Council Does the Money Mambo

The bones of the city -- roads, sewers, power lines -- took center stage for last Thursday's installment at City Council of "Budget: How Low Can We Go?" Not as low as we might like.

The FY2003 to-do list for the Transportation, Planning, and Sustainability Department includes the extension of the Pfluger Bridge (shown here being used by Daryl Slusher and Lloyd Doggett), along with parallel work on the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, Seaholm Master Plan, and Second Street corridor improvements. Meanwhile, the Public Works department will figure out what's wrong with the cracking concrete overlay on the bridge.
The FY2003 to-do list for the Transportation, Planning, and Sustainability Department includes the extension of the Pfluger Bridge (shown here being used by Daryl Slusher and Lloyd Doggett), along with parallel work on the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, Seaholm Master Plan, and Second Street corridor improvements. Meanwhile, the Public Works department will figure out what's wrong with the cracking concrete overlay on the bridge. (Photo By John Anderson)

The bones of the city -- roads, sewers, power lines -- took center stage for last Thursday's installment at City Council of "Budget: How Low Can We Go?" Not as low as we might like. When you're talking about essential infrastructure and planning for future growth, there's only so much austerity we can afford -- as Austin has seen in the past, to our great detriment. Some highlights:


The Utilities

As we noted last week, Austin Energy revenues both this year and next aren't expected to fully cover expenses, even without transfers into the quasi-controversial Debt Management Fund. Blame God. "That's a function of the weather," AE General Manager Juan Garza told the Council. "This summer has been very unusual; we haven't hit 100 degrees once." To which Mayor Gus Garcia replied, "And nobody is complaining. Except for you."

Another mild winter, as expected, will also pinch AE's income, though not nearly enough to spur worries of a rate increase. However, your bills still will rise by around 50 cents a month. Blame the Legislature; even though Austin could choose not to opt into retail electric competition (because we own the utility), Austin ratepayers still help fund the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) as it struggles to make competition work elsewhere. "They have had tremendous problems. It's a huge mess," Garza says. "They've invested lot of money, and are now investing more, trying to get it figured out. It's costing much more than they expected."

At Water and Wastewater, only 29% of the budget actually pays for treating and distributing clean and dirty water. The bulk goes to capital projects and the department's enormous debt service, and it still ain't enough. The utility's major undertaking right now is the Austin Clean Water Program, a concerted effort to keep the sewers from overflowing. Sewer spills have reduced in volume "dramatically" since 1999 due to improved crew response times, says Water and Wastewater director Chris Lippe, "but the number of overflows has remained constant. It's going to take some capital projects and more attention to bringing that down."


The 'Planning Departments'

Once upon a time we had but one planning department. Then, like an amoeba, it started to reproduce by fission. But this year, as part of the budget-wide campaign to reduce overhead, the Infrastructure Support Services department -- created in 1997 to centralize back-office functions -- is being phased out, and its people are being sent back to the shops whence they came. (That's where most of the new staff in Public Works are coming from; in other departments, the ISS transfers are offset by cuts in vacant positions.) So now we only have four "shops" that, collectively, function as "the planning department": Neighborhood Planning and Zoning, Public Works, Watershed Protection and Development Review, and Transportation, Planning, and Sustainability.

"Shop" is the term of choice at City Hall for each of these departments, since it's easier to say, for example, "Austan's shop" than "Transportation, Planning and Sustainability," the department run by Austan Librach. Even City Hall insiders aren't always sure which shop does what function that used to be in some other shop. (For example, zoning is in one shop, but subdivision review is in another; street repair is in one shop, but street signs are in another.) The $108 million total funding for the four shops comes from all over the budget: the General Fund, development fees, parking meter revenue, transfers from the utilities, proceeds for capital projects, and the transportation and drainage fees on your utility bill. This money gets spent all over the map -- literally -- but certain functions stand out in public esteem.

Neighborhood planning: After feeling enormous heat from City Hall for the slow and contentious pace of neighborhood planning, NPZD streamlined its process, combined neighborhoods into larger blocks, and whipped out eight plans this fiscal year. "That's almost standing-ovation material. Astronomical. An incredible job," opined City Manager Toby Futrell. More of the same next year, along the potential light rail corridor -- including North University, Crestview/Wooten, and the Arboretum area. These neighborhoods are a lot more organized than the far East Austin areas handled this year with such dispatch, and activists are already complaining that the planning areas are way too big. (More on this next week in "Austin@Large.")

Traffic projects: After running out 18 months ago, funding for traffic calming has been restored next year -- both to finish projects left hanging and to start work on at least one new neighborhood, of the dozens currently on the waiting list. Traffic-light synchronization, another thorn in the City Council's side, continues apace. In the city's annual how-are-we-doing Community Scorecard survey, the gap between citizens' ranking of traffic as a priority (very high) and their satisfaction with the city's performance (quite low) is huge. "That's because we've had 40% population growth in the last 10 years," says Assistant City Manager Lisa Gordon.

Roadwork: Street reconstruction projects (out of Public Works) for next year include Cesar Chavez east of I-35, Enfield, several streets around the UT campus, 51st east of Berkman, and Southwest Parkway, along with finishing work on Barton Springs Road (see p.24), Dittmar, and Loyola Lane. Meanwhile, TPSD will kickstart implementation of Great Streets downtown, the Second Street retail corridor, the Seaholm master plan (including extension of the Pfluger Bridge), and the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, among other projects.

The drainage fee: Watershed Protection is in the unenviable position of raising its base rates this year (though only by 58 cents a month for residential customers), the only city enterprise fund to do so. This is part of a five-year series of rate increases to pay for what in Austin, for obvious reasons (floods, growth, salamanders, et al.), is an atypically expensive municipal service. Though Watershed is adding new crews this year, "we're not where we need to be" to keep flooding and erosion dangers under control, says department director Mike Heitz. "We do need additional crews, and we'll be asking for that as we move forward."


FY2003 City Budget: Utilities & Planning

Numbers indicate:
FY2003 proposed / % change from FY2002 (budget) / % change (actual) / Change in FTEs from FY02

Net expenditures

Total budget: $1,840.0 million / -- 3.6% / +3.8% / -- 245

General Fund: $476.9 million / +1.2% / +11.1% / -- 321


Utilities

Austin Energy: $829.1 million / -- 2.3% / +5.6% / 0

Water and Wastewater: $258.5 million / -- 8.8% / -- 7.6% / 0

Planning departments

Public Works: $41.7 million / +1.6% / +10.1% / +21.5

Watershed Protection & Dev. Review: $41.0 million / +10.5% / +12.5% / +20.5

Neighborhood Planning & Zoning: $4.0 million / -- 4.6% / +12.3% / -- 8

Transportation, Planning, & Sustainability: $21.0 million / -- 3.1% / +15.8% / --10

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