Margot and Brewster Get Their (Red) Ink On

During his tenure(s) on the City Council, Mayor Gus Garcia got to vote on nine good budgets (that is, years where city revenue was growing) and just one bad one. Daryl Slusher and Jackie Goodman likewise had many years of boom before confronting the bust. Even Will Wynn, Raul Alvarez, and Danny Thomas got to vote on one good budget (in 2000) before things started going south. And Betty Dunkerley, though elected after the crisis hit, at least remembers, from her tenure as city finance director, what it was like to have money.

Either Brewster McCracken or Margot Clarke, on the other hand, will have the unenviable experience of paddling up a river of red ink for an entire council term. (You can't blame them for already envisioning a post-bust re-election effort.) Other than Garcia's proposed smoking ordinance, there's not much else to talk about on the campaign trail heading for the June 7 run-off for the Place 5 seat being vacated by Wynn. Here's what they have to say:

Hard Choices

Like Will Wynn and City Manager Toby Futrell, both McCracken and Clarke have embraced the message that we, as a community, have to consider whole new ways of doing the public's business. "I think the public is now fully aware of the depth of the challenge," McCracken says. "They know it's a much bigger problem than we thought before. As a result, they're willing to consider bigger cuts" than have been politically possible through the last two years of meltdown.

"But not across the board," McCracken continues. "I don't know, for instance, that people want to shut down afterschool programs regardless of the budget. There are still some areas that are off-limits."

Clarke isn't sure she agrees with Wynn's (and McCracken's) at-least-implied argument that citizens "would accept losing city services if they don't have to pay for them" through tax increases. "But it's important for the city to make that information available to the people who live here, [and for] people in Austin to prioritize what they really expect the city to do for them -- and what they're willing to pay for it."

While it's typical for officeholders (and candidates) to assume that the public will avoid tax hikes at all costs, Clarke says "the ACC election" -- where voters on May 3 agreed, by a compelling margin, to a sizable tax increase for the community college -- "suggests to me that people might be willing to pay more if they know what they're getting. Sharing that information is going to be critical to get through this process without people feeling they're getting ripped off or underserved."

What Kind of Tax Hike?

Says Clarke, "I honestly am fairly sure we cannot balance the budget without going to the effective rate" -- the as-yet-undetermined property-tax rate (higher than the current 45.97 cents per $100 valuation) that would bring in the same revenue as the city received this year, even though values are expected to decline about 4% in FY 04. "Which will feel like higher taxes. That said, I don't think it's inevitable we would have to go higher than that. I'm certainly not going into it expecting we would have to."

McCracken likewise thinks "everything has to be on the table" where tax rates are concerned. "That's the only responsible position. With all the folks on fixed incomes, it's hard, but we need to be able to protect social services right now."

What Can't Be Cut?

Like most everyone else both inside City Hall and on the recent campaign trail, McCracken emphasizes the need "to make a very strong commitment to public safety. That's a core function of any city." His line on the stump is: "If you wake up at 3am and find your child choking to death, your house on fire, or someone breaking in your bedroom window, you need to feel secure that help is on the way no matter what [the city's] budget situation."

But unlike Futrell and her budget staff, which last year and (so far) this year has laid everything but public-safety first response on the block, McCracken also aims, as noted above, to protect social services and afterschool programs. "Particularly with the state cuts going on," he says, referring to the Legislature's slash-and-burn, ideologically driven budget. "Those will create more need locally, so even holding the line locally on social-service spending will still mean reduced service to people in need."

Clarke has been, if not less committed, then perhaps less worried about protecting public safety -- "Of course it's very important, yet I think most people realize that city government wouldn't make budget decisions that will endanger public safety." But she does think "we need to hold harmless those things that will end up costing us more if they're cut." That starts with health care, particularly preventive and acute care at the clinic level that can keep people out of the hospitals and emergency rooms. "It's a huge crisis everywhere, and it's just going to get worse."

Clarke also includes environmental protection among those programs where short-term cuts lead to long-term costs, "though that isn't as big a spending program" as health care. (Other than public safety, nothing is.) "There are other aspects of social services that prevent more expense down the line. Even Brewster says money spent on afterschool programs saves money on police."

What Else Can We Do?

McCracken has talked a lot on the campaign trail about an Austin version of Baltimore's CitiStat -- basically a 24-hour call center (which, as Futrell points out, Austin doesn't have) linked up with a leading-edge information system to identify chronic money-wasting inefficiencies. CitiStat saved Baltimore $13 million its first year of operation, though that probably says more about Baltimore than it does about the system. Clarke points out that "while efficiency is good, once you've fixed problems, they're fixed. You can't expect to continue to get the same savings."

Clarke and McCracken both endorse Futrell's effort to tap into the creative ideas and expertise both of the city's front-line employees and of the citizens to find cost savings, and McCracken adds that the leaner-and-meaner message need not only apply to the General Fund. "We do need to produce more efficiencies in the enterprise funds (like the utilities), either to increase transfers or reduce their fees. My sense is we haven't been giving the same scrutiny to those funds."

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