City Budget Blues

Declare Victory (Until Next Year)?

After months of hype and despair, it only took one (very long) day -- last Thursday -- to wrap up the biggest conflicts of the city's FY 04 budget season. There may still be minor points of contention when the City Council meets next week (Sept. 8, 9, and 10) to make the city's spending plan official. But as of this writing, it appears to be all over but the whimpering.

The details:

Development review. Barely anybody showed up at the Aug. 28 council hearing to complain about the streamlining and downsizing of the city's development review shop, nor did the "faster and friendlier" process proposed by Futrell and acting development-review director Joe Pantalion fill the council with visible angst. So this is a done deal, although Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman -- who, along with Council Member Raul Alvarez, raised the most questions from the dais -- noted "we're going to have to have a few more conversations about this" as the plan is implemented, expected to take two years. (For more on development review, see "Austin@Large.")

The firefighters. Thursday's headline event was a morning news conference at the Hyde Park fire station -- one of two that would end up with a downsized engine in Futrell and Fire Chief Gary Warren's "squad/quint" plan, vehemently opposed by the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters. Three council members joined Hyde Park neighbors and leaders of the Austin Area Human Services Association -- but not Futrell, Warren, or Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman, who oversees public safety -- to back AAPFF President Scott Toupin as he announced a deal: The firefighters would forfeit the 2% raise included for public-safety first responders in Futrell's budget, and thus save even more money (about $1.6 million) than would the squad/quint plan. The leftover funds would go to help restore Futrell's proposed 10% cut to the city's spending on social-service contracts, primarily with groups that belong to the AAHSA. (More on that below.)

The AAPFF acknowledged it had not proposed this to Futrell and Co. before -- though it has been loudly complaining that its own suggestions for savings were not given a fair hearing. (City Hall strenuously disputes this charge, claiming that the AAPFF's earlier proposals actually would have cost the city money.) Be that as it may, all in attendance were happy to declare victory. "The task was to find savings in the fire department budget, and the firefighters did it," says Council Member Brewster McCracken -- adding that he has "assurances of four votes," but that open-meetings laws prevented more than three council members (him, Goodman, and Alvarez) from attending the news conference. "This issue isn't driven by a concern that the existing service wasn't good. It's just economics. Once we correct the economics, which we have, there's no reason for a change."

Actually, the AAPFF may have "given back" a raise it wouldn't have received in the first place. A majority of the council (including McCracken) has already publicly questioned Futrell's proposed "public safety premium," and Toupin's counterpart Mike Sheffield has told the press he doesn't expect a raise to be offered to the Austin Police Association in its meet-and-confer talks with the city. (The cops' contract expires this month; the firefighters have worked without a contract for a year.) Toupin claimed that the AAPFF would forego its raise only if the money went back into the fire department, but it's not clear what leverage the union has -- unlike the APA, which can maim, if not kill outright, the Office of the Police Monitor, created as part of its current contract. But Council Member Daryl Slusher, who did not oppose the squad/quint plan, would prefer "to put the money back into the ending balance" -- a move that could lop more than 25% off City Hall's projected FY 05 deficit. "All programs are going to be better off if we take our medicine this time and make these cuts," Slusher says. The council is leaning toward banking the police portion of the canceled raise, as Slusher suggests -- though that may change by the time the curtain falls Sept. 10.

Social services. It's likely council members will try to raid the police raise, or some other attractive source of easy money (like the General Fund ending balance or your friends at Austin Energy) to restore the full $1.1 million cut from social service contracts in Futrell's budget. This is no surprise after 12-plus hours of budget hearings dominated by AAHSA members -- wearing their purple "Put People First" stickers -- predicting dire consequences if their agencies (which have already taken big cuts from other funding sources) were not supported at current levels.

Still, in response to council questions, Futrell and her staff presented at the Aug. 28 meeting data showing that Austin's General Fund spending on social service contracts has in the last decade grown twice as fast as the city's population, and that per capita, Austin spends on human services (both directly and through contracts) 53% more than Houston, 77% more than Fort Worth, 158% more than San Antonio, and 269% more than Dallas. Council members seemed a bit stunned by, and disbelieving of, these facts, and some conveyed a little resentment that Futrell and city staff would bring them up. But expect to hear those numbers again.

"I don't think anyone on the council needs to be convinced that these are good programs," says Slusher, "but we have a limited amount of money. We haven't had the thorough and frank dialogue we need to have on the situation we face. Overwhelmingly, we've had people simply tell us, 'Don't cut this.' I'd certainly like to reinstate the social service funding, but if they don't take the cut this year we're just postponing the reckoning until later."

Facilities. As reported here last week, Mayor Will Wynn has kicked off a campaign to shut down "underperforming" General Fund facilities -- libraries, recreation and health centers, even fire stations -- to better fund services in those that remain open. "We have these great places that deliver services, but we don't have the money for the services themselves," Wynn told the council. "And we are not going to in the foreseeable future." Yet even as he soliloquized for nearly 10 minutes on the topic -- with repeated references to the "15-year-record property tax increase" in the proposed budget -- Wynn knew that no facilities will likely be closed this year.

Certainly, no council members were champing at the bit to have this discussion in front of God and Channel 6. "I don't think we have the time this year to identify the facilities that just aren't working out," McCracken said later. "We have identified problem areas -- one of which is that the library system is underfunded -- to look at for next year." And Slusher, not far behind Wynn on the budget-hawk-o-meter, says it would be "destabilizing" to close facilities this year. "But I agree with him that it needs to be brought up. I think we should be allowed to absorb the city manager's cuts, plus bank the public safety premium, and then see if we can come up with savings during the year, and then next year look at facility closing."

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