Cruel to Be Kind

The Sting of Austin's 1996-97 Budget

Austin's $1.2 billion proposed budget for fiscal year 1996-97 appears to be a no-frills approach to the city's stated mission: "We want Austin to be the most livable community in the country." Easy to say, but can we afford to meet that goal? Apparently not. Not if you read between the lines of this year's massive six-volume budget, anyway, wherein the line-item veto rules. Gone are many of the preventative measures against juvenile and adult crime, the horticulture unit in the Parks & Recreation Department (besides you, they're the ones who Keep Austin Beautiful), and the police neighborhood centers. We nearly lost the city's North Austin clinic. Pioneer Farms is definitely on the way out. And, of course, the Parks Department will still have trouble maintaining the city's 11,500 acres of park land. The budget strategy this year is clearly "affordability," and the accompanying article on page 20 ("It's a Good Economy, Stupid," by Mike Clark-Madison), lays out the depressing truth that over-burdened taxpayers may never be willing to pay enough to have their needs met. So much for affordability. What about livability? Despite the current boom, the five-year forecast for Austin performed by the city's budget department is the most depressing news yet: Austin's touted quality of life is in danger.

"What we currently face is a facility rich environment, but one that is cash poor," City Manager Jesus Garza told the city council in his transmittal letter accompanying the proposed budget. As it is, the city is having trouble meeting this year's expenses, calculated at $301.7 million for the General Fund for basic city services and administration. During the summer, the deficit was projected at $18 million, but a last-minute boon in sales taxes and property taxes, and the city manager's decision not to reduce the $59.9 million electric utility transfer into the General Fund as was originally planned, helped offset the gap. The deficit now stands at a more manageable $2.5 million, which will be covered by unspent funds from last year. The deficit problem this year, however, is only a hint of what's to come.

According to the five-year forecast prepared by the city budget staff, Austin is expected to have an average deficit in the city's general operating fund of $26 million. The causes are many: To make the city-owned electric utility more competitive in the coming open electric power market, the city is planning to reduce the amount the utility transfers into the general fund by $5-6 million per year until the transfer has been eliminated; federal and state grant revenue is taking a turn for the worse -- the city is expected to lose about $10 million over the next five years; due to the population boom, public safety spending will go up by $23 million in the same period; and anticipated changes in Medicaid and Medicare will result in a deficit of $10 million by the year 2000 for Austin's clinics.

"Though this forecast may seem bleak, it truly gives us the opportunity to prepare now -- before it happens," says Garza. He suggests more community involvement in making city government efficient -- and continuing the new "program review" budget process that evaluates each city program for effectiveness. All with an eye toward cutting. "These are hard choices we face, beginning today," says Garza.

Despite all of the city manager's best efforts, there may be no way to prepare for what's to come. At a time when Austin should be reaping the financial benefits of growth, the city is losing strength as the surrounding suburbs muscle their way to power -- as of last year, more people now live outside the city than inside. Regional cooperation has too often meant the city gives up more than it gets, as in the case of Cedar Park's annexation of a portion of Austin's land in its extraterritorial jurisdiction. And much of Austin's annexation powers -- the cornerstone of a city's ability to pull in revenues in a growing economy -- has been taken away by recent legislation.

The answer is to make Austin the preferred place to live for its citizens and newcomers by improving the quality of life. That means better, even more, community services and city beautification efforts, not fewer. Yet, the panic down at City Hall is spreading across all city departments, with many of the cuts presenting a slippery slope for Austin for needed services. For instance, the horticulture unit at Parks & Rec, responsible for the flower beds, hedges, and other perennials on the city's most frequently visited sites like Congress Avenue and Zilker Park, will be disbanded. Their duties will be covered, but not as a priority, by other Parks workers. The savings? Essentially, $7,000 for that particular cut. The department argues that $150,000 has been saved since the four full-time and one part-time positions in the unit will be eliminated. But those employees are moving to vacant positions elsewhere in the department that could have been eliminated instead. That's not serious savings, that's changing priorities, and cutting for the sake of cutting. The "suspension" of the police department's neighborhood centers in an effort to put more officers on patrol is another good example. (See Madison-Clark's story.)

In most communities, quality of life in the context of a city's budget is defined not only by basic city services, but also by the number of programs available to your kids in the summer, the police presence in your neighborhood, the beautification efforts along Main Street, the quality of your community parks, etc. Many of those things are falling by the wayside as Austin's city government struggles with growth and the demand on city services. And while all this may be overstating the case, once programs are suspended, it's difficult to justify re-enacting them the next year when things get really rough, or the year after. Pretty soon, the more of these community programs that disappear, the concept of city beautification and even crime prevention through community activity will become quaint rather than essential, and the less livable Austin will become. Guess this is what being a "big city" is all about.

[The public is invited to comment on the proposed budget during a Channel 6 call-in show on August 28 with City Budget Officer Charles Curry and Public Information Officer Michell Middlebrook-Gonzalez; the council is scheduled to vote on the budget September 9,10, and 11, and comments can be made during citizens' communication.] n

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