I’m sunburned and tired and it’s 10 PM on my Sunday (my Monday is Wednesday) and I have so few words and yet ALL OF THE WORDS for the things I have witnessed and participated in over the past 72 hours or so.

Sunday morning found me up and about at a relatively early hour. My goal was to find somewhere to hike between my house and the T. Don Hutto Residential Center. I found Walter E. Long Metropolitan park, paid the $10 entrance fee, and found a picnic table under a tree to enjoy my breakfast.

I’m usually fine with paying entrance fees for parks, because my unconfirmed hope is that the money is being used for preservation and/or providing employment. I’m not so sure what I was paying for with this park. It appears that the main draw for the park was fishing, but in general, there was a lot of trash in the park, the roads weren’t kept up, and there were no walking trails that I could see…at least not initially.

Undaunted, I decided to walk the length of the allotted shoreline & I managed to find some nice things to look at, as well as friendly people enjoying the day. Mostly fishing. Some playing in the water.

When I reached the end of the shore, there was an area that was chained off, but there were no “No Trespassing” signs, so I manouvered around the chain and walked a ways towards the dam, then back down a path that led to another, wider path. It wasn’t so much of a trail as a grassy road, but I intended to get my $10 worth of walking, so I persisted…

I saw some pretty wildflowers…and then I spied a little alcove, and beyond it was a little lake, surrounded by wildflowers, weeds, and trees.

And I sat down to write in my journal:

Tiny little oasis at Walter Long Metropolitan Park. Listening to birdsong & enjoying solitude after another week of overtime. I’m sweating, but it’s delightful to be here among the wildflowers. And the leaves and branches on the trees leave shimmering, swimming shadows on the page & a tiny bird lights on a tree, regards me with avian curiosity – head cocked, feathers ruffled, tail twitch…hop…hop…then flutters off, peeping the story of me to those too intimidated to venture nearer.

I imagine they are speaking to me. Or trying to. My mono-species-lingual ears are not responsive. But they are encouraged by my relative quietude & continue trying to get through – progressively louder & with increasingly more enthusiastic accompaniment.

And then the frogs start in with their clicking. And I should probably think about moving on, but I’m in love with this moment & in love with the solitude. So I hesitate. Linger. Drink until my eyes, my ears, & my nose are sated.

And then I progressed. Got up and made my way back to the car. I heard crows caw, which I don’t usually hear in town…and I saw a HUGE hawk flying overhead, and I decided it was worth my $10 to be there for those things. For all of the things. Though when I return it will be on a weekday so I won’t have to pay quite so much.

I had no idea what to expect at Hutto. I had received an invitation from a friend to join a concert outside of the Hutto Detention Center, and I’d heard of these events before – where people gather to provide audible support and solidarity to those who are housed inside, awaiting release or deportation or asylum. On the ride up, I was thinking about how birds fly back and forth over borders without any concern. And how we are all, really, just intruders on this land. How I just paid $10 to go to a park, where a good many of the people there were likely fishing for food – so that $10 is definitely a relative cost.

I arrived late. The last band, Sonoita, was freaking AMAZING. I was grinning so huge listening to their radical punk lyrics and music…and the simple beauty of the whole idea of putting musicians, poets, and speaker right outside the detention center – with the sounds echoing loudly against the walls so there was no doubt those inside could hear…it was amazing. Whole hearted. Wonderful. And even though I was only there for 20 minutes or so, it was well worth the trip. Next time (and there will be a next time sometime in October) I will plan better and get there early to help set up. And I will help promote it better, so more people can be there to witness this perfect little act of resistance. Because sound also travels over borders and fences…just like birds.

I came home feeling full of thoughts and ideas and inspiration…and crashed in bed, exhausted.

Monday was spent running errands in preparation for summer semester for Buddha the Grouch. So I got to spend the morning in the car with his holy grouchness. I had been in a running discussion with my nephew about increasing the minimum wage and why we should indeed provide food and shelter and medical assistance to those who are living in poverty. Buddha the Grouch is a great foil for these conversations, because we DON’T always agree, and he’s a good litmus test for me to tell how far out on the political spectrum I’m being. So I asked him “Why do we provide food stamps and housing vouchers for poor people?”

He responded: Uh…because it’s disadvantageous to our government for people to be dying in the street.

I countered: But what if there are some people take advantage of the system and are just lazy?

He responded: That’s not statistically significant, and it’s not worth making some people go hungry just to punish those few people who are taking advantage

*phew*

That night, I went to an Austin CAN Community Council forum on Disabilities, where a panel of experts explained the challenges people with disabilities face in our community.

With all due respect to the people on the panel I left the meeting feeling frustrated. First, we were pretty much outright told by the representative from Goodwill that there are no local issues that impact people with disabilities, and we should focus our attention on national issues. Which is all well and good, but I’m sure there are some local things we can focus on, and I intend to inform the rest of the council once I figure out what they are.

The other thing that’s always frustrating when dealing with the non-profit industrial complex is…I just don’t think we’re getting all of the information. Granted, disabilities are not always visually evident, but I just didn’t get the sense that everyone on the panel was personally affected by the issues they were discussing. Not that you have to be in a certain demographic to advocate for the needs of that demographic, but in general I feel the social services crowd tends to invest a lot of time and money in developing people within their organizations to speak on behalf of the populations they serve, without taking the time to develop people in the communities they serve to do the same. Obviously, there are exceptions. But sometimes participating in these forums is like going to a badly-organized “community event to determine the needs of the community” where the only people present are those providing services to the community…which makes no sense to me, though I do understand the challenges in engaging people and encouraging participation.

Today, I woke up early and wrote letters…

And visited with some friends who are exploring an idea for a non-profit. I feel like I’m very blessed with people in my life who get excited about doing good things for others, and I’m especially happy when I can provide useful information and insight to help them help others. 🙂

I brought the Tao of Bird to his therapy appointment, where he spent yet another hour stonewalling his therapist and me, while we did our best to keep conversation going in order to make the environment more conducive to problem-solving. But that bird is a stubborn one! And so smart! And on to any tricks that would maybe encourage him to share his fears and possibly devise strategies for overcoming them.

And then I attended a forum on property taxes in Austin. I was blown away by the rage in the room. I mean, this crowd was one step away from pitchforks and torches. And for good reason. Did you know 90% of commercial building owners protest their property taxes annually, resulting in tax rates that are based on 60% of the value of the property? Meanwhile, I’m here in my home that’s falling apart because I’m spending all of the money I should be spending repairing it paying for the right to live here in the neighborhood I have lived in for 17 years…and the value of my home increases by 10% every year, in spite of the actual value of my home.

We were explained the weird formula they use to figure property taxes, and were told that, essentially, the tax assessor’s office can’t use actual home sales as a guide, since we’re a non-disclosure state. So, basically, we all get issued our ridiculous tax bills, and corporate entities spend a portion of the money they WOULD have spent on taxes paying lawyers to argue they’re property has been improperly valued until the tax assessor’s office has to cry uncle due to lack of resources for litigation and just settle.

Meanwhile, homeowners (and, likely, renters) are left bearing the burden of taxes. And this isn’t even addressing the tax breaks and incentives we give to businesses to move here. It’s freaking ridiculous. Here are some of my favorite quotes & notes of the evening:

-Large businesses employ lawyers to take advantage of the property tax appeals system. The appeals system can’t afford to litigate everyone, so they settle. Large businesses end up paying taxes on only 60% of the actual value of the property.

-The average home sale in my neighborhood is currently $347k

-The greatest increase in home value was in the downtown core, and East Austin <—

-The suggestion was made to advocate on a local/city level for a flat homestead exemption from the City of Austin

-Evidence that will help when filing a protest includes: Sales information, independent/certified appraisal, interior inspection, costs of repairs for large things like deadly mold and cracked slabs. (not sure if protesting will actually help me)

-Oh yay! Voting fixes EVERYTHING!

-Talk to taxing jurisdiction about services

-F1 is currently in litigation for property taxes

-Businesses filing appeals don’t have to show proof of revenue generation

-STATE INCOME TAX!!! (one of the audience members suggested this and everyone clapped…the presenter said that comment would have gotten him escorted out of the room in Houston)

-90% of county services are paid by property tax

-Robin Hood education taxes send 30% of Austin’s property taxes back to needier districts.

-Austin American Statesman has had 3 articles in the last few months about the commercial property tax loopholes.

-Research “Local Infrastructure Fee”

-Suggestions for improvement include: Close loopholes, end tax exemptions for commercial property, or sunset after 10 years.

-The City of Austin issued a senior citizen exemption & we should have fought for a homestead exemption.

-A suggestion that we end tax giveaways and subsidies for corporations garnered ROBUST applause

-Someone whose land value has TRIPLED in the last 6 years asked how land is being appraised and whether we aren’t just footing the bill for speculative development. (at no time during this forum was the possibility that this is all an issue of speculative development explicitly refuted)

-BANKS get 3% when you pay for your taxes online by credit card, get x% on interest when you have to take out a loan to pay the escrow increase, get $$$$$ when they foreclose on a home for failure to pay taxes.

-KEEPING APPRAISED VALUES STATIC ENCOURAGES PEOPLE TO STAY IN THEIR HOMES AND NEIGHBORHOODS, RATHER THAN ENCOURAGING TRANSIENCE

-Voting is not enough – stop telling us to vote when those we vot for sell out to special interests.

-A lot of state, city, county properties are not on the tax rolls.

-NOT ALL HOMEOWNERS ARE EQUAL

-Organize the State now in preparation for the 2015 legislature

-Homeowners/Commercial buildings used to have a 42/20 percent split of the tax burden, now it’s more like 52/less than 20

-One guy said he measured his home with laser measuring devices, and that he discovered the square footage is rounded up. 300 additional squre feet resulted in $1200 more in property taxes.

-“Responsible people who bought responsibly are now being priced out of their homes.”

-Legislators have not gotten a lot of heat about this.

-F1 stats:

  • $250 million tax break
  • Annual tax protest reductions that have amounted to about $250 million again
  • $14 million electricity plant that the taxpayers are paying for
  • $13 million water plant that the taxpayers are paying for
  • $16 million new entrance that the taxpayers are paying for
  • WTF1?

-Hyatt

  • Sold for $87 million
  • Appraised at $37 million when it was time to set the taxes.
  • Because lawyers….?

-Appraisal district budgets are being cut, so they have even fewer resources to litigate.

-Someone asked “Can I change my home from residential to commercial?”

-Many of these businesses were provided tax incentives because they were going to “widen the tax base” but we’re seeing lower services, higher taxes, and more traffic

-UNCONTROLLED GROWTH

-CITIZENS VS. DEVELOPERS

-How is growth being paid for & who is paying for it?

-90% of all commercial property taxes are appealed

-26% of residential property taxes are appealed

-Commercial property owners are writing non-disclosure riders in contracts for buyers AND sellers – because Texas is a non-disclosure state, the tax appraiser can’t get that information unless it’s provided, so there’s no way to value property according to actual market demand.

-Someone asked if we could support an appeal by putting our houses on the market at the price they are appraised at and proving they won’t sell.

-Some of the questions about how to cap increases were met with an accusation that just “shifts the tax burden” – so one guy responded “If you’ve lived here 20-30 years, why SHOULDN’T you shift the tax burden to the person who moved here 3 weeks ago & paid $750 k in cash for their house?”

-CAP EDUCATION ADMINISTRATION

-Some people were talking about organizing several people to hire a lawyer to appeal

-One guy was all “If we could only go to the state house with badly spelled signs like the tea party…you have to make them FEAR you!” (I was thinking “Uh…where the fuck were you when we actually DID that, only with perfectly-spelled signs – FOR YEARS!”)

-Someone mentioned that the 10% cap on increases is the MAXIMUM, but the taxing entities COULD choose to lower the percentage.

-Another person asserted that developers are buying properties, razing the houses on them, and rebuilding duplexes and triplexes that are then sold to rental agencies who make a huge profit and don’t pay as much in property taxes – she seemed to be saying that there’s some sort of loophole that causes the tax rate on duplexes/triplexes to be lower, and that non owner-occupied houses are taxed at a LOWER rate than owner-occupied houses.

-Two good resources: Austinaffordability.com and Realvaluesfortexas.org

It was an AMAZING meeting. I’m looking forward to seeing where all of this goes. In the meantime, I’m going to file my protest, even though I don’t feel very encouraged that it will get anywhere…

***

Phew! That was a very full weekend.

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