Austin @ Large: Austin at Large
Wait 'Til Next Year! Council Keeps Its Hands Clean, and We Still Have a Budget Crisis
The City Council -- despite months and months and months of talk (punctuated by an actual election, no less) about hard choices and forced trade-offs and basic services and living within our means -- has now adopted a fiscal 2004 city budget in which nothing really changes. This week the council cut exactly $61,531 in spending, beyond the $38.2 million that City Manager Toby Futrell had to cut to balance the books even with a tax hike. That paltry sum comes from their own office budgets, and two-thirds of it comes from Mayor Will Wynn's kitty, since Fearless Leader has eliminated an actual staff position. That's it. That's the "hard choices" and the "forced trade-offs."
Take it to the bank.
Basically, the budget has been balanced once again, for the third straight year, on the backs of the city workforce -- layoffs, hiring freezes, foregone raises for everyone, not just the firefighters -- without any fundamental change to the ways City Hall serves the citizens. Both Futrell and the council know it, and they also know we can't do this again next year. But instead of dirtying its hands making the actual policy changes that will translate into long-term fiscal stability, the council has exercised its traditional role and, apparently, God-given right to make people happy now rather than later.
The firefighters' raise got spent immediately. Money has been found for the Austin Music Network. Money has been found for the Mexican-American Cultural Center and the Terrazas branch library expansion. Money has been found for the minority contractors' associations -- and even though one city-funded group has shut its doors, that money is still being spent. Money has been found to rescue dogs and cats, by transferring the functions and funds of the city's animal behaviorist. (Yes, there is a city animal behaviorist.) Last week, there was even talk, for God's sake, of money for Pioneer Farms.
Ever since the election, Mayor Will Wynn has talked about getting maximum buy-in from the community on the hard choices et al. If they're still looking for money for Pioneer Farms, it's clear that Wynn hasn't even got buy-in within City Hall.
Now, gosh. I think I understand Austin values as much as the next guy, but I can surely live without Pioneer Farms. But my deep disappointment is not, strictly speaking, about the money. I'm frustrated by the way Austin spends money, not by what it spends money on or how much it spends. I think Wynn's obsession with our pseudo-exorbitant property taxes is unrealistic; I would gladly pay more in taxes to fully fund social-service contracts at current levels. (It would take about one-tenth of a cent more than the effective rate -- which would increase the average Austin property-tax bill by less than $2. Then again, it would be nice if every Austinite just pitched in $2.) Our taxes are high, even though the tax rate is artificially low, because Austin is a most desirable place to live. If we want Austin to be a generic pile of broke-down urban crap from which decent people flee -- you know, like Houston or Dallas -- that can be arranged, and our taxes will be lower.
Even if local tax policy hadn't been crafted in the Land of Oz during the Watson/Garza era, the way City Hall spends money is not only "unsustainable" but in fact unsustained. Whatever "economic recovery" is in our future, we will never again see the double-digit growth of five years ago, and anyone who isn't relieved by this fact -- who wants a new boom, same as the old boom -- has probably left town already. However, the Austin city budget is thoroughly larded with spending commitments made when the NASDAQ was heading toward 5,000. Every citizen dearly loves something that costs City Hall money it no longer has and will never again have. When will this realization finally sink in? Tomorrow, I suppose.
Nobody envies the City Council here, and it would be too harsh to say it has failed. Let us instead say the council members, be they budget hawks or doves, have yet to succeed at anything other than business as usual. Daryl Slusher has been admirably clear about the problem, but has not been able to move the ball, other than by taking a seeming solemn vow to never, ever, ever disagree publicly with the city manager. Betty Dunkerley, who's supposed to be an expert here, has been even less audible about advocating for a policy stance the council needs to take. Brewster McCracken has shown a commendable willingness to wade into controversy, but he voted for everything but the Music Network. (He did, however, have the guts to say, in so many words, that AMN was a failure, a belief you'd think would be more widely shared by a council that has now five times given the channel "one last chance.")
Meanwhile, the budget doves have, I think, appropriate priorities, but haven't helped the city figure out a way to truly address those priorities in a way that's worth doing for the long haul. An example: The Terrazas branch and the MACC are both good projects. Perhaps they should be one good project; the sprawling MACC campus could house a library facility with a world-class Spanish-language and Latin American collection. That may be a thoroughly bogus idea, but we'll never know; Raul Alvarez has dipped into the magic Holly Mitigation Fund, and Terrazas and the MACC will proceed as planned, even if those plans are now obsolete. (A common Austin civic malady. Perhaps we can call it Long Center Syndrome.)
Choosing Not to Choose
Other neighborhoods, whose residents aren't fortunate enough to live "near" a controversial power plant, will still have to wait for their libraries and parks. It would have been nice if Alvarez or Jackie Goodman or Danny Thomas had offered some bona fide suggestions -- maybe not real "proposals," but at least hints -- of what they'd be willing to live without. McCracken, at least, has done that, daring (briefly) to suggest closing fire stations consecrated by neighborhood battle. Right now, it's hard to imagine Goodman or Alvarez or Thomas voting for anything that might meet Wynn's definition of a forced trade-off.
Which is also evidence that Fearless Leader, sadly, doesn't have enough dirt on his hands. Wynn promised up one side of town and down the other that he was willing and able and even sorta eager to lead City Hall in these troubled times. But talking about the need for leadership is not the same as actually being a leader, and Wynn can only assign so much blame to the council for refusing to be led; the mayor had more chances than he took to deliver on his promises. There's no election next year, so Wynn (and the others) will all get another chance. But -- apparently unlike the Music Network or Pioneer Farms -- their chances, and the city's, will assuredly run out.