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Hitting the Budget Barbells

The annual city budget workouts begin, and you're all invited

By Wells Dunbar, Fri., June 25, 2010

Hitting the Budget Barbells

The city budget returns, and with it, all the perennial questions accompanying the annual ritual.

The process this year – for fiscal year 2011, beginning Oct. 1 – is predicated on the work City Manager Marc Ott did last year. At that time he outlined some $45 million in departmental cuts to the General Fund, the pot of money that pays directly for city services: public safety (Police, Fire, and EMS), Parks and Recreation, Health and Human Services, Planning and Development Review, Austin Public Library services, and more. About $28 million of reduction proposals were implemented last year, largely through cutting unfilled city positions (which, while resulting in no layoffs, increased the workload for current city employees).

Hitting the Budget Barbells

Now, of the remaining $16.7 million of last year's proposals, Ott has brought forward for a second look $9.3 million worth of proposed cuts. However, with a budget gap estimated between $11 million and $28 million (depending on the property tax rate council decides to set) and the Travis Central Appraisal District's assessment of the tax rolls, Ott has freely acknowledged that even if all cuts are adopted, it may not be enough to close the gap. As he wrote to City Council when first announcing the cuts, "the savings identified through this process are not anticipated to be sufficient to fully close the projected budget shortfall."

But while Ott implored city departments to scrub their budgets, line by line, he also asked them simultaneously to identify what he's called "unmet service demands" – a wish list of proposals the departments, affected by several lean budget years, have brought forward as "unmet needs" for public consideration.

While it's undeniable that departments are hurting across the board, Ott's "giveth with one hand, taketh with another" approach adds additional pressure to an already difficult situation. Basically, the city manager is asking the citizens to choose their priorities – a call he made back in April, at the financial forecast reading that began our budget cycle, indicating that it may be necessary to scrap or shrink existing city programs to meet new demands. However, Ott and the city have already set some priorities: The city's "expenditure assumptions" for the next fiscal year include 3% salary increases for public safety employees and a 2.5% increase for civilian employees.

Hitting the Budget Barbells

Now, yours truly has seen enough budget cycles to recognize the kabuki theatre involved: the initial announcement of a frighteningly large gap, the high end of which is predicated on an absurdly low tax rate council would never accept, and the dramatic last-minute closure of the gap by a rosier assessment from TCAD. And other observers have raised persistent concerns about the city's public input process: namely, that it's essentially political cover for tough choices the council wouldn't want to make on its own ("I wasn't happy about ending those Parks programs, but the voters said they didn't have a problem with it"). Also, the results invariably emerge from an entirely self-selected class of council watchers, the usual suspects that show up at every budget forum.

All this said, while the online voting page the city has assembled doesn't seem immune from ballot stuffing, the section allowing for citizens to submit their own budget-cutting suggestions has some valuable ideas amid the ideological and unrealistic dross: salary caps on well-compensated employees, fair ways to generate additional revenue, and more (see "What the People Say," below).

A criticism that grows louder each year is that the city only seeks input on the General Fund – a not inconsiderable amount at some $615 million, but only a fraction of the $2.75 billion overall city budget, which also includes the "enterprise departments" of Aus­tin Energy, Austin Water, ABIA, the Convention Center, et al. The debate's been thrown into greater relief lately due to the faltering performance of the city's utilities – AE and AW, massive and formerly reliable contributors to the General Fund via "fund transfers" (about 20% of General Fund income), are now struggling to reconcile their twin missions of financial stability and conservation.

The heavy lifting's about to get started, as city staff crunches the numbers during council's July hiatus before Ott presents his proposed budget to council. That's July 28, after which it's kicked around for another month before the variously adjusted measure's final, September approval. The budget's a topic we'll certainly return to in greater detail over the summer – we present the following material as a primer to the process both to let you know what's at stake and to get involved, if you should be so moved. E-mail a council member. Speak out this summer. Leave your own budget-balancing counsel on the city's website.

Just don't pin all your hopes (as did one poster) on pot decriminalization and taxation – for that munificence, you'll have to lobby the Lege and the Feds. Good luck with that.

Budget Time Line: Major Dates

July 28: Proposed budget presented to City Council

Aug. 4, 18, 25: Council budget work sessions and public hearings

Sept. 13-15: Budget approval readings by City Council

What the People Say: Suggestions Good, Bad, Ugly

Aside from seeking input on their own proposed budget cuts, this year city managers have enabled Austinites to post their own suggestions online. There's a relatively low signal-to-noise ratio, but some potentially valuable ideas have surfaced. For your consideration, we offer the Citizens' Budget Cuts, along with the number of votes each cut had gotten in the city's online matrix, as recorded Monday:

The Good

"Extend parking meter hours to evenings and weekends."

Votes: 46

Note: This proposal urges extending payment hours from 5pm to 7pm, and implementing those hours on Saturday as well.

"Quit buying Aerial Photography when it's free and far more current from Google."

Votes: 21

Note: While we're sure the almighty Google Maps can't do everything the city requires, it's a good idea to check out this possibility – and other resources that search and social media tech can offer the city.

"Increase the Local Gasoline Tax"

Votes: 128

Note: Such a measure would put Austin's money where its mouth is when it comes to environmental policy – and some of the revenues could be used to offset projects like urban rail. Unfortunately, it first requires a change in state law, and thus far the Lege has adamantly refused to allow it.

"Reduce marijuana related arrests"

Votes: 359

Note: While the city can't directly decriminalize weed, it can make it less of an enforcement priority under "cite-and-release" and focus more on crimes that matter.

The Bad

"There should be no cost of living raises [for city employees]"

Votes: 14

"Layoff some public employees."

Votes: 4

Note: Several slashing recommendations like the above seem grounded in spite, ignoring already-foregone raises and the added work employees assumed when vacant positions were cut last year, and would position the city poorly when the economy rebounds.

"Decriminalize drug possession and tax it to generate revenue"

Votes: 59

Note: While Chronicle reporters are reflexively sympathetic to this argument, the chance of it happening under current Texas regimes is an absolute zero, and the city has no authority to do so in any case. More effective enforcement, as proposed in "The Good," is more realistic.

The Ugly

"ENGLISH ONLY SIGNS, DOCUMENTS, ETC."

Votes: 1

"Close the day labor site for illegal aliens looking for work."

Votes: 173

Note: The time-honored tradition of blaming someone else for your own problems is alive and well in Austin. Moreover, undocumented workers contribute to the state economy far in excess of their burden on public services; from a strictly fiscal perspective, it might make better sense to recruit more of them.*

*Correction: the story originally read, "undocumented workers in general pay more in sales and property taxes (primarily through rent) than they receive in services".
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