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Council Passes Budget – Minus Mayor's Vote

A $3.1 billion financial package took two days of wrangling

By Amy Smith, Fri., Sept. 14, 2012

Mayor Lee Leffingwell
Mayor Lee Leffingwell
Photo by John Anderson

Nobody said it would be easy, but the City Council on Tuesday adopted a 2012-2013 budget after two days of discussions marked by moments of spontaneity, confusion, and unusual plays.

It'll take some time to sort through the particulars, given the number of amendments put forth by council members, but the major takeaway Tuesday was Mayor Lee Leffing­well's symbolic vote against the $3.1 billion budget, a rare turn for the mayor of a city of Austin's size and stature. "I'm not going to let this be a unanimous vote," he said. Perhaps in a move to position himself as a fiscal conservative in the face of rising utility fees, cost overruns on Water Treatment Plant No. 4, and the Novem­ber bond election that he supports (not to mention a proposed medical school), the mayor set the tone for the budget discussions Monday by shocking his colleagues with an eleventh-hour proposal to lop $4.5 million off the budget.

Before they voted down his idea 6-1, Lef­fingwell argued for an across-the-board 2% cut to several departments – including municipal court, planning and development review, health and human services, parks and recreation, and libraries. "You'll note that I've excluded all public safety departments," he said, after reading from a list of targeted departments. And indeed, public safety makes up almost two-thirds of the budget.

Now is not the time for a "huge" tax hike, Leffingwell said of the newly approved 50.29 cents per $100 of property valuation, up from the existing 48.11 cents. While he had cast a significant number of "no" votes leading up to the final action, he did support additional funding to create a wildfire mitigation division. Most of his negative votes were for funding items related to health and human services and other quality-of-life issues.

Council members have been bound since last year by a very limited ability to communicate with one another in private (a result of a 2011 open meetings scandal and an ongoing investigation), but this year's budget process seemed even more challenging; members struggled to gauge how the vote would go as they sought to restore or add funding to programs close to their hearts. This week was also Bill Spelman's first time back on the dais since a surgery that had put the seasoned budget hand out of commission for a few weeks.

When it came time for the final vote, Mayor Lef­fingwell chided his colleagues for not taking a sharper knife to the budget as he had proposed. Several council members took offense, saying that while they agreed that departmental reductions merited more discussion in the long run, it was irrational to undo the budget at the last minute, especially considering the hours that had gone into putting it together.

Council Member Mike Martinez said he didn't appreciate "the portrayal that the rest of us ... just out and out rejected your proposal." Council Member Laura Morrison later pointed out that the mayor "offered no concrete solutions during this week's budget meetings, much less over the past four months, to back up his proposal to decrease the budget."

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole noted that the city is a better place because of the budget dollars it spends on programs Leffingwell wanted to cut – programs that help land Austin on a number of "best" lists, which the mayor boasts about in speeches. "We can't have it both ways," she said.

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