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Lee Leffingwell's Outsourcing of Trail of Lights Sets Bad Precedent

by: Karl-Thomas Musselman

Sat Feb 25, 2012 at 05:12 PM CST

I don't mean to step on Katherine's post from earlier today, but I have to be honest in saying that I'm not nearly as enthusiastic as she is about today's announcement regarding the RunTex takeover of Austin's historic Trail of Lights. For more information as well as the Mayor's press release on the issue, check out Katherine's post; I won't repeat it here.

I'm disappointed by today's announcement that the only way to "rescue" the Trail of Lights, after having jettisoned it from the city budget, is to outsource it to a private, albeit, non-profit entity. My disagreement goes beyond the politics of this May's municipal election (I'm sure it's just simple co-incidence this announcement came in the lead up of the Mayor's re-election kick-off). My difference of opinion comes down to a fundamentally different perspective on how we treat events that have arguably belonged in the public domain.

The Trail of Lights is in a unique category- that of government sponsored public events. The City of Austin, as a government entity, has had a long tradition and history of providing over 300,000 residents and visitors alike, with a memorable touchstone. It is an event, not unlike city sponsored fireworks or festivals, where government in its most direct tangible form, has the opportunity to showcase how it can work to provide a public good to the people.

Cutting the Trail of Lights funding from the budget was a poor decision when it started in 2009. In 2010, the budget was cut entirely. Then the city privatized the event for 2011 which turned out to be a disaster. And now we are supposed to get excited about handing over a nearly half century old tradition to a non-profit, even if it is RunTex?

And what if it is successful? The message we will have sent is, the City of Austin has failed not only itself and the legacy of the Trail of Lights, but we have ceded the debate over whether there is a role for government sponsored public events.

If successful, people won't rave about the return of Austin's Trail of Lights. They will rave about RunTex's Trail of Lights. And lost forever will be our chance to get it back. Lost will be our argument to not only say, but show the public that city taxes do more than just make payroll, that they can bring joy and serendipity into untold lives, and be the basis for memories that last a lifetime for every resident regardless of how rich or poor, how old or young, how native or foreign they are to our City.

I wish I could see this as 'gaining' something back. I hold out hope that maybe the City will one day find the money and courage to reclaim this history...

The event, originally known as Yule Fest, began in 1965 by Mrs. Alden Mabel Davis and former Parks and Recreation Directory Beverly Sheffield as a holiday gift from the Parks and Recreation Department to the citizens of Austin and its visitors.

We are giving away the City's gift to the people.  


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Unmet Needs (0.00 / 0)
Where do you expect to get $716,000 in taxpayer dollars to pay for it? The city's in a huge budget crunch, and we have a lot of unmet needs that are frankly way more important than a light show in a park.

Every year in the City's budgeting process, there's a long list of unmet needs -- things the City would like to pay for but simply cannot afford. These are more important to the daily lives of Austinites -- especially the neediest Austinites -- than spending taxpayer dollars on a holiday light show.

These are lean times. If it was the 90's and things were booming, sure, spend City money on a light show. Right now, however, we're trying to deal with water and utility rates that may well go up dramatically this year and most negatively impact our lowest-income Austinites. Can we spend your imaginary $716,000 to offset those increases instead?

I like Trail of Lights. It's fun. I will do the 5K again this year. Chris Riley tells me there's going to be a Bike night, too. I'm down. But honestly if I had a choice between spending three quarters of a million taxpayer dollars on that, or on programs like free home weatherization for low-income Austinites, or increased frequency on CapMetro and extended hours on weekends, I'd pick either of the latter. Or repairing leaks in our water system. Expanding solar panel rebates. More xeriscaping. Free permitting for garage apartment construction in the Central City! I could go on.

We can't even always meet the basic needs of the most impoverished Austinites. Many social service providers lost their contracts this year. You mean to say we should spend money on entertainment while people are going hungry, homeless, choosing between electricity and medicine and food?! If our City Council decided that we should spend precious resources on a light show rather than helping the neediest, helping fund basic social services, then I'd be frankly appalled at their lack of judgment.

RunTex will be able to use all of the original Trail of Lights materials -- the exhibits and displays and light-up snowpeople and what have you. It will be as close to the original as possible without charging admission or spending taxpayer dollars. It will provide free family fun that doesn't discriminate based on lack of ability to pay. Sure, you could argue that it should be done in-house, but I'm not sure if it's legal or ethical for the city to be raising money from private investors to cover the cost of the program and the cost of the city employees who put it together.

The reason why the $1.2 to $2 million we're wasting on the May election is so appalling to me is that it also prevents us from helping the neediest Austinites, or filling more of the unmet needs in this year's budgeting process. There are many, many unmet needs in our city that depend on taxpayer dollars to get filled. I hardly think "Trail of Lights" is one of them.  

I'm not a player, I just Tweet a lot: @KathTX

For perspective... (0.00 / 0)
How much of a news story would it have been today if Mayor Lee Leffingwell had announced a partnership with a non-profit to work with area donors to fill in $716,000 of cuts made in the prior budget to fill in the gap for free home weather strips to all city residents and to repair unseen water pipes?

None, except maybe the Chronicle on a slow week.

Obviously this town is crazy hardcore about the Trail of Lights. You'd think Lee had signed a peace agreement with Paul Carrozza on behalf of North and South Austin over water rights with the way some people went gaga over this news today.

I'm not saying this is BAD, I'm saying that it's IMPORTANT otherwise every news outlet wouldn't have spent so much time on covering this going back the last 3 years. Can you think of any social service cut or unmet need that has sustained that sort of attention without any effort?

Services rarely make government sexy or allow us to promote City Government as a positive brand. The Trail of Lights was an easy one. Until we took it away. And we just gave it away.

Tell me this- what goodwill has the city earned by being so judicious in saving those unnamed unmet needs by axing the Trail of Lights?

Sounds like the reality is that politics got in the way. I understand that. It would be a damaging mail piece.

But if people can't physically see some of the city goods and services the pay for, then it makes it that much harder for us to argue later that "no, really, let us tax you and we'll spend it on great stuff, we promise, the nerds used a matrix to prioritize unmet needs" to which they will respond "show me." And we can then point across the river at the lights (be they in trail or aerial form) and say, "Look."

This just takes away one of the things we can legitimately point at.

[ Parent ]
Do you honestly (0.00 / 0)
think a light show is on the same level as electricity or water in terms of city services?

You know what people see? Their lights turning on. Their water coming out of the tap. Their trash disappearing. Cops patrolling their streets. 911 working. Blue single-stream bins. Buses. Meals on Wheels.

Again, what would you cut from the current budget to pay for this? No namby-pamby "I wouldn't have May elections." We get it. I'd still put that money towards REAL unmet needs.

What would you cut from the ACTUAL budget to pay for this?

And don't try to change the subject to have some macro, 30,000-foot level discussion about taxes, because this is an imminent decision. This isn't theory; this is the practice of government. Either we let RunTex do it; we cut services to pay for it with tax dollars; or we don't have it.

And explain again how entertainment is more important than basic city services for the neediest Austinites? Because I'm unsure why Trail of Lights is more important than more intake counselors for rape victims at APD.  

I'm not a player, I just Tweet a lot: @KathTX

[ Parent ]
Here's a question (0.00 / 0)
Every budget that the Trail of Light was approved in had unmet needs (is there ever a year where there isn't?) Yet every city council approved the budget with hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Trail of Lights as the expense of intake counselors, cops, pipes, or what have you.

So what changed? At what point did Lee Leffingwell take up the cause of the unmet needs as Mayor yet voted for a budget placing the Trail of Lights funding above unmet needs as a City Council member?

Is it that we've refused to tax ourselves at a rate in line with our values? Maybe we should actually spend more time talking about that then. The city has been mired for so long in the 60-90 foot level discussion that maybe it needs to pull back to 30,000 feet and reassess what our values and priorities are as a city.

I have spent the better part of 2.5 years with over 40 other people on the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Task Force. Our explicit job was to plan at the 30,000 foot level and that was harder for some members than others. But I think that many of them would agree that Austin has chosen to bury its head in the ground in many instances as it faces major stresses on water, traffic, air quality, education, and growth.

And now it's all catching up to us.

You are right that people see Their lights turning on. Their water coming out of the tap. Their trash disappearing. Cops patrolling their streets. 911 working. Blue single-stream bins. Buses. Meals on Wheels.

You are 100% right. They see all of them. Government spending that you can see is so much easier to sell. That's why a number of smart cities have branded their services "The Works" in Cambridge for example. The concept of government visibly doing something (and the city advertising it from website to billing to the trucks themselves) is important. It has to sell itself. It cares about public opinion.

Are we doing that here? The (newly branded) Austin Resource Recovery is and is a model for other city departments. CapMetro is the most obvious counter-example as it spends half of every argument convincing people to take them seriously when it comes to transit planning.

Brands matter. Taxes matter. Values matter.

So I'm not going to give you three programs I would cut in place of the Trail of Lights (I can think of two, the third I forget) when I honestly believe it is a false choice. If we agree that we both like the Trail of Lights and meeting unmet needs, then either we are talking past one another or one of us cares more about lower taxes than the other. :)

I can see your point if it is about the "type" of event- that the Trail of Lights is just the wrong sort of public event that shouldn't be paid for with tax dollars. Or that the city shouldn't be in the business of organizing events. But I'm not sure that's the point you are making.

[ Parent ]
Plus it's not an imminent decision (0.00 / 0)
The decision has been made. Unilaterally by the Mayor it would appear though it's not like I expect anyone on council to say anything because they're probably glad they don't have to deal with it anymore.

But to say nothing as a major shift occurs in how the city approaches public event spending... well, someone should note that for posterity. Might as well be me.

If it's not something we should have a discussion about, then I must have missed the memo.  

[ Parent ]
Easy answer (2.00 / 1)
What would you cut from the ACTUAL budget to pay for this?

How about the city's payment to run the Red Line on weekends, since most of those riders aren't residents of the city (and the city will be paying roughly $20/rider on the hopes of getting back less than a buck in sales tax from them)?

[ Parent ]
Also (0.00 / 0)
Was 2009 the first time in its history that the ToL got cut? Had it during any prior budget crunches since 1965? I honestly don't know.

[ Parent ]
Privatization is Bad (3.00 / 1)
I am troubled by this. I oppose the privatization public services. Especially without public input or comment. There was a hole in the budget for libraries recently, should TPPF be allowed to take that over? The parks budget has been cut before. Let's get C3 Productions to run Zilker and Barton Springs. Public Safety and first responders are a big chunk of our city budget, let's get the Koch brothers to pay for that. The standard is set now and that is beyond troubling.

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