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Point Austin: Spending the 'Surplus'

If there's money left over, you're doing something wrong

By Michael King, Fri., March 21, 2014

Call it the David Escamilla Memorial Work Session.

Tuesday's City Council working meeting, in which council members normally review the upcoming Thursday agenda, might as well have been stamped with the logo of the County Attorney Reality Show, since it bore all the marks of a conversation among people who aren't allowed (thanks to Escamilla's 2012 "open meetings" settlement agreement) to speak to each other unless cameras are rolling. It was a somewhat unusual work session, in that there were four items posted for possible action – three involving proposed "mid-year budget adjustments," and another drafting a policy that would establish standards for such adjustments.

Things started off on the wrong foot when Mayor Lee Leffingwell – who had been out of town for the previous work session that posted these items for action – began by saying he was opposed to such an unusual procedure because of diminished public "transparency," and to raising interim spending items at all outside of the larger 2014-15 budget discussion, still a few months away. Jumping over the policy discussion – nominally first on the agenda – the conversation abruptly leapt forward to Council Member Kathie Tovo's proposal to fund the expansion of the kitchen at the recently opened Asian American Resource Center, with Leffingwell reiterating his objections to isolated, out-of-season expenditures and Tovo stoutly defending the proposal as necessary, equitable, and promised for community outreach – oh, and by the way, to be funded not with General Fund money or the alleged $14.2 million "surplus," but (thanks to staff resourcefulness) with already voter-approved bonds dedicated to parks facilities (e.g, the AARC).

Along with the visible tension between Leffingwell and Tovo, apparent on the dais for some months, there was considerable back-and-forth among both council members and staff over just how to handle unanticipated expense issues that arise midyear, after the official budget has been settled. Staffers, especially City Man­ager Marc Ott, echoed the mayor in arguing that upcoming spring budget "forecasts" will be just that, and Council shouldn't necessarily presume that one good economic year (with higher revenues) will be followed by another. Council members, especially soon-to-declare-for-mayor Mike Martinez, responded that spending the "surplus" last summer (primarily on affordable housing projects) did not cause the budgetary sky to fall, and that, in fact, Council had been able to slightly reduce the property tax rate.

Spend to the Need

So the argument was much less about the specific expenditures – an overdue lakeshore land-planning project, a technology partnership, and the AARC kitchen – which everybody in fact mostly supports, but about the advisability of dipping into unallocated revenues, or holding them in reserve for potential "property tax relief" (on a $14.2 million scale, roughly 1% of the GF budget, barely a taxpayer lagniappe), and about the institutional tug-of-war between Council and staff over who is really in charge of the overall budget. (Those who recall the yes-or-no approach to budgeting of the previous city manager, Toby Futrell, likely consider Ott a relative cream puff on the subject.)

In the end, after much preliminary huffing and puffing – and a 4-3 vote to reject (temporarily) the AARC commercial kitchen – a calm steadily descended over the group. They concurred, unanimously, to delay action on all the spending items until they'd had more time to consider the proposed policy standards – basically an attempt to decide what constitutes an interim necessity or emergency. And they opened yet another "spending" discussion: whether it makes better sense to raise the property tax exemption for all elderly or disabled homeowners (at best a nominal annual kickback), or rather consider spending to be targeted at the most needy within those groups (less universal, but more bang for the buck).

Ten for Seven

My best guess is that the entire meeting would have been more productive – or largely unnecessary – if Council were not procedurally handcuffed by the county attorney's rigid interpretation of state open-meetings law, virtuously intended to prevent "corruption" but also effectively banning any effective interaction among these elected public representatives outside duly posted public meetings. Despite all the cant about secrecy and private cabals and the like, the Legislature (as it does with many things) imposed a policy on municipal officials that it would never accept for itself – in part because pols do occasionally prefer secrecy, but also because good public policy requires constant information, brainstorming, interaction, conversation, and yes, compromise, not all of which is necessarily purified by sunlight.

The work session might also have been the moment when Leffingwell became a lame duck mayor, if only because his impatience at dilatoriness has become increasingly obvious and because the political ripples in the room – with Martinez, Tovo, and Riley anticipating their next campaigns – now reverberate without him. On spending votes, he's often a solitary minority, occasionally allied with Mayor Pro Tem (and CPA) Sheryl Cole and at other times with CM (and stat-cruncher) Bill Spelman – although never on public safety, where the big money is and where Spelman remains the solitary, hapless spear-carrier.

In a few months, we'll find out if 10 people can do what seven haven't yet managed: controlling costs, constraining the budget, cutting taxes – while also increasing public services and restoring Austin's ever-retreating "affordability." There's a long list of folks who believe it's simply a matter of throwing the bums out, rolling up their sleeves, and ridding City Hall of "waste and fraud" – all with the usual suspects appearing regularly to tell them what a lousy job they're doing. I wish them good luck.

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