Council Budget Afterthoughts
Council members offer post-approval thoughts on FY 2016 budget
By Michael King,
8:00AM, Fri. Sep. 18, 2015
Late last week, shortly after City Council approved the Fiscal Year 2016 budget, we asked Council members if they had any brief post-mortem thoughts on the new budget, and if their own priorities had been fulfilled/partially fulfilled/not fulfilled. Not all members responded; the following are the (very lightly edited) answers we received.
Mayor Steve Adler
I'm proud of this budget and this council. The budget substantially increases spending for health and social service (by nearly $9 million), for parks, pools and libraries (by over $3 million), for beginning a significant rollout of body cameras for our police, for a 3% across the board pay raise for all non-sworn city employees, a $13.03 minimum wage for city employees and insurance coverage for most temporary employees, more resources for EMS, and an increased senior and disabled homestead exemption. The budget does this while including a 6% homestead exemption and, for the first time in at least decades, a reduction in both tax rates and tax bills. I'm proud of the Council's new budget process which resulted in a more deliberate, transparent and policy driven vetting of spending priorities, which led both to a great budget and a Council that worked together as a team.
My priorities were fulfilled, including the adoption of a budget that reflects both the diversity on and the potential benefit of cohesiveness among our new 10-1 council. We introduced a new budget process that was very collaborative, transparent and deliberate. It was particularly important to me to make good, as we did, on some of the longstanding and neglected budget needs, like for parks and the Hispanic/Latino and African American Quality of Life Initiative items. And it means a lot to me that we equitably addressed all our city employees, especially those most in need.
Council Member Delia Garza (District 2)
Overall I’m happy with the outcome of the budget which included many of my top priorities. I’m especially proud of our efforts to significantly expand funding for health and human services, increase programming at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, raise our living wage, provide health insurance for temporary employees, and begin the transition to a 42 hour work week for EMS.
All of these initiatives show that this Council cares about closing the inequity gap, protecting our most vulnerable populations, and being a model employer for our workforce who tirelessly serve this city.
I do hope that we can have a clearer process for the budget next year that all of Council will have an opportunity to weigh in on. We should always strive to increase transparency for the public and ensure we can fairly vet all items up for consideration.
I was also happy that we were able to be responsive to community concerns about the temporary closing of the southeast library. We were able to fund a portable to house the computer lab for library visitors during the temporary closure for construction. Most of that funding came out of my office budget (I didn't hire additional staff).
Council Member Greg Casar (District 4)
I am so proud of what we accomplished in the new budget. … I believe that thanks to the work of community advocates, the City Manager’s team, and Council, this budget will help steer us toward becoming a more socially just and inclusive Austin. Here are some of the highlights.
• Raised the minimum wage to $13.03 for all City employees, including temporary employees for the first time. Plus, health insurance for the large majority of our low-wage temp employees (also a first).
• Over $3 million to begin equipping APD officers with body cameras. …
• $500,000 for master planning and construction for the Georgian Acres Park. Instead of waiting years for the next sale of park bonds to fund the park, City Council took emergency action to make the park a reality. …
• $350,000 to create the Residents Advocacy Project, a grassroots outreach and education program to empower residents living in substandard building conditions.
• $7.5 million increase in Health and Human Services investments, including support for Healthy Food initiatives, rental assistance, staffing for the sobriety center initiative, and community health workers in Rundberg Lane corridor.
• Capital improvements to Austin’s top 5 most dangerous intersections, including Lamar and Parmer, Lamar and Rundberg, and Cameron and 183; plus $3.5 million in improvements to East 51st Street.
• Continued support of several AISD Family Resource Centers and Parent Support Specialists serving families all over Austin, including many in District 4; $520,000 for PrimeTime afterschool programs; and funding to return City library hours back to their pre-recession levels.
Council Member Leslie Pool (District 7)
I recognize it was a slow, very deliberative and sometimes confused process, but the end result is a progressive, full-on Austin kind of budget that puts our money where our mouth is. I do think we learned a lot – and by extension so did the public – and I anticipate a more streamlined approach for FY17.
My overall takeaway: Given varying needs across our community, my goal was to pass a budget that works for all of Austin, that invests in our people and community assets, and that provides a foundation for continuing improvements. Austin values its parks, pools and libraries, and the FY16 budget recognizes their priority. For a rookie budget, I think the Council passed a forward-looking plan for FY16.
Specific areas I shepherded:
• $357,000 to restore libraries fully to pre-Great Recession operating hours
• $75,000 for inspecting and repairing our city’s more than 300 playgrounds
• $350,000 for repairing the dangerous cracked decking at Northwest Pool
• $200,000 for summer camp and youth programs in underserved areas
• $1.150 million block grant increase to PARD’s overall budget to address department priorities, specifically maintenance and operations.
PARD’s budget increases $4.3 million over FY2015; the City Manager added about $1.9 million and Council invested about $2.5 million.
Council Member Ellen Troxclair (District 8)
Adopting a budget that will reduce the amount of money that the average Austinite will owe in the property tax bills next year is a huge accomplishment, but I am disappointed that the overall cost of living will increase because of utility rate and fee hikes.
To my knowledge, this is the first time that money has been specifically earmarked in the budget to return to taxpayers, through my amendment to apply $1M to lowering the tax rate. I wish the amount could have been more, but to be able to do that while still investing heavily in important city services, like public safety and parks, sends a really important message to the community that we're listening to their affordability concerns and balancing their budget priorities.
Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo (District 9)
Some of the highlights for the budget for me included:
• Significantly increasing our investments in health and human services (Council Member Garza helped find an effective strategy in achieving that)
• Continuing and increasing some our investments in youth services, including expanding our afterschool programs for three additional high-needs schools
• Adding a group home inspector in the Fire Department to ramp up our efforts in ensuring residents have safe housing
• Supporting my colleagues’ initiative to hire outside assistance for code to work on substandard housing issues
• Shifting $2 million of funding from the Economic Incentives Reserves Funds to prioritize community-based economic development and support for local artists and organizations. Our discussions around this particular shift involved creative ideas from several different Council Members (I made the motion to reduce the fund by $2 million; Council Member Garza introduced the idea of setting up a discrete fund; and Council Houston introduced the motion to create a line of cultural arts grants for smaller organizations that can't meet the criteria for the existing Cultural Arts Contracts.) I regard the end result as a very positive outcome.
I do have some concerns about the impact this budget could have on future years. Some of the ability to balance the budget rested on deferred costs through delaying the hiring of full-time positions and changing projections of sales tax growth. Also, I am concerned about the vote to use $1 million of one-time funds to marginally lower the tax rate this year. That vote effectively borrowed money from next year to reduce the average annual tax bill by less than $2. We will start next year’s budget with a $1 million deficit.
Most of what can be accomplished in the budget begins well in advance of the budget hearings. It starts with policy development throughout the year and gets incorporated into our long-range budget planning. Accomplishing the living wage increases in this year’s budget was a priority for me, and it represents work that was carried forward from the previous Council and involved some hard work over the last year or so from some dedicated community members.
I was also committed to following through with the previous Council’s commitment to expand health and human services funding.
And, it was a priority for me to continue our partnership with AISD on supporting services important to our families—such as afterschool care and Parent Support Specialists. We were able to secure funding for this, too.