Our Groovy Capitalistic Council
Keep Austin Corporate, dude; and, a firefight breaks out between Martinez and McCracken
Welcome to the People's Republic of Austin, Live Music Capital of the World! The red, Republican tide breaks on our blue shores; man just look at how cool our City Council is.
Last Thursday's meeting had council donning the tie-dye, taking on many issues close to the city's progressive soul: Will Wynn directed the city to find a site for the new Green Water Treatment Plant, a move mainly applauded by enviro types like Save Our Springs; the city finalized its agreement with Walgreens that its pharmacists provide birth control to city clients sans moralizing or refusal; and the fiercely opposed expansion of the South Austin Tennis Center ground to a halt, to rejoicing from the affected neighborhood, as well as mutterings from the tennis lobby. Hell, the council even effectively pardoned unofficial 78704 mascot Nik the goat, amending the health code and allowing pet livestock to coexist peacefully with man. Some self-promotion went with the pardon, as both Wynn and the hollow-horned creature are slated to appear in a new play at Zach Scott Theatre called Keeping it Weird. Groovy!
Keeping it Corporate, however, is what should have appeared on the city playbill. In a 7-0 decision, Austin's leaders twisted one off for Korean giant Samsung, packing the bubbling tax-incentive bong with more than $58 million in waivers and more than 20 years of rebates. "Competition for jobs in our country is stiffer than it ever was," said Wynn, continuing that "Samsung is exactly the kind of corporate citizen cities look for." And Austin, apparently, is the kind of city Samsung looks for staffed by a council that passes its largest incentive package ever without public input or hearing but awash in congratulatory, back-slapping platitudes. Bummer.
While Samsung's wetting of its beak was largely a foregone conclusion, far messier debate over Austin's dollars unfolded later. That afternoon saw the city's public safety teams EMS, fire, and police plead their case in the 2006 budget. Of the city's $479.7 million in general funds, police stake out a $183 million claim, and fire $91.5 million. After the presentations and perfunctory praise of our first responders, Council Member Brewster McCracken continued the charge on public safety costs that has been his trademark this season, calling on John Stephens, Austin's chief financial officer, to forecast the coming monetary storm. Public safety is on track to consume more than 100% of new revenue by 2009, said Stephens, and take up nearly the whole city budget in 10 years. If so, "in 10 years, we would have to cut more than the proposed parks and library budget [in today's dollar terms]," said the council member in an increasingly common display this budget season.
Later, however, something uncommon happened. Further into the night, as members of the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters made a case for their new contract, pending as the city continues its budget talks, AAPFF and council got into it big time. "My frustration level was displayed, and I regret that," said AAPFF President Mike Martinez. "There was an exchange between myself and at least one council member in particular," that he said resulted in his feeling like he "was being cross examined." Worse yet, Martinez said, the line of questioning was based on "partial or inaccurate" information. While McCracken considered averages of firefighter pay in Texas cities, saying the city's proposal would make Austin firefighters the state's best paid, Martinez presented direct comparisons between cities. The base monthly salary most common for Austin firefighters, $3,092, ranks 13th out of 14 cities, said Martinez, so "we are still dead last, except for Abilene, Texas." Adopting the union's proposed increases would take AFD employees from 13th to eighth, he said, "right in the middle." As negotiations last stood, the city was ready to allocate $27.5 million, while AAPFF asked for $31.5 million, said Martinez. Council Member Danny Thomas also fanned the flames, blaming "union grievances" in part for the cancellation of AFD's cadet class.
But it was the "blasphemous statements" by McCracken that truly infuriated Martinez. "We were accused of putting a proposal on the table that put children out on the streets," said Martinez, citing the litany of budget slashes McCracken fears if public safety isn't reigned in. "That is such a huge leap." The union leader also warned that such "low politics" could "end up getting some of these council members in positions they wouldn't agree with" come election time. While the council needs to act eventually, the fact that the city and AAPFF are only $4 million apart doesn't validate McCracken's dire proclamations. Not yet, at least.
In a budget built around "strategic reinvestment" in Austin and its workforce, it's funny that $58 million in tax incentives can't bat an eyelash, while a considerably smaller impasse in salary negotiations makes for hifalutin drama. Martinez tied the two together tightly in a quote to local politics newsletter In Fact Daily: "While incentives are appropriate, we can't blame city employees for their wages being too high of a percentage of the overall tax revenue when we've given away so much of tax revenues. We're giving away millions of dollars." A budget is a city's priorities laid out in concrete terms. As the vote nears in September, hopefully the council can make those priorities known, and Keep Austin Austin.