Bottom of the Budget Barrel

City Hall scraped to the bone; now it cuts into it.

Staffing at the city's existing community clinics will remain the same, despite significant increases in the number of patients.
Staffing at the city's existing community clinics will remain the same, despite significant increases in the number of patients. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

The third and final episode of "Budget: How Low Can You Go?" featured what City Manager Toby Futrell dubbed "the departments that this community feels absolutely the most passionate about, and [the] departments that struggle the most as we go through the budget." Indeed. After two prior budget hearings that went basically unattended, dozens of citizens signed up to vent about these programs. The budget will be adopted for real next week, with readings on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, Sept. 9, 10, and 12.

Between them, the parks, library, and health departments use up less than one-quarter of the General Fund (where your taxes go), but are giving up more than one-third of the General Fund jobs being cut in Futrell's budget. (These are vacant positions, remember. No layoffs.) The city clinics and the housing department are in better shape, but most of their money comes from outside the General Fund. While the overall GF budget for FY2003 is more than 10% above what the city will spend this year, funding for parks, libraries, and health care will remain flat at best, even as demand for these services has increased substantially.

That's what happens when the budget is balanced on your back, though Futrell feels she had little choice. As she told the crowd at last week's hearing, after factoring out the self-supporting enterprise funds and the "held-harmless" (i.e., politically impossible to cut) public safety departments, "when you look at the $75 million (projected shortfall), you're looking at it in the context of about $235 million" available to trim. "And guess where most of that $235 million is? Exactly the departments we're talking about here today -- parks, libraries, health, and housing." Futrell went on to ask citizens to "take a leap of faith" that these cuts will lead to more efficiency, not just fewer services. If not, she said, "my commitment to you is that I will recommend adding [funds] back. But let us prove to you that we can do things differently and still produce."


Parks and Libraries

On paper, PARD is losing more than 15% of its workforce, though some jobs have been vacant for so long that nobody remembers exactly what they're for. Could it be that PARD previously was overstaffed? "We've made these cuts very strategically," PARD Director Jesus Olivares told the City Council. "No basic services will be affected, and no facilities will be closed." The department will consolidate some programs and otherwise stretch its dollars -- for example, by mowing the parks slightly less often.

At the Austin Public Library, the situation is different: APL's staffing ratios are the lowest of any big-city library in the U.S., so there's not much room for efficiencies (at least for ones that APL didn't already make in past years). Yet all APL branches will respect their normal hours -- undoing this summer's one-day-a-week closings -- and the new Ruiz branch in Montopolis is slated to open on schedule. (At the Austin History Center, staff, and supporters have asked to remain closed on Fridays to work on their backlog of archival materials.)

Much to Futrell's pleasure, both Olivares and library Director Brenda Branch have relied on volunteers and private donations to support beyond-the-basics services. There are advantages to being held in high public esteem. "We're looking to form a new group, 'Friends of the Development Review Process,'" Futrell said. "We're taking applications." (She only thinks she was kidding. By the way, this reporter sits on the board of the Austin Public Library Foundation, which raises funds to support APL, and of the Austin History Center Association.)

Also within PARD is the city's Cultural Arts Fund, supported by hotel bed taxes and down more than one-third from this year. Among the speakers at the Aug. 29 hearing were reps from the Austin Museum of Art and Hyde Park Theatre, which have taken extra-large hits in their funding. "If anything, the process has gotten worse this year, which I didn't think was possible," noted Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. A consultant is working with the city auditor on a major overhaul of the arts funding process (which will probably include taking it away from PARD); its report is expected by the end of the year.


Health and Human Services

Futrell's most controversial budget moves consolidate and re-deploy staff in the HHS's youth-employment and child-care programs. While Futrell and HHS director David Lurie view these as process improvements -- the numbers served by these programs are supposed to remain the same -- City Hall has been flooded with letters and speakers in support of the status quo. (This included a protest from the Austin Independent School District, which spread what City Hall deemed misinformation, prompting a testy rebuke to the district from Council Member Daryl Slusher.)

Employment and child care are small parts of the HHS budget, but because the department runs a lot of different little programs -- the animal shelter, the day labor site, food inspections, mosquito control, and on and on -- it offers a lot of tempting opportunities for "working leaner and smarter," as Futrell's budget-season mantra goes. The Community Care department, however, is already cranking out health care at full speed, after scheduling changes this fiscal year that allowed it to expand capacity by about 15%. Next year, Community Care takes oversight of the David Powell Clinic (the city's only public HIV clinic) and begins staffing the "hospital within a hospital" to provide women's services at Brackenridge. The staffing at existing clinics will remain the same.


Housing

On paper, the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office is seeing a whopping 73% increase over actual FY02 spending, but in budget-to-budget terms, NHCD's funding, most of which comes from the feds, is largely flat. Its performance targets -- how many people it serves, and how many housing units it creates -- are likewise unchanged. Basically, the department overbudgeted this year for its housing programs, which it can do, because Austin is entitled to a certain level of federal funding regardless of local conditions. The slowdown in the housing market meant, for example, fewer opportunities to spend money to assist first-time homebuyers. As for local money, Futrell has restored the $1 million General Fund transfer into the Housing Trust Fund. In total, the General Fund supports less than 20% of NHCD operations, although Austin is also kicking in another $4 million of local dollars for capital projects.

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