Civic Activist Brian Rodgers Mulling Run for Austin City Council
Would File Against Incumbent Council Member Randi Shade
Brian Rodgers has long been critical of the way the City of Austin manages taxpayers’ money. He has agitated for changes on a wide range of issues, including equity in property taxes, limiting campaign contributions, and repealing tax subsidies for high-end retail development.
Now he’s deciding whether he should run for a seat on the Austin City Council, where he would have a far greater ability to influence city policies and spending.
He’s especially eager to find ways to quit subsidizing growth that he contends does not pay for itself. That’s a theme that’s been running for years on the website of an organization he co-founded in December 2008, ChangeAustin. There’s even a Voter Pledge form on the website, that says, “I plan to vote for candidates in the May 2011 Austin City Council election who will fight to make Austin’s growth pay for itself and to halt the long-standing practice of special interests (large-scale developers and land speculators in particular) off-loading their costs onto current residents. Enough already.”
If he runs, Rodgers says he will oppose Council Member Randi Shade, who is seeking her second term. She hosted her campaign kickoff at Mercury Hall last night and drew an energized crowd. Her campaign website lists more than 150 supporters. Campaign finance reports are not due until January 15. Shade carried over $2,105 from previous reports.
In telephone interviews Rodgers said he’s undecided whether to seek election—mainly because he’s not sure he can run his real estate business and serve on the council at the same time.
The filing period for this election opens February 12 and closes March 14. The election is May 14.
“I’m still mulling it,” he says.
“The cost of living is killing us,” he says. “I think Randi Shade is tone-deaf to what regular citizens are facing.”
Rodgers believes the city could and should increase the tap fees charged for hooking up water and wastewater service. “I’m on the city’s Impact Fee Advisory Committee and I know the true cost of providing water and wastewater service is about $10,300,” he says. Austin actually charges about $2,000, and a chart of other service providers that Rodgers provided shows that’s far less than any other provider in the region.
He would like to have Austin follow the lead of Ft. Worth and charge a transportation impact fee for each new residential lot, too.
He says the city should not be paying the total cost of extending water and wastewater service to the F1 race track and contends that Water Treatment Plant 4 should not be built, because peak water use has flattened and the plant isn’t needed. If he were to win Shade’s seat on the council, that would change the balance that has consistently voted 4-3 to build the treatment plant, with Shade voting in favor. But since all funding for the plant has already been committed, it’s unclear whether the plant construction could be halted by the time he would take office in June.
He thinks the city’s commitment to spend $2.3 billion to buy electricity from a biomass plant was a huge mistake and “gives alternative energy a bad name.”
An overarching theme running through all these issues is that Rodgers says growth does not pay for itself under the city’s current financial structure. Rodgers graduated from the University of Texas in 1978 with a degree in mechanical engineering, he says. He approaches the city’s financial policies with an eye to finding facts and figures to support his position on issues and says he has spent about $60,000 in the last year on studies that provide hard proof.
“I’d like to be in a (campaign) forum where I can ask Randi Shade the hard questions that aren’t being asked, but who’s going to run my real estate business in the meantime?”
Businessman and activist
Rodgers is a veteran real estate investor who formed Rodgers and Reichle Inc. with partner Kevin Reichle in 1992. His properties are mostly what he calls the “soft underbelly” of commercial real estate, Class C structures often built of corrugated metal and cinder block.
He’s been a high-profile civic activist in Austin for many years. He was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the City of Austin filed in early 1997 over the city clerk’s disqualification of a petition brought by Austinites for a Little Less Corruption. The petition would put an item on the ballot to limit campaign contributions to $100 per contributor per election cycle and restrict how much money a candidate could accept from sources other than citizens of Austin. Rodgers was one of many whose name was disqualified as a petition signer, because he signed as Brian Rodgers, not Patrick Brian Rodgers. The plaintiffs prevailed in that federal lawsuit, got the measure on the ballot in November 1997, and won approval by 72 percent of voters. (The charter was subsequently amended again and candidates may now accept contributions of up to $350 per contributor.)
In 1998, some of the charter amendments won in the 1997 charter election were challenged in a federal lawsuit that struck down the total prohibition on expenditures by corporations, associations or labor unions to support or oppose a ballot item. The court also struck down the provision that limited an individual from contributing more than $100 to a political action committee in a single year. Rodgers was in the thick of that lawsuit as well.
Years later Rodgers sued the City of Austin and Endeavor Real Estate and reached a settlement in 2004 that said the agreement that gives millions of dollars in rebates of sales and property taxes for the high-end Domain shopping center would be strictly voluntary. The city is no longer obligated to fund the agreement, and Endeavor gave up its right to sue. (The city has chosen, however, to continue paying.)
In 2007 Rodgers sought to put an end to future retail tax subsidies and to stop payment on existing retail subsidies—including the Domain. His political action committee, Stop Domain Subsidies, launched a petition drive in late 2007 to amend the City Charter for this purpose. The drive won the support of hundreds of small businesses that believed it was unfair to subsidize major retail developers. The successful petition drive resulted in a ballot measure put before voters in November 2008 that was narrowly defeated, 48-52 percent. To pay the expenses for the petition drive to get the measure on the ballot and to run the campaign seeking voter approval, Rodgers put up a total of almost $107,000 of his own money, according to the campaign finance reports filed for the Stop Domain Subsidies PAC.
When it comes to property taxes, Rodgers says the city should not be granting historic exemptions to millionaires, and he walks the walk; he has not applied for a historic tax exemption for his home on West 9th Street built in 1910.
Will Rodgers walk over to City Hall and file to run for city council? He has not yet decided. He says he has been meeting with experienced professional campaign consultants, but would not provide names.
“In some ways it’s a leap of faith that I can do this and run my business,” he says.
Want to tell Rodgers what you think of his possible candidacy? Leave a comment here or e-mail him at [email protected].
Disclosure: Rodgers donated $250 to The Austin Bulldog last year to help fund a story about property taxes that was published July 30, 2010, and he is a Sustaining Supporter who contributes $25 a month. Randi Shade has contributed $50.
All candidates and serious prospective candidates for this city council election will be profiled in coming weeks and The Austin Bulldog will be providing extensive election coverage throughout the campaign season. This report and future election coverage is made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. You can support this coverage by making a tax-deductible contribution.