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TDH: 9/13/11

Cops, parks winners in budget adoption

By Wells Dunbar, 3:11PM, Tue. Sep. 13, 2011

Slam dunk: Funding for Dottie Jordan is preserved
Slam dunk: Funding for Dottie Jordan is preserved
Photo by Jana Birchum

If there was a theme to yesterday’s budget adoption, it was return on investment.

As Sheryl Cole said, “… I think we have been drawing the line in terms of what is a social service that is going to benefit the lower income [citizens] of our community … and at the same time also focusing on items that are going to be good returns on investment in the long term.”

The FY 2011-12 city budget was a belabored thing, due largely in part to the abolition of one-on-one and two-on-one council meetings prior to budget time. It lead to near literal horse-trading on the dais: when a motion for three new PARD employees was offered, first at three FTEs (full time employees) and a substitute motion for three was offered instead, Cole revised her original proposal down to two.

Funds for the add-backs came courtesy of a $1.6 million reserve, a surplus transfer from Austin Energy due to record demand the utility’s seen this summer. Following adoption of several housekeeping budget amendments from staff, the bulk of the meeting was dedicated to blowing through nearly 30 amendments from council, with budget staff keeping a running total of how much cash was left after each successful amendment.

As was thought heading in, parks and police were the day’s biggest winners: Add-backs were made to keep both the Dottie Jordan Recreation Center and Austin Recreation Center open as city-run facilities, instead of a public-private partnership or shuttering them altogether. And Bill Spelman’s call to spend smarter on policing gained limited traction: His plan to dip below the city’s 2 officers per 1,000 residents ratio – to 1.98/1000, or hiring 31 new cops instead of 47 – and spend the savings on crime statisticians and analysts drew the most heated discussion of the day and ultimately failed. Mayor Lee Leffingwell pushed back adamantly, invoking the specter of 9/11, the Central Texas wildfires, and his own experience as a fighter pilot to attack “folks sitting in the chair, behind the desk, and doing the analyzing” versus “those of us who were actually out there doing.”

Driving home his arguments, he emphasized “There has never been, in the history of aviation, a case of a chair and desk going down in a ball of flames.”

Spelman noted that (his grad-student style, 15-minute presentation on the costs of crime [PDF] notwithstanding), he had trained police officers for years, and that his calls were “'not based on theory, not some academic chewing on a pipe and looking out the window.” However, Spelman’s call to increase substance abuse treatment funding – bundled with an additional position for the city’s nascent Music Department – and a study of police patrol effectiveness, were both adopted.

Water-wise, the utility’s embattled “sustainability fee” was re-christened a “revenue sustainability fee;” it was also scaled back from an initial $6 a month to $4.40, while the utility’s rates will see a the initially-planned system-wide increase. Also, council approved increases for Austin Energy, although the utility is still winding down its’ rate case study, with rates to be announced next year.

The overall property tax rate came in at 48.11 cents per $100 valuation, an increase below the maximum hike allowable without a special election of 48.32 cents. Repeatedly citing the need for a lower tax rate, Leffingwell was the sole holdout on several 6-1 votes. “There’s a method to my madness,” he said in the meeting. “I’m not gonna support a tax rate beyond what’s proposed.” When the meeting concluded, his office issued a press release stating “I am proud to say our property tax rate will stay below the rollback rate; this has been a personal goal of mine. While property tax is going up, the increase is being kept to a minimum and is well below the increase allowed under state law.”

Between his fiscal and public safety hawkishness, it’s tough not to see a political component to Leffingwell’s actions, especially heading into an election season where even Election Day itself is uncertain.

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