The Austin Chronicle

http://www.austinchronicle.com/daily/news/2014-03-04/council-dream-a-little-dreamliner/

Council: Dream a Little Dreamliner

By Michael King, March 4, 2014, 5:04pm, Newsdesk

Thursday’s City Council agenda will be a little thinner than expected, with a couple of high-profile items kicked down the road -- and the dais also a little lighter than usual. Mayor Lee Leffingwell took the first flight back to London, on British Airways’ newly inaugurated Boeing 787 nonstop Dreamliner service.

Leffingwell spokesman Reyne Telles said Leffingwell is taking the opportunity to confirm the “sister city” relationship endorsed at last week’s meeting with the London Borough of Hackney, and perhaps to check in on a couple of potential economic development deals. It was news to most Council members at today’s (weather-delayed) work session, when CM Bill Spelman passed along the mayor’s request that they postpone Item 4 – a proposed potential increase in the $51,000 property tax exemption for those disabled or older than 65 – until the mayor could join the discussion.

The postponement to March 20 was unopposed (the mayor is scheduled to return Friday) but some Council eyebrows rose at staff’s potential budget projections for the long-term cost of boosting the exemption – so when the Item does return, it may earn a more extensive examination. From that point, with the mayor absent and the rest of the agenda fairly thin of controversy, the work session drifted into an intense discussion of overall budget planning.

The specific debate concerned “mid-year budget adjustments” – intermittent Council decisions to spend, or conserve, newly identified budget “surpluses” before the next round of formal budget planning. Last week, Leffingwell had balked at spending money to upgrade the kitchen at the new Asian American Resource Center; and it generated a debate (led by CM Mike Martinez) over whether it makes sense for Council to propose spending out of formal budget season – when they’re not quite certain yet how much money will be available for the new budget year.

The proposal passed, 6-1, but the debate resumed Tuesday, with Martinez and other members resisting the cautions by City Manager Marc Ott and Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo against “risky” Council budgetary adjustments using 2013-14 surpluses that might in fact not survive into the actual 2014-15 budget. Council members argued stoutly that (1) similar warnings last year proved finally unfulfilled, as Council managed to approve a budget that lowered the property tax rate, and (2) since Council doesn’t have a direct role in staff's initial budget preparation, its only way of acting in the interim on what it considers priority needs is in fact through “budget adjustments.”

Ott and Van Eenoo countered that their primary intention is to remind Council that city income (especially sales tax) is volatile and unpredictable, so they build cautionary cushions into budget projections. The matter was hardly settled – it reflects the ongoing and mostly healthy structural tension between the roles of the policy makers vs. the policy enactors – but the absence of a burning agenda debate enabled a work session discussion deeper and more philosophical than generally happens Tuesday mornings.

Other things to watch for Thursday, with Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole wielding the gavel: an initial, boilerplate resolution (sponsored by Cole, the mayor, and Spelman) endorsing the exploration of a potential Major League Soccer franchise for Austin; a public hearing on vested (i.e., grandfathered) development rights, still hotly debated; a public hearing on the Master Plan for Fiesta Beach/Fiesta Gardens (postponed from last week); and a proclamation honoring Narcolepsy Awareness Day (sorry, those jokes are much too easy).

For more on City Council, see Thursday's print edition.

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