Naked City

The Budget Battles Begin

Today (Thursday), City Manager Toby Futrell will officially "transmit" the 2003-04 city budget -- which she, the City Council, and the citizens have already been talking about for months, so the surprises should be few. This morning, city department heads should be scarce when the City Council convenes at 10am; they'll be meeting with their rank-and-files to talk about the "personnel impacts" -- i.e., layoffs -- Futrell is expected to propose. The City Council will at 2pm be formally briefed on the proposal -- likely to be the first phase of a multiyear project to reinvent, downsize, and transform City Hall. We'll be throwing down the details next week, but here's what to look for:

Layoffs: After managing to avoid any honest-to-God layoffs for three years, Futrell and her budget team aren't likely to bridge the projected $50-million-plus gap without actual pink slips. But while the number of positions to be eliminated -- in every city department -- will be in the high three digits, most of those have been frozen for months. Futrell has been aggressively trying to find places where to-be-laid-off employees can be reassigned elsewhere in city government, but as many as 100 city employees will be left without any job at all.

Tax hikes: Futrell has made all but official her intent to propose a property-tax hike to the effective rate (the amount that leaves the average tax bill unchanged, despite fluctuating property values). However, the council is divided over whether to improve any tax increase, especially with Travis Co. announcing this week its intent to hike its rate. Staying at the current ("nominal") rate will probably, in Futrell's view, require deeper bloodletting than she feels ready to propose -- but presumably the budget staff has a list of such cuts ready.

Service cuts: Even at the effective rate, there's still gonna be a lot of changes on the spending side. These may include closing all library locations one additional day a week; across-the-board cuts to social-service contracts; civilian-side cuts to public safety; and delaying construction projects from the 1998 bond program to save on operating costs. Many of these cuts are being presented as "innovations" and "process improvements," and some will, in fact, represent better government. But some are just cuts, and advocates -- particularly on the social-services side -- are already calling for the blow to be softened. An oft-suggested Plan B: raiding Austin Energy, by either increasing the utility's annual General Fund transfer or emptying its contingency reserves. But AE already pays for almost all of the General Fund's non-public-safety spending, and Futrell has made clear that she wants to keep further AE subsidies to a minimum.

Budget hearings are already planned for each Thursday council meeting in August, leading up to scheduled adoption Sept. 8-10; both Wynn and Futrell are exploring ways to gather additional input. Since before his election, the mayor has often asserted that the more involvement Austin gets in the budget process, the more acceptance and buy-in the citizens will offer for the final spending plan.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Toby Futrell, Will Wynn, Daryl Slusher, city budget, layoffs, service cuts, tax hikes, effective rate

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