'Hold-the-Line' Budget Hits the City Streets

City manager's spending plan includes "anticlimactic" cuts

Today (Thursday) at 2pm, the City Council and the citizens get their first official look at City Manager Toby Futrell's proposed fiscal 2005 budget – featuring spending cuts that in past years would have spawned howls of rage, but which after four years of fiscal surgery are instead provoking shrugs and resignation. Mayor Will Wynn describes the anticipated $10-12 million in spending cuts as "anticlimactic" and "a fact of life" – the logical outcome of decisions made by Futrell and the council since the boom went bust in 2001.

When last she briefed the council – with the May release of her draft policy budget – Futrell still pegged the General Fund's money gap at more than $19 million that would need to be bridged with spending cuts. Council members, and even the city manager, were not entirely sure how City Hall – which has since 2001 seen the overall General Fund budget (where your taxes go) shrink by 20% – would be able to lop off another 5%. But economic recovery, and resulting increases in sales tax revenue, along with the continuation of transportation funding from Capital Metro, have reduced the gap to a more manageable number.

"We're still talking about real, live cuts," says Council Member Brewster McCracken, who as a rookie last year was instrumental in knocking down the most controversial cuts in Futrell's proposal. "But there's been progress. What we'll be looking at Thursday is not people being laid off, or serious cuts that will forever transform city services. That's the best news of all."

Futrell has balanced spending reductions with a hike in the property tax levy to the "effective rate" and a modest dip into cash reserves to pay for "critical" one-time capital equipment needs. The council appears unwilling to venture further into those territories. "We have built and maintained good, solid reserves [that] are the primary reason our bond ratings were not lowered last year, like other Texas cities," says Wynn. "I hope that we will continue to use them very judiciously, regardless of how painful more cuts are."

Aside from the already announced reorganization of the city's planning and development functions – creating a "one-stop shop" for reviews, centralizing code enforcement, establishing a 24-hour call center for citizen complaints, and dismantling the Transportation, Planning, and Sustainability Department – Futrell is not expected to call for much drastic change in the way the city delivers its services. Exactly such change is what Wynn called for during his campaign and during last year's budget battles, but he seems willing to wave the white flag now. "Would I have liked to stir it up more? Sure, but that's not in the cards," he says.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, the Travis Co. Commissioners Court is also introducing its fiscal 2005 spending plan this week. Both documents should, by the time you read this, be available on the respective Web sites www.cityofaustin.org and www.co.travis.tx.us.

The Budget Calendar

City of Austin: Budget hearings will be held during the next four Thursday council meetings – Aug. 5, Aug. 12, Aug. 26, and Sept. 2 – all at 6pm. Final budget approval is slated for Sept. 13-15.

Travis Co.: The county has public hearings on the budget scheduled for Aug. 18 and Sept. 22 at 6pm, with final approval on Sept. 28. The county will likely also hold a public hearing (as required by law) to discuss elected officials' salaries, on or before Sept. 7.

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city budget, fiscal 2005, Will Wynn, Toby Futrell, Brewster McCracken, county budget

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