Budget Blitz

The City Council on Tuesday approved its $1.8 billion budget for fiscal 2003, but not before mollifying some angry citizens and mopping up some of the blood on the floor.

Budget Blitz

To the strains of "Stairway to Heaven" (it's an inside-City-Hall joke -- you had to be there), the City Council on Tuesday approved its $1.8 billion budget for fiscal 2003, but not before mollifying some angry citizens and mopping up some of the blood on the floor. As we've been reporting over the past few weeks, City Manager Toby Futrell has bridged a $75-million-plus budget gap by asking city workers to forgo pay raises, cutting a number of vacant positions, scrubbing overhead costs, and enjoining each department to "work leaner and smarter" with process improvements. The council -- which, despite the grim financial picture, seems genuinely happier with Futrell's budget performance than with any out of City Hall in recent years -- made the following last-minute refinements:

Arts Funding

As expected, the council -- completely fed up with the chronic controversy surrounding the distribution of the city's Cultural Arts Fund -- took the entire recommendation from the Arts Commission and its advisory panels and threw it in the trash. Instead, most of the nearly 300 artists and groups applying for funding will get what they got last year, minus 31.46% -- the approximate decline in the Arts Fund, which is fed by hotel bed tax. New applicants will get what the Arts Commission proposed, minus 31.46%. This struck the council as being much fairer than the Arts Commission's recommendation -- the product of complex formulas, thousands of hours of work, and an elaborate, if often suspect, peer-review process -- under which some groups were allocated more money than they got last year. At the same time, others -- including the Austin Museum of Art -- saw their funding slashed 50% or more, or were zeroed out entirely due to technicalities and "misunderstandings." As the council saw it, the Arts Commission and its panels should have realized long ago that such quirky recommendations would not fly, although the across-the-board formula Council used likewise leaves winners and losers (see chart).

A stunned Andrea Bryant, chair of the Arts Commission, pointed out that the process had followed guidelines that the council had blessed in January precisely because last year's funding process had been contentious. (Although budget-adoption meetings usually don't include public input, Mayor Gus Garcia invited Bryant at the last minute to participate.) "It's regrettable that you're not pleased with how the guidelines were followed," Bryant remarked, adding that by using last year's allocations as a basis, the council was ignoring what in some cases were good reasons for funding cuts. (Zilker Theatre Productions, for example, was all but zeroed out by the Arts Commission due to lingering management difficulties, but their funding has now been largely restored by the City Council.) The decision to junk the whole package was "at best, demoralizing," Bryant said.

Budget Blitz

While Garcia thanked Bryant for her "admirable candor," Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman -- the Arts Commission's worst nightmare -- was having none of it. "It is a failed process that forces us into the kind of action that we're taking today," she said. "People do not trust the process, and we [need to] make it more trustworthy for as many people as we can. It's very 'demoralizing' for artists, for the council, and for the community. This process was created so that artists wouldn't have to ask us to intervene politically, and it clearly hasn't worked." Currently, a consultant -- which Goodman had tried to get hired last year, to avoid recurring fiascoes -- is working on what will likely be a massive overhaul of the arts funding process. Despite various soothing words for the Arts Commission from her colleagues, Goodman announced, "if the process next year is anything like this year and last year, I'll walk out of the room. I refuse to vote for a process that hurts and defames and looks for ways to refuse to fund artists. The process has not served the arts community and thus has not served Austin."

Other highlights:

Council spending. The council rejected (to put it mildly) Will Wynn's proposal to reduce its own staff, but did agree to reduce its collective office expense by $70,000, or 4.2% -- the average cut taken by non-public-safety departments in the General Fund (see "Austin@Large," p.15).

Youth employment. Proposed restructuring of city employment programs for youth and for persons with disabilities drew fire from both stakeholder groups. The approved budget restores a previously cut position in the summer-jobs program, using funds from the disability program. The city may raise the fine for parking in a handicapped spot to make up the lost funds.

Holly mitigation funds. When Council Member Betty Dunkerley was city finance officer, she virtually printed money in the basement for the council to spend. Now that she's on the council, members look to Austin Energy. The new budget creates, in effect, a permanent, revolving AE fund for "mitigation" activities around the Holly Power Plant. Next year's money -- $1.5 million -- will fund a police walking beat on East Cesar Chavez, near the controversial Austin Baptist Chapel soup kitchen; the expansion ($1 million) of Metz Recreation Center, right next to the plant; $250,000 to help Holly neighbors rehab their homes; and miscellaneous other projects. "This is an incredible opportunity to get things accomplished in a year where the budget is strapped for all of us," said Raul Alvarez, sponsor of the measure.

Miscellaneous. The council also agreed to appropriate funds to not only design but build the $5 million Colony Park Recreation Center, moving up that project's schedule. Members also put extra funds into Austin Energy's thermostat and water heater replacement program, one of the utility's most popular conservation programs.

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