AUSTIN, Texas — If Kirk Watson becomes Austin’s 53rd mayor, there will be a sense of déjà vu in the city.
Watson previously served as the city’s 48th mayor in the late '90s and he says that experience and legacy is one of the reasons he decided to run again all these years later.
“I believe the city right now is on the wrong track, whether it’s housing, or affordability, or traffic,” Watson said on Inside Texas Politics. “Whether it’s crime or a variety of other things, we’re not addressing things the way we need to address them.”
There are many pressing issues facing Austin’s next mayor.
And for Watson, the city’s housing crisis is near the top.
Depending on who is providing the estimate, the average home price in Austin ranges from $550,000 to $625,000.
And the fees the city charges to build new homes are much higher than in other major cities. That cost, to hook up to the city’s water/sewer systems for instance, is passed on to the folks living there. And the expense also acts a deterrent to developers and would-be residents.
Watson says he wants the city to reduce some of those fees by at least 50%. And he wants a complete sunset commission review of the city’s Development Services Department, which ensures compliance with city codes and oversees many of the fees.
“If we want to have more housing on the ground, more affordable housing on the ground, why are we stepping over our own feet by adding to the expense of that?” he asked on Inside Texas Politics.
The next mayor of Austin will also have to address a dramatically understaffed police department. This has led to longer response times and even 911 operators hanging up on callers.
The City Council cut the Austin PD’s budget by a third a couple of years ago and Watson says that’s put the city in an untenable position.
“It was a mistake to put us in a situation where we’re now actually, with attrition, seeing a decline even as we have cadet classes,” he said. “You can’t put a city in a position where the police force is so badly understaffed that people are hanging up on 911. We’re behind what we ought to be in terms of answering calls on patrol. And so, we’ve got to get fully staffed.”
Watson says he would focus on three key areas to improve the department: signing a contract with the police union, putting more money into retaining existing officers and increasing the number of cadet classes.
Watson previously served as mayor of Austin from 1997 until 2001. In 2002, he ran for Texas Attorney General, but lost to Greg Abbott.
He also spent 13 years in the Texas Senate from 2007 to 2020. He retired to become the first dean of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. Watson announced his return to politics by entering the Austin Mayor’s race in February of this year.
Watson faces Celia Israel in the runoff election. Early voting runs through Friday, Dec. 9. Election Day is Tuesday, Dec. 13.