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Council: Still a Road Show

Council is deep in budget deliberations

By Michael King, Fri., Aug. 22, 2014

Judging from the number of folks lining up to take their places, you might think the current City Council members have comfortable sinecures, with little to do but ribbon-cutting over piña coladas. But while there's no regular Council meeting today (Aug. 21), they've been deep in detailed budget deliberations all week – department head after department head presenting their final budget requests – and tweaking the numbers in part to meet Council's "affordability goal" of no increases above 2%. (Depending on how you calculate it, even Austin Energy made the cut.)

The big decision at Monday's work session was to set the "maximum" property tax rate – that is, drawing the top line before setting the actual rate after public hearings. The current rate is 50.27 cents per $100 assessed value; Council voted unanimously to accept as the maximum City Manager Marc Ott and the budget staff's proposed 48.09 cents. That 2.2-cent rate cut (if sustained through the final budget) – because of Austin's rising property values – would raise additional revenue and cost the average homeowner (i.e., a $196,000 home) about $1.19 more a month.

The work session followed two Special Called meetings last week; the first (Aug. 14) postponed a decision on a shift in AE's reserve funds – passing only 4-3, as the CMs were divided on whether they should follow existing policy (Bill Spelman, Lee Leffing­well, Chris Riley) or wait to confirm or adjust it until after formal budget season (Sheryl Cole, Mike Martinez, Laura Morri­son, Kathie Tovo). That meeting also tweaked the transportation bond language to re-confirm Council's intent that the $600 million in rail funding would be "covenanted" with a commitment of $400 million in road funding – an adjustment forced first by a dubious Attorney General opinion that "roads" and "rail" must be balloted separately – even for a multimodal transportation system – and consequently by the city's attorneys saying the ballot language, now officially confined to rail with road benefits, needed tightening. (The change is unlikely to make the ballot any easier to sell to voters.)

Friday's Special Called meeting returned to the Onion Creek buyout problem, and Council voted (with the mayor absent, and Cole dissenting) not to put the question to a public bond vote, on grounds that the floodplain is a public safety issue that the city must address directly, not a referendum matter. Where the additional money will come from remains an open question, as a previously proposed bump in the drainage fee has been called into doubt by a recent court ruling questioning the current structure of the fees – another problem still to be resolved.

Next week's still preliminary Council agenda promises plenty more work, including no less than 20 resolutions proposed by the members, including: a "coyote conflict management strategy"; a "comprehensive urban forest management plan"; a proposal to find a way to "allow swimming in the Barton Creek spillway"; and explorations of global warming, income disparity, transportation network companies, a minimum homestead exemption, and even "street performers and buskers."

All that and a brace of proclamations at the Travis County Commissioners Court – but alas, no live music until the wanderers return home, to a remodeled Council meeting room.

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