The Daily Hustle: 7/28/10 (Updated)

Big budget balanced

The Daily Hustle: 7/28/10 (Updated)

“I'm smiling, because I'm really pleased to be able to say that to you this morning.”

– City Manager Marc Ott, announcing his proposed 2011 budget won't increase property taxes to the rollback rate (the highest increase without a special election), for the first time since 2006.

Thanks to stronger than expected sales tax income and a pronounced scrubbing, Marc Ott's proposed budget is balanced. And this year’s property tax increase is coming in below the rollback rate.

The improved sales tax revenues brought in some $10.7 million extra, enough to offset an anticipated $7.1 million loss from not setting property taxes at the rollback rate. From the current rate of 42.09 cents, property taxes are expected to rise to 45.71 cents, bringing the monthly tab for a median priced home from $65.90 to $70.27 a month.

Savings were also realized from a scrub of city departments, creating $8.7 million in reductions. Nearly 22 vacant positions were either eliminated or repurposed to meet other needs.

General fund revenues and expenses now balance at $650.2 million; the figure includes the addition of $3.9 million in unment service demands, voted on in an online poll. They mainly encompass public safety: 35 additional police officers over the 13 initially budgeted, bringing the total to 48; two new medical units; and accelerated conversion to four-person fire truck staffing. The adds also include two family advocates at the Center for Child Protection, funding for homeless services, two new branch library delivery units to address the rise in transfers, and more. (The library materials budget was also increased by $500,000).

Reductions, also voted on by members of the public, include the discontinuation of the Travis County Fire Training Academy and the LBJ Fire Academy, eliminating a family health unit supervisor and Hepatitis C nurse position (positions Eenoo characterized as having already been absorbed by existing staff); and eliminating approximately $70,000 in unallocated funding in the city's HIV services contract. But why didn't they slash F1 funding?!?

Initial thoughts: Once again, public safety takes the day, with the budgeting for extra 35 police officers mirroring the call made by members of the Public Safety Commission in their expensive full-page ad in the Statesman. "You know why most airline food tastes like chicken? The answer is, most airline food is chicken – so it's kinda the same thing here," said former pilot Lee Leffingwell, belaboredly joking that public safety takes up a large chunk of the budget because public safety employees (3,247 sworn members) make up a large portion of city staff (approximately 5,500). Still, the financial impact of that many more cops reverberates far beyond this budget year; one wonders why the “scrubbing” so endemic to the rest of the budget categories couldn’t have resulted in repurposing, say, some civilian police positions to more badges if more police are so needed.

One heartening moment from council’s comment was Mike Martinez’s suggestion that the city examine an additional property tax bump to increase civilian employee raises from 2.5% to 3% (the same amount slated for sworn public safety), instead of reflexively kowtowing to the lowest rate possible. Considering Eenoo’s reply that that could be accomplished while remaining under the full rollback rate, council should mull that and additional addbacks that could be accomplished without hitting the rollback.

We’ll certainly have more in the days and weeks to come. Below, a list of upcoming budget dates:

Wed., Aug. 18: City Council worksession on General Fund departments (including Public Safety, Parks and Recreation, and Austin Public Library)

Thu., Aug. 19: Council resolution setting the maximum tax rate; first public hearing on the budget

Wed., Aug. 25: Council worksession on Austin Energy, Austin Water, Solid Waste Services, and Transportation

Thu., Aug. 26: Second public hearing on the budget

What the hell else is happening?

On the city calendar: The Austin City Council Budget Work Session begins in the Boards & Commissions room at City Hall, 301 W. Second, 9:30AM.

The Building and Standards Commission meets in the B&C room at City Hall, 6:30 pm.

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