You Can't Touch This
The Budget Battles, Round 2: Citizens Rally to Save Community Services
"We need to have extensive public discussion, but for it really to be meaningful input, it won't help to simply tell us, 'Don't cut this.'" So said Council Member Daryl Slusher last month, when City Manager Toby Futrell debuted her proposed fiscal 2004 Austin city budget. By this standard, the Aug. 14 budget hearing on community services -- parks, libraries, health and human services -- must not have been very meaningful: More than 200 people signed up, and almost without exception they told Mayor Will Wynn and the City Council ... "Don't cut this."
Helpful? Maybe not at this moment, when the council has to cut $38 million in General Fund spending and raise property taxes just to break even this year, and still faces deficits for two more years. But if nothing else, the panoply of pleading before the council served to put Austin's financial crisis into the sharpest possible relief. "These are the General Fund programs which most directly touch the majority of Austin citizens," Barbara Hankins of the League of Women Voters told the council. "Those most impacted [by Futrell's proposed cuts] would be the poor, the sick, the elderly, and children."
The community-service departments present City Hall with its cruelest ironies: Having been cut to ribbons in the last bust, Austin's parks, libraries, and social services have spent the last decade trying to keep up with the city's enormous growth, and only barely succeeding. Now, as the economy slumbers, demand for these services is higher than ever, and funding (at all levels of government) is lower than ever and likely to get even lower. "When the economy is on a downward trend and resources are limited, that's the very time when the demand and need for the things we do goes up," city Health and Human Services director David Lurie told the council. "It's the worst of all worlds."
It's made worse by the political reality that public safety, which consumes nearly 60% of the city's General Fund, is not going to get cut in any meaningful way. This has led social-service providers to aim to position themselves as part of the world of public safety and thus deserving to be held harmless. "I am saddened by the image of a society that literally casts children out on the street and creates a revolving door between poorly funded social services and a criminal justice system," Lifeworks director Susan McDoul told the council, adding that the proposed 10% cut to social-service contract funding "is not even a short-term budget solution" because it activates the more expensive Plan B. "When an Austin police officer picks up a runaway youth, they take them immediately to our shelter," McDoul noted. "The only other option for this youth is to go to jail. In the short term, that's a very expensive solution. In the long run, we are criminalizing children who are often fleeing desperate and abusive circumstances."
Speaker after speaker, many representing Austin Area Human Services Association member groups that are among the 50-plus nonprofits that receive city funding, reiterated the same themes. Fred Butler, director of the Community Action Network -- the consortium that sets priorities for city and county human-service funding -- offered recent statistics: In the last 12 months, calls to the United Way Helpline for "basic needs" assistance -- help paying the rent or mortgage, finding food, or covering medical costs -- have seen increases ranging from 30% to 52%, depending on the type of help sought. "Please do everything you can," he said, "to give us the assistance we need."
More graphic, and more clearly affecting to the council, was the input of Mary Lou McPhail, the board treasurer of Family Eldercare and a longtime ER nurse at Brackenridge. "I've seen death, disability, pain and suffering due to abuse, assault, homicide, gang violence, substance abuse, and lack of adequate access to primary medical and psychiatric care," she told the council. "I could stand here for the next hour and tell you stories that would just make you cry and want to go home and hug your families and hold them tight and not let them go." For each of the programs whose funding is in trouble, "I have cared for at least one patient whose condition could have been prevented if they had had access to these services. And I only work part time. ... What will be your legacy as a City Council? Will Austin continue to be the best city in Texas to live in -- but only if you have a high-paying job, insurance, and no mental or physical health problems?"
Mental health services, along with HIV/AIDS services, are the only social-service contracts held harmless in the current budget proposal. The 10% aggregate cut in other funding has yet to be apportioned out program by program -- an upcoming task for Butler and CAN. Some programs could conceivably lose all their city funding, and many of their supporters point out that city funding -- which helps them match private grants and otherwise leverage the scarce nonprofit dollar -- is their last resort in the face of federal and state cuts. (Travis County leaders have made promises to not cut the county's social service spending, although the Commissioners Court -- particularly Commissioner Gerald Daugherty -- is still hoping to identify additional savings in the county budget.) "While a cut might seem minimal to some," said Susan Eason, executive director of The ARC of the Capital Area, "the cumulative effect of this hit is going to be more than many agencies can endure."
Inside city government, of course, the story is no different. If Futrell's budget is adopted as proposed, the Parks and Recreation Dept., Austin Public Library, and Health and Human Services Dept. will have lost nearly 250 positions and more than $10 million in funding since FY 03 began last October. Long-cherished programs that have escaped previous swings of the budget axe -- from services to at-risk youth to funding for Pioneer Farms -- are being felled by the new fiscal reality.
City department heads -- normally upbeat, or at least circumspect, when talking budget with the City Council -- are this time in a somewhat darker mood. When asked by Council Member Brewster McCracken if the library is "sustainable" with current funding, Director Brenda Branch replied, "No, I don't think so. I think it's clear that we're in big trouble. In order for our library system to provide quality service to this community, you as a council will have to significantly increase the operating funds of the library." Branch's counterpart at PARD, Jesus Olivares, noted that while this year, his staff did more with less, "this new round of cuts ... is going to mean reduced services." (Rosemary Castleberry, the chair of the Parks Board, told the council "I'm scared to death; when Jesus [Olivares] first mentioned to us there would be [more] severe cuts in parks, I almost cried. I know we can't take any more cuts.")
To further vex supporters of the parks and libraries, the proposed budget not only calls for cuts in current service but seeks to delay the construction of four branch library projects and five PARD facilities, since the departments can't afford to operate them once they open. Both the city Library Commission and the Austin Public Library Foundation have urged the council to build the libraries -- expansions at Spicewood Springs and Terrazas and replacement facilities for North Village and Twin Oaks -- on schedule, as promised in the 1998 bond election. Likewise, parks advocates -- particularly supporters of the Mexican American Cultural Center and the Town Lake Park project -- reminded the council of promises made during the boom, and in the case of the MACC for decades earlier. "This would be going on 30 years that we're still waiting," said MACC board member and Eastside community leader Sabino Renteria.
The same time frame holds true in Colony Park, whose long-promised recreation center -- just renamed last month in honor of Eastside activists Dorothy Turner and the late Velma Roberts -- is on the list for delay. "Most homeowners in this area have lived there for many years and have been promised all types of things -- roads, stores, schools, parks," said Colony Park Neighborhood Association President Alfreda Loving. "And for some reason or another, nothing has transpired. Please don't force our children to wait another 29 years for a park in the neighborhood."
But what can the council do? Futrell and her staff have talked a lot about "innovations" and "new service delivery models," but those aren't really on display in the community services budget. Both McCracken and Wynn made clear they'd like to see a completely new model for library service -- one that involves fewer neighborhood branches -- and Wynn added similar caveats regarding parks. Both departments already use scads of volunteers and rely heavily on philanthropy, which may become the norm for other city services as well. Futrell noted that, in an effort to offset cuts to HHS mentoring and employment programs for at-risk youth, city employees have launched a "sweat equity" program to volunteer in the schools.
As for the agencies with social-service contracts, city leaders have for several years talked about trying to use Austin's organizational muscle to help them reduce their operating costs -- for example, letting nonprofits buy supplies off city purchasing contracts or having City Hall administer their payroll. Conversely, supporters of several delayed facilities and threatened programs -- including the MACC, Colorado River Park, Gus Garcia Park, and South Austin Soccer Complex -- have already made at least tentative commitments to raising the funds necessary to keep those budget items intact and on schedule.
But these are small shovelfuls of dirt poured into a gaping and growing hole. While Futrell chose not to present a budget that sought to raise taxes above the "effective rate" -- the 3.3% hike that will in theory leave city property-tax revenue unchanged -- and Wynn has made many references to "forced trade-offs" that would allow the city to avoid even that tax increase, many of the community advocates facing the council were of a different mind. "We believe that facing up to the need for increased revenues is absolutely essential," said the League of Women Voters' Hankins. "As taxpayers realize what services they will be losing, they may not be averse to a small tax increase." Others advocated going even higher than the effective rate if necessary -- an option that appears unlikely to win council support.
For his part, Wynn last week gently but firmly told the AAHSA that the group's various suggestions for alternatives to spending cuts were nonstarters. The city enterprise funds are all in fiscal straits of their own, he wrote in a letter to AAHSA, except for Austin Energy, which is already doing all it can, or all the bond houses will allow, to subsidize the General Fund. (And, no matter how many times citizens suggest raiding it, Austin Energy's nearly $200 million debt-management fund is not on the table.) Increased tax revenues from business personal property, as enabled by SB380 passed this spring, won't kick in until next fiscal year and are probably modest in any event. A city homestead exemption -- to offset a higher tax rate -- will not do, Wynn says, because in addition to leading to a net revenue decrease, it shifts the tax burden onto renters. The city already examined and adjusted its user fees this year. And so on.
In the nicest possible way, Wynn suggests the AAHSA is not addressing the city's real problem head-on. "We are going to have to admit that the underlying cause for the anguish being felt by the proposed budget cuts," he wrote, "is not because our revenues have dropped precipitously, but rather because our spending increases over the past 12 years were wholly unsustainable." He cites figures showing that spending since 1990, not just on fat and happy public safety programs but also on parks and libraries, has outpaced the city's 52% population growth during that time. "Good government requires that we correct this unsustainable pattern." Yet for all his talk about goring sacred cows and breaking the budget mold, Wynn has yet to suggest any real alternatives to Futrell's proposed spending plans, and neither have any other council members, and the budget season is already more than halfway over.