Point Austin: Wish Lists

AFSCME steps up to the council budget table, and the bonds begin to take shape

Point Austin
The City Council returns to public session today (Thursday), with the headline item on the agenda the staff's formal presentation of the fiscal year 2006 budget the central preoccupation of the next few weeks. I wrote a bit about that subject last week, with the likely central issues to be the $8 million in proposed "add backs" to city services cut during the downturn (which everybody, more or less, supports), the increasing costs for public safety salaries and employee health insurance, and whether or not these will necessitate adjustments in the tax rate, from "effective" (the same money as last year) to "nominal" (the same rate but rising property values, i.e., a bit more money out of residential pockets), or even a moderate tax increase. It's early, but just from the still-unfocused buzz, I'm guessing the council will cross its fingers, bet on slow but steady expansion, and vote for nominal.

The latest wild card is a letter to council last week from Greg Powell of AFSCME, the public employees' union (excepting police, fire, and EMS), asking for more substantial and more permanent increases than City Manager Toby Futrell has yet been willing to offer. In her draft policy budget, Futrell proposed a 3.5% pay-for-performance increase and a one-time 2% bonus for all non-public-safety employees; AFSCME is asking for a 5% across-the-board increase as a "market adjustment," and that the 2% not be a one-time payment but added to the base pay as well (therefore part of consideration in future adjustments). Also in the Powell letter is a request for adjustments necessitated by the previously adopted $10 minimum city wage, and a bilingual stipend akin to that granted to police officers.

Although it's ultimately the council's call, Futrell is already balking because she says it's too much, and that adding the 2% as base pay would trigger provisions in the police contract requiring they receive 2% over and above what other employees are earning. Powell disagrees with her take on the contract, but argues more persuasively that unlike the public safety folks, most city employees received no increases in FY 2003 and 2004 – indeed, it's arguable that the reeling post-9/11 budgets were balanced on the backs of the non-public-safety employees, and it's time for catch-up. "Our proposal thus proves a 21/2% pay adjustment for each of those years [2003-2004]," wrote Powell. "Given that the cost of living moved forward 31/2% for each of those years, this is a modest proposal." Powell also claims that his proposal actually saves money over the draft budget because Futrell has acknowledged that the living wage ordinance has created salary "compression" requiring adjustments upward. For the moment, I'll leave that argument to the accountants, but the council should seriously consider the AFSCME pitch.

Whatever the outcome of the budget argument, it's encouraging to see the public employees, in addition to police and fire, step forward to try to gain some traction for labor in these policy discussions. The state's rigid restrictions on the organizing rights of public employees make it difficult to strengthen workers' bargaining power; a stronger public employees union would eventually mean better working conditions for all of us, citywide.

Dreams of Bondage

While awaiting the opening budget rounds, I've been musing over the city's bond election "needs assessment." (Hey, somebody else is in charge of the movie listings.) This is also known as the wish list: all those things the city staff thinks need doing, if they had the money. The grand total, encompassing everything from sewer repair to open land acquisition, comes to $769.1 million (I like that deferential decimal point), although the financial capacity summary suggests that the final package, once it's reviewed by the citizens committee and the council itself, will be considerably less.

Most of the broad category needs will simply be trimmed on a priority-needed basis, but it's useful to begin thinking about a few big-ticket items still buried in the mix:

• Fully 27% of the city's streets (1,830) are rated "unsatisfactory" (poor or failed), much of this a consequence of financially deferred maintenance ($100 million just to reconstruct).

• Much ballyhooed master bike plan and bikeway construction (Lance Armstrong, Pleasant Valley) is a relatively minor hit ($11.2 million).

• In addition to multiple citywide renovations and some new facilities, and a new municipal courthouse ($20 million), the public safety folks are asking for $26.1 million for a new joint training facility that sounds neither urgent nor a priority.

• The Town Lake Animal Center wants $22.3 million to replace the current 50-year-old facility, on-site – bond committee buzz is that whole job could be done cheaper and more efficiently elsewhere than prime land Downtown.

• Need for a new central library grows more urgent every day (especially since the Lege seems disinclined to pay even for new school textbooks); project estimate is $106.9 million, plus the creation of a $20 million library trust fund seeded from Block 21 proceeds; considering the book collection numbers for "peer cities" (only San Antonio is worse, per capita), what is taking Austin so long?

• The proposal for open land acquisition is $50 million, while the current Travis Co. proposal is $16 million with arguments being made for much more – there will be much noise on these proposals, but one thing to keep in mind: The cost is minimal compared to that of the infrastructure required to service the same lands, if opened to currently little-restricted Western Travis Co. land development (read, exploitation) patterns.

Whatever your thoughts on these matters, the final bond proposal to be put before the voters next year will be heavily influenced by the ongoing work of the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee. Their next meeting is Tuesday, Aug. 2, 9am at City Hall Boards and Commissions Room (301 W. Second), and the Web site is www.ci.austin.tx.us/budget/beac.htm. City budget info is at www.ci.austin.tx.us/budget. And call (or e-mail) your council members and let 'em know your thoughts (www.ci.austin.tx.us/council).

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Austin City Council, city council, city budget, Greg Powell, AFSCME, Toby Futrell, citizens bond advisory committee

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