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Council: Have We Got Deals for You!

CMs postpone discussion on budget 'surplus'

By Michael King, Fri., March 21, 2014

After a rather testy work session Tuesday finally resolved into a consensus kumbaya, City Council decided to postpone all decisions on spending any of the current $14.2 million "surplus" (i.e., city revenues above the staff's 2014 budget estimates), at least until they know a bit more about next fiscal year 2015 budget projections (sometime in April) and can receive more public input. The disagreements were less about the specific spending items under consideration than how best to consider such spending, based on policy considerations – indeed, one of the proposals under discussion was Council Member Chris Riley's draft of a policy defining "emergency" or necessary expenditures out of formal budget season. We'll be hearing more of this, along with further consideration of the spending proposals – and specifically where the money should come from. (See also "Point Austin".)

But come on down – Thursday's shopping list includes plenty of fire sales for either spenders or savers. The biggest ticket is Item 2, Austin Energy's proposed $525 million, 25-year solar energy contract ($21 million/year), at a unit price described as competitive with natural gas, and a big step (150 megawatts) toward the city's 2020 goal of 200 MW of solar. It's listed on consent, but expect rhetorical obeisance to the virtues of sun power, breakthrough pricing, etc.

A sort of reverse spending, Item 6 is a proposal to raise the $51,000 property tax exemption for elderly and disabled homeowners (unchanged since 1986) to some yet-to-be-determined figure. Also listed on consent, this one was chewed on by Council in its last two work sessions, with Tuesday's discussion addressing whether more targeted funding of social services (e.g., Meals on Wheels) might better help the most needy homeowners, rather than an across-the-board, effectively small cash exemption granted to many who might not be in need. Look for this to be pulled from consent, batted about the room – and if it's acted upon, likely as a first reading only.

A less charitable purchase might be Items 29-31, the Grey Rock golf course and tennis facility in far Southwest, 292 acres on the block for $9.6 million. Staff projects the facility as a potential replacement for Lions Municipal, an enterprise (i.e., profit-generating) project, as well as staving off possible commercial/residential development on what are indirectly water protection lands. But anticipate at least a bit of "who needs a golf course?" debate.

Also on the agenda is the proposed reduction in occupancy limits, from six to four unrelated adults, in certain neighborhoods. It returns for second and third readings (Item 62). The public hearing is closed, but expect additional discussion (at least on the dais). Council member resolutions directing the city manager to investigate possibilities include: Item 47, to figure out ways to reduce false alarms (somewhere north of 90% of the total); Item 48, looking to initiate a "Housing First Permanent Supportive Housing" project; Item 51, to look into working with Travis County to create and fund a "sobriety center" (i.e., a fine-only drunk tank, suddenly a hot public policy item after the county judge campaign); and Item 53, a study of possible pay disparities at the city, including potential action to reduce non-job-related inequities in pay.

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