The Numbers Game

Read Council's Lips: No New Taxes

illustration by Doug POtter

Austin's annual budget season opened last week with a bang ("We're rich!") followed by a promise ("No new taxes!"). The local economy is apparently so strong that nothing - from increased demand for city services, to an estimated 15% increase in property tax valuation of local homes - will require the increase of Austinites' local tax burden. The Financial Forecast and Affordability Paper unveiled by the city budget office tells the largely happy tale of a growing city, where the pain caused by the increase in Bad Things (traffic, pollution, carpetbaggers), is mitigated by a Good Thing: money. Continued growth in both the population and the economy has brought greater-than-anticipated increases in both property and sales tax revenue: almost $16 million and $12 million, respectively. The city's available balance to begin the fiscal year will also be about $6 million higher than it was this year. Councilmembers and budget office staffers offered congratulations all around, especially to those old-timers who saw the city through leaner times. That was followed by Mayor Kirk Watson's repetition of the pledge that made our governor's daddy so famous ("no new taxes"). Though property values are rising, he said, the added revenue will fund enough of a cut in the property tax rate to offset the increase.

There's little question the no-new-taxes promise is keepable. With an economic picture a good bit simpler - and more robust - than the one that made a liar out of President Bush, the council should be able to make good on its word. But is it the most practical choice? The growth that has caused the rising tide of sales and property tax revenue has also brought increased demand for infrastructure and city services.

Though the city's newly annexed neighborhoods are doing wonders for the tax base, for example, the financial responsibilities that accompany them are considerable. And the demand for maintenance at inner-city parks stands only to increase, including, for example, the new trails on the northeast side proposed for the September bond election - though they'd be built by the bonds, they'd be maintained out of the general fund. Then there's the funding for the city's public health services, which is uncertain at best. With the federal government transitioning from cost-based reimbursement (we send the feds the bills and they pay them) to a capitated system (we receive a set dollar amount per patient) over the next five years, funding for the clinics is expected to drop by about 30%.

The official beginning of the budget process, that beloved annual fiscal festival, could prove to be a bit of a downer around City Hall. The city has identified a list of budget priorities that includes community policing, transportation, smart growth, neighborhoods, workforce development, maintenance, organizational health, the homeless, the year 2000, libraries, and commitment to annexed areas. The allotment of actual tax dollars among these areas could prove less pleasant than some of the Smart Growth-ing, Triangle-saving, bike-planning vision stuff that has characterized the spring of 1998. Through the long, hot summer of number-crunching that lies ahead, we'll see how those visions for Austin are manifested in rubber-meets-the-road budgeting decisions.

Clean Air Supply

Watson got back to his political roots last week, as he and his old pals at the Clean Air Force unveiled their Early Action Plan to reduce ozone air pollution in and around Austin. The group, an early entry to the let's-all-get-along business and environmental coalition that's ruled the city lately in relative peace and prosperity, hopes the plan will "get the biggest environmental bang for the fewest business bucks." More an education campaign than a policy change, the plan identifies the major contributors to Austin's ozone problem: Cars and trucks, 40%; machinery such as lawnmowers and construction equipment, 20%; off-road vehicles such as motorboats, planes, and trains, 13%; commercial and residential,18%; and major industrial sites, 6%. The plan also offers ways that major polluters can decrease ozone air pollutants by 15%.

Since passenger vehicles create far and away the most ground ozone, the Early Action Plan focuses on coaxing commuters to alter their daily, auto-centric routines. Options range from the obvious - carpool or take public transportation to work - to the slightly less so: Take your lunch to work to cut down on midday car trips. Parks and Recreation, among other city departments, are serving as ozone-exemplars by refraining from mowing or using other nonessential equipment on ozone action days, and the city is experimenting with traffic-reducing initiatives such as a telework pilot program, in which employees in one city department reduced their vehicle miles 17% by working from home one day a week.

These anti-pollution initiatives and others like them, while lacking the force of any jurisdiction's law, may gain credence with the driving public by way of a more powerful authority - nature itself. The Mexican haze's hijacking of the Austin springtime serves as a reminder of what things are like around here when you can't see the sky for weeks at a time. Local clean-air types are hoping the haze will make people sentimental enough for clean air that they'll be willing to go so far as to alter their personal habits in order to get it. Though the consciences of commuters may be all they can count on for now, that could soon change. If Austin's voluntary efforts don't do the trick, the federal government will step in and force the issue. Unless the current trend reverses, Austin will reach non-attainment of federal air quality standards when the EPA makes its next non-attainment designations two years from now. And because the designation will be based on ozone data from 1997-1999, we're already well into the evaluation period; any improvements we make had better come fast, or they'll come too late for the EPA.

The consequences of non-attainment for Austin are as yet undefined. A recent change in agency rules has tightened standards for air quality, but also eliminated mandatory pollution remediation measures that used to be required for cities reaching non-attainment. Lisa Weston, Air Quality Specialist for the city, said the new remediation standards, which should be published by the end of this year, will likely allow cities to develop more individualized plans. "We think, and this is total crystal ball work, that the EPA is going to allow communities to set up programs that go after the largest polluters first," said Weston. "We don't have a lot of smokestacks; we're not Houston or Corpus Christi," so EPA-mandated remediation programs for Austin will focus on reducing vehicle-created air pollution: "It will probably mean emissions testing, reformulated, cleaner-burning fuels, and other alternative fuels." Weston said any measure that reduces vehicle miles traveled, including the city's recently approved bike plan, will be looked upon favorably by the feds.

Armchair Planner Alert

Heads up to all those who think they have a compelling vision for Austin's performing arts and civic facilities. The council passed a resolution last week renewing its commitment to the principles of the Town Lake Comprehensive Plan, a document calling for the Auditorium Shores area to become "a focus for Austin's cultural facilities, as well as a setting for "institutions united in their goals to enrich the cultural resources of the community," that has languished in some dank City Hall file cabinet for over 10 years. The plan could create a "cultural park" down by the river, which would include some combination of arts, civic, and recreational green spaces.

By adopting the resolution, the council has simply begun the process of implementing the vision of the Comprehensive Plan. The city manager has been directed to assemble a roundtable advisory group to develop a set of guiding principles for the project, which will include members from the arts community, Planning Commission, and Capitol Metro. The group will conclude its work with a presentation to the city council, followed within 30 days by a public hearing. If you're planning to throw your two cents into the planning process, it might help to keep in mind some of the latest developments affecting the area: The western stretch of Barton Springs Road is about to get a still-undefined facelift; the Austin Lyric Opera has purchased the long-defunct Barton Springs Bar and Grill; the Ice Bats are contemplating a move (and a new facility) downtown; and the Palmer Auditorium question (eyesore or landmark?) still rages.

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