Council Whistles a Happy Budget Tune
Pain, pain, go away, come again some other day
As City Hall watchers in the Toby Futrell era know, every budget has its own theme song. Two years ago, it was "Stairway to Heaven." Last year, "Don't Worry Be Happy." And this week, the City Council signed off on Futrell's fiscal 2005 spending plan all in one day, instead of the usual two or three, and with few changes to the sounds of Annie: "The sun will come out ... tomorrow."
Actually, it was more like yesterday, as optimism bred by the city's rebounding sales tax and the lingering faint smell of economic recovery brought back a glimmer of prebust budget dynamics. Though Daryl Slusher suggested that a more appropriate theme would be "You Can't Always Get What You Want," the $11 million in General Fund cuts embedded in the FY 2005 spending plan were largely swallowed without pain, and more than a few people did, in fact, get what they wanted (see box). This was thanks to an unexpectedly ample supply of council play money $375,000 in "unallocated funds" generated by those up-ticking sales taxes to spend during Monday's final lap of the Budget 500. (When Futrell presented the proposed FY 2005 budget on July 30, this sum was only $200,000.)
The largest chunk of this new spending went to raise the city's minimum wage to $10 per hour, effective April 1 (halfway through the fiscal year). When this idea was first broached by the council, Futrell worried out loud that it would cost a lot more than a couple hundred grand (like, closer to $8 million) to avoid "compressing" the city's lowest pay grade and leaving brand-new employees making the same wages as veterans. Apparently, waiting until April helps assuage this concern. Other winners of last-minute budget largesse include the Parks and Recreation Department's midnight basketball program; the Austin Past and Present "interactive digital history of Austin" media project (receiving matching grant funds promised years ago, before the bust); and the Austin Police Department, which will add two new on-the-street lieutenant positions, one assigned to APD's reincarnated traffic-enforcement division. (Some of the APD funding is to be generated by increased Municipal Court collections due to the new emphasis on ticket-writing.)
And the construction of the Turner/Roberts Recreation Center in Colony Park, delayed last year along with other facilities approved in the 1998 bond election, will be sped back up a year thanks to (you guessed it) fiscal assistance from Austin Energy, among other sources outside the General Fund. Mayor Will Wynn voted against this amendment, though assuring his colleagues that this reflected general fiscal concerns, not a specific opinion about this project. Danny Thomas, whose baby this has been, noted, "This is really long overdue, and I'm looking that in the near future our revenues will be increasing" to cover the operating costs that Wynn cited in opposition. The Colony Park center was first proposed in 1976.
It wouldn't be a budget without some last minute twists and turns for the Cultural Arts Fund. The allocation of city bed-tax money to artists and arts groups, done this year by the city Arts Commission according to a brand-new formula, was substantially altered by the City Council. A complicated system of caps and supplemental awards (shepherded by Raul Alvarez) was approved to mitigate the impact of the new process, which produced some substantial changes sometimes way up, sometimes way down from the funding enjoyed in 2004 and earlier by various recipients. "We haven't seen if people really agree with the new system," Alvarez said, "and it needs some tweaking to soften the impact in the first year." His colleagues Betty Dunkerley and Jackie Goodman, whose baby this has been, praised Alvarez for "working incredibly hard to smooth off the rough edges" of the new process (in Dunkerley's words), with the soon-to-retire mayor pro tem adding that she might be in the audience next year for this topic. The mayor again voted "no," saying he stands by his position that "to depoliticize this process," the council must resist the annual impulse, no matter how noble, to tweak the Arts Commission's recommendations.
The only other item to generate council opposition was the lately controversial move by the Department of Aviation to hike the access fees charged to off-site parking-lot operators at Bergstrom Airport. Those businesses and others loudly balked at the budget's proposed fee of 10% of the operators' gross revenues which, compared to the flat fee per space the city charges now, could translate into a 500% increase. Thus emerged a plan B a 4% increase next year and further hikes to be tied to the parking lots' own revenue increases. This gesture of sympathy to the operators went unshared by Slusher, Alvarez, and Thomas, who thought a 10% fee was plenty fair to charge to businesses that (in Slusher's words) "couldn't operate if the city didn't have an airport here."
Ultimately, though, all of these changes combined amounted to less money than the biggest amendment a $7.7 million increase (on top of $3 million in the proposed budget) to one-time funding for the Travis County Hospital District, to help the new entity establish its reserve funds. This was obviously less than the $33 million county officials had charged that the city was "stealing" from the district, but it was good enough for TCHD Board of Managers Chair Clarke Heidrick, who assured the council that the district would adopt fiscal policies that made sure that money didn't get unwisely spent. The final tax rate "transferred" to the district by the city was 6.35 cents per $100 valuation, leaving the city's own property tax rate at 44.3 cents, which Wynn proudly noted "for those at home keeping score" represented a 12% decrease to current rates.