Giving City Hall the (Small) Business
Small Business Group raises some serious concerns about the city's finacial forecast – in between all the hand-wringing.
By Wells Dunbar,
10:43AM, Wed. May 9, 2007
It's just too easy to poke fun at the Small Business Group. The pseudo-libertarians inveigh against needless government spending on things everyone can get use out of – "parks, libraries, puppies, and sunshine" – but demand more money be spent fighting graffiti and panhandling – not exactly what I'd call urgent priorities in the Austin of 2007.
So while we'll obviously take it with a boulder of salt, this message from the SBG on the city's dire financial forecast is interesting reading. It identifies and anticipates the shopworn clichés – “structural imbalance,” “tough choices,” and “strategic enhancements" – the city will trot out when framing the 2008 budget and raises some good questions about the city's foreknowledge of the "cost drivers" being blamed for the shortfall. It's not like these things appeared overnight:
At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, we cannot avoid the temptation to say “WE TOLD YOU SO!” in response to a recent article in the Austin American Statesman. If you carefully read between the lines with one eye, and keep your other eye trained on the shoe that’s about to drop, it appears that the City Council and City Management are setting the stage for one of those budgets where they trot out old phrases like “structural imbalance,” “tough choices,” and “strategic enhancements.” This is all management jargon for: “we have no money again and basic services are about to suffer.”
In order to jog your memory, attached is our opinion editorial last summer that called on the Austin City Council to exercise restraint before saddling homeowners with more taxes by taking on a huge bond package of special-interest projects at the expense of basic services. They criticized us for being against parks, libraries, puppies, and sunshine. We were assured that our criticism was grossly misguided, and not only could we afford these projects but the city was going to make “strategic reinvestments” in basic services such as graffiti abatement, public safety, and other core services. What a difference a few months make!
It is important to recognize that nothing revealed in this article is new. In fact, we challenge you to review the budget discussions from the last 4 cycles and you’ll hear the same story. The City Council knew last year that these “cost drivers” were growing exponentially. The City Council knew that we would be increasingly pressed to meet payroll demands for public safety contracts and other core services. Yet, they cavalierly placed a half-billion dollar bond package on the ballot, resulting in another property tax increase, without providing an honest assessment of the fiscal storm on the horizon—one that will ostensibly require either more budget cuts or tax increases. The threat was as obvious then as it is now, and their subsequent actions represent the height of fiscal irresponsibility.
What is perhaps most interesting is the subplot to all of this. You will recall that over the last few years the City Council has approved tens of millions of dollars in tax abatements and incentives for businesses to relocate or stay in Austin. We were told that these public investments would bring jobs, increase the tax base, inject funding into the city for desperately needed services, and relieve the burden on local taxpayers. Whether by design or luck, our local economy has indeed boomed. We have historically low unemployment, a $33 million jump in our tax base over last year, a revitalized Downtown, and increasing homeownership. Yet now, city management appears to be blaming this very same growth and prosperity as the CAUSE of our budget problems. This managerial double-speak is not unlike the City’s Water Utility blaming bursting waterlines in the summer on drought conditions and then blaming bursting lines in the spring on too much rain. You wonder how they can declare these findings with a straight face.
It only takes a moment to see what challenges we face as a city. Our graffiti problem is no better today than a year ago. Stories are rampant about police staffing shortages and lack of money to pay for overtime to cover those shortages. Our neighborhood roads and key intersections around the city are disintegrating and traffic is an utter disaster. The city does nothing to stem aggressive panhandling and vagrancy. Drugs and vicious gang activity are on the rise. And major city departments are under criminal investigation for financial mismanagement.
As we face down this budget shortfall, don't be surprised if we're told that to have more police protection we'll have to close libraries. Don’t be surprised if we’re told that to have well maintained roads we’ll have give up maintenance on parks. Most importantly, do not be surprised if we’re told that to sustain any of this, the city will have to raise our taxes. We will not be fooled by these false choices anymore.
At what point do we demand accountability and leadership from our City Council? Is it time we reject the brochure-like spin developed by public relations professionals for city management in their attempt to make excuses for our fiscal problems at the same time they make decisions that compound the problem? Do we finally refuse the special-interest laden budget that’s produced every year and demand that the core basic services of public safety, neighborhood libraries, neighborhood parks, and transportation be fully funded BEFORE special-interest projects and programs? And, BEFORE they price hardworking families out of Austin with tax hikes compounded upon run away appraisal increases?
We think it’s time. The Small Business Group intends to take action and we need your help. Please take a moment to complete the attached survey to prioritize the services you’d like to see more of next year and send by reply email. This is your chance to tell our city leadership enough is enough. We’ll compile these responses and share with the City Council as they enter budget deliberations.
Thank you for your attention — without it you may find that the Austin of your immediate future will look and feel much different than the Austin of your past.
Small Business Group