to somebody [with] emphysema. So affordable housing is very difficult because if you subsidize and create low cost housing then at some point those prices are going to have to rise up to the market later on. I mean this is what's happened in New York City, they did rent control for years. Same thing in Santa Monica, California and that just proved unyielding and unworkable after a long period of time. So certain people got real benefits, other people missed out on it. So I don’t think really trying to hold down housing prices legislatively is a reasonable solution. But I do think that we need to improve development. You know the development services department in Austin has been quite an obstruction to getting permitting done in a reasonable amount of time. I really think that there needs to be some house cleaning there. The Zucker report 30 years ago said there were serious problems in the development services department. Those problems have not been addressed, even after 30 years. So I would do my best to try to streamline things through the development services department and find available land. The east side of Austin, the far east side, there's quite a bit of land there. But the long short of it is affordable housing is very difficult, One aspect of affordability is real estate taxes. They've gone up 75 percent in the last ten years, which is three times the rate of inflation and I think we definitely need to do something to cap those increases. The council has been touting various additions to our taxes as good such as the mobility bond and composting but they keep adding to our taxes and as one of my constituents said, it's death by a thousand cuts. Our city council just needs to say ‘no’ a lot more often to proposals that come before it.”
Q: The Martin Prosperity Institute found Austin is the “most economically segregated major metro area in the U.S.,” how do you propose Austin address this?
"Economic segregation is a structural problem that will not be overcome with a quick fix. It will take long term constructive efforts by our City and its civic and philanthropic organizations to reduce the level of economic segregation in the Austin metro area. City Hall has not been consistent in these efforts. For example, Community First Village for the chronically homeless had to buy land outside of Austin after its planned purchase of land in Austin was blocked by a member of our City Council who acted on a complaint from a land owner in east Austin. On our Council, I will do what I can to prevent actions like that from happening which exacerbate economic segregation. I have a concern that low-income families be given the means to have access to preschools. The most important day of a child’s education is the first day of kindergarten. It separates the haves and the have nots. This will eventually help children bridge the economic gap which will, in turn, help reduce economic segregation."
Q: What do you believe is the biggest need of the residents in District 10?
“It's traffic and that's why I'm proposing this alternative bond. And another issue are the [Planned Unit Developments] which is going to contribute considerably to the traffic. I favor a significant scale back of both PUDS, both Austin Oaks and The Grove. And then the third thing is real estate taxes and I will lobby the legislature to put a five percent annual cap instead of a ten percent cap. And then for our senior citizens, their taxes are frozen, at least the school taxes portion, and when they move to another house, let's say they downsize, then they're starting from square one again. They're having to pay the full taxes and then the freeze starts to kick in. So what I would like to do is I would like to see whatever freeze they benefitted from that when they decide to downsize that freeze will carry over to their new house and that will be a significant tax break for our seniors in District 10. We've got lots of seniors in northwest hills.”
Q: On a lighter note, Austinites like to believe we live in the “Live Music Capitol of the World,” so tell us, what’s your favorite song?
"Great is Thy Faithfulness" Lyrics by Thomas Obadiah Chisholm , melody composed by William M. Runyan
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