Pushing Priorities

Councilmembers Lay Down Their Cards

Sure, there are some tense moments during every councilmember's career, but this week probably topped them all -- budget negotiations were in full swing this Wednesday, Sept. 4 -- and as we go to press, to the victor go the spoils of voter appreciation. Every councilmember came to the table today with a wish list -- some a mile long and just as expensive, some practical, some beyond the pale. And as the evening closed, what was left on the table is the beginning of consensus on this year's city finances, and the likelihood of approval come Sept. 9, 10, and 11, when the council votes on the 1996-97 city budget.

There have been few grumblings about City Manager Jesus Garza's proposed budget of
$1.2 billion -- Austin's loss of financial power, with boom times putting the squeeze on city services and suburban sprawl stealing away the city's tax base, seems to have cured the council of big dreams. Most are taking their gruel with minor complaints. Even the proposed tax increase of three-quarters of a cent to 52.51 cents per $100 valuation, (which would add approximately one dollar per year to the tax bill on a $100,000 home according to the latest calculations by city staff), seems to be taken in stride; Councilmembers Daryl Slusher and Jackie Goodman are the lone voices against the increase as they look for ways to eliminate it.

The budget crunch this year comes in the wake of a review of the city's Electric Utility Department (EUD) and its competitive potential, performed by the Price Waterhouse consulting firm. The firm recommended a strict reduction of the annual transfer from the EUD to the city's General Fund, from $60 million to $30 million within five years. The EUD transfer makes up 20% of the general fund -- a huge chunk of the city's yearly budget. Despite the Price Waterhouse recommendation, the city manager proposed the usual $60 million transfer, but reminded councilmembers of the need to begin reducing next year. Even so, some councilmembers are not only relieved to keep the transfer at the same level, but others, namely Eric Mitchell and Beverly Griffith, want to increase it to the full $64 million allowable, to reinstate social programs abandoned over the last few years.

This issue, the Chronicle looks at what each councilmember brings to the bargaining table as the search for extra money from unused programs or vacant positions continues. Last week, for instance, the city manager freed up $600,000 for use this year, and the funds will be anted up for an all-out council scramble -- certainly there will be more money up for grabs as the budget vote approaches. The programs that seem favored for additional funding at this point are improvements to the city's planning system as recommended by Goodman's Citizens' Planning Committee, and a limited number of Parks & Recreation Department youth activities designed to reduce juvenile crime (see the wish list below for Griffith and Mayor Pro Tem Gus Garcia). Any suggestions from councilmembers to cut more programs from this already bare-bones budget proposal may seem rather mean-spirited at this point, but they will all be considered in the coming swap meet.

Mayor Bruce Todd

Mayor Todd has only one wish on his list: Reduce the electric utility transfer. "It's his number-one priority," says the mayor's aide Trey Salinas. "The mayor knows we have tough choices, and he doesn't know which programs [on other councilmembers' wish lists], if any, he'll support. He's even thinking we should increase the tax rate to reduce the transfer. In the real world, he'd like to have lower taxes, but we're still in the utility business," says Salinas. Asked if the mayor thinks there is any support on the council to reduce the transfer at this stage, Salinas says "maybe not -- but [the mayor's] got to continue to say what's right. The council talked a big game about getting competitive, but we haven't done anything. He's been discussing it with the other councilmembers, but some of them, like Beverly [Griffith] and Eric [Mitchell], want to increase [the transfer] to $64 million."

Eric Mitchell

Mitchell's recommendations, he says, will add a stunning $6.5 million to the city's general fund -- without cutting programs. How? By dipping further into the sacred cash cow that is the city's electric utility. An indulgent move, to say the least, what with city staff and several of Mitchell's allies on the dais wringing their hands over how to reduce that transfer. While he acknowledges that the utility needs to become more competitive to survive in a future unregulated market, Mitchell stresses the city's continued dependence on the transfer provided by the city's most lucrative department. "We must become more competitive and make tough decisions on how we operate the utility. This will mean reducing the transfer to a more acceptable level in the future -- but, we cannot afford to attempt to get there overnight."

Mitchell's $6.5 million would come exclusively at the expense of EUD. To compensate the department, Mitchell suggests reducing the city's Energy Conservation Rebate Program by $9 million by deleting the commercial programs and associated administrative expenses. (This, despite Mitchell having, in the past, taken advantage of the rebate program himself -- twice.) Mitchell wants to stop charging non-revenue city departments like Parks & Recreation for electric service, and cut their budgets or reprogram the funds. And while other departments would continue to pay for electric service, the money wouldn't go to the EUD. "Water/Wastewater, Electric, Aviation, Convention Center, Utility Customer Service Office, and Street Lighting would continue to be charged and would provide approximately $2.5 million for other priority needs in the General Fund," he suggests.

Leaving aside the fact that the $2.5 million addition may not be possible, here are Mitchell's $6.5 million funding recommendations: $2 million to the Austin Police Department for overtime, staffing, and computers; $120,000 for the Development Review & Inspection Team; $900,000 for the conversion of the city's fill-and-draw swimming pools to filter systems; $500,000 for PARD youth programs; $1.2 million for an over-65 tax reduction; $1.7 million to eliminate the proposed tax increase.

Jackie Goodman

Goodman's wish list focuses on the full funding of 11 recommendations from the Citizens' Planning Committee (CPC), a group she helped create two years ago, in order to suggest changes to the city's bureaucratic development review system. It would seem all her wishes may come true this year, now that the city manager has found additional funding. When the proposed budget came out in July, only four CPC recommendations were fully funded, and the fight was on for Goodman, as well as for Slusher, who also supports the proposals, to rally city staff and the rest of the council to consider the CPC projects a priority. Some of the most important aspects of the 11 proposals were left out, says Goodman's aide Ann Denkler, including long-range traffic planning, which will cost $368,000. A portion of the newly found $600,000 now available in unallocated funds could be used to fund the traffic-planning project, should the council vote to do so.

Other Goodman items include: $388,000 to the Parks & Recreation Department (PARD) to reinstate funding for Pioneer Farms and for the horticulture unit, and to put cultural contracts administration funding back into the department's budget instead of taking it out of arts funding provided by the hotel/motel bed tax; $34,700 for new carpet at the public library; $75,160 for a "social service program housed in the financial services department," according to Denkler (she would not elaborate); $2.1 million for full funding of the city's Energy Conservation Rebate Program; a reduction in the tax increase. Mayor Pro Tem Gus Garcia and Beverly Griffith Garcia and Griffith have teamed up on what they call a "Social Fabric Initiative" to expand PARD programs this year, and want to add $1.4 million in costs to the 1996-97 budget to fund it. The two describe the initiative as a "collaborative effort" between the region's governmental agencies, and they have already met with Travis County and AISD elected representatives and community leaders to gather support -- although so far, the collaboration has not extended beyond verbal support into a financial commitment from the county and AISD that would really make it work. As the two councilmembers state in their Aug. 26 letter to the mayor and their colleagues on the dais, "We have not identified the funding sources for this initiative and hope that we can work with the City Manager to carefully craft a plan to fund this initiative."

The individual programs, described in last week's article on PARD's budget cuts, include:

* $328,000 for the Youth & Adult Enrichment program -- to increase hours at three of the city's Recreation Centers during the school day to provide three programs targeted at kids aged 3-5 and their parents, and to provide morning fitness classes and intergenerational and late-night programs.

* $50,000 to fund sports leagues, special events and rec center classes for St. John's neighborhood residents.

* $381,440 for the Summer Playground Program, which would increase the number of playgrounds from 24 to 50 and provide site supervision for an additional 1,500 youths.

* $410,000 for the Community Outreach After-School Program; targeted at 9,000 "latch-key" youths, it would include nature, art, health, and computer activities, as well as tutoring.

* $150,000 for Non-Traditional Programs, which offer tutoring and incentives for youths to stay in school; classes in job readiness, health education, and life skills would be expanded in 10 additional rec center sites to reach kids aged 12-19.

* $126,800 to reinstate the Summer Teen Recreation Academy, to provide employment opportunities, gym sites, and cultural activities for about 600 teens in the summer.

Ronney Reynolds

Councilmember Reynolds says he doesn't have a budget "wish list" like some of his colleagues, and that instead, he wants to concentrate on "keeping the electric utility." Reynolds helped scuttle the mayor's plan to put the EUD on the auction block earlier this year, citing his preference to keep it public until the all the city's options were analyzed. Presumably, this includes the possibility of a merger with the Lower Colorado River Authority, an option some say Reynolds would support.

In the meantime, the councilmember wants to reduce the EUD transfer from the allowable 12% to 8% in the next five years, a slower rate than city consultants recommend, and reduce the utility's debt by cutting down on the energy conservation program. EUD will pay $194 million in debt service this year. "Every one dollar in annual debt reduces the [utility's] gross revenue amount by $1.50," says Reynolds. "That's the reason debt is so important."

Daryl Slusher

Slusher may be the lone councilmember to hand over a wish list with funding suggestions that do not include increasing the electric utility transfer. In fact, Slusher says he is offering up $4 million in potential revenue and only $1.9 million on his wish list. "I'm offering twice as much money as I'm asking for," he says, "and trying to show how we can fund our wish list and not do a tax increase."

The $4 million includes: $800,000 in road-repair projects that could be paid with Build Greater Austin funds rather than through the city's Department of Public Works & Transportation; $1 million in transfers to the general fund from surplus revenue held by the city's Water/Wastewater Utility; $750,000 in anticipated revenue for the Austin Police Department from beefed-up bill-collection efforts; and $1.5 million in federal Disproportionate Fund monies for indigent care that was not counted by city staff in writing the proposed budget. Slusher says staff told him the federal funds were "shaky," but a check with state officials confirmed that the $1.5 million has been allocated for Austin.

Slusher's wish list, on the other hand, includes:

* $260,000 to restore reduced funding for indigent health care, and $62,000 for dental-care funding;

* $100,000 to restore youth employment programs (also supported by Austin Interfaith community organization);

* $150,000 to reinstate PARD's horticulture unit;

* $96,000 to restore cultural contracts administration funding from the general fund -- staff has recommended that it come out of the arts funding allocated from the hotel/motel bed tax;

* $750,000 to the APD, "to be used at Chief [Elizabeth] Watson's discretion," says Slusher, but he would like to see it go towards restoring the city's neighborhood police centers;

* $600,000 to fund all 11 CPC recommendations.

Slusher also says he will support Garcia and Griffith's Social Fabric Initiative, and will meet with Griffith to look for funding.

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Deals may be cut this week on which of these programs will be funded, and which won't be, but there won't be another public hearing on the budget or on the result of these negotiations. The public will, however, be given an opportunity to speak during Citizens' Communication this Thursday, Sept. 5, and during the budget votes on Sept. 9, 10, and 11. And as always, you can contact your councilmembers directly -- call 499-2000 to be connected. n

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