The Austin Chronicle

City Hammers Out Budget, Crosses Fingers for Katrina Evacuee Reimbursements

By Wells Dunbar, September 16, 2005, News

With a minimum of fireworks, the City Council banged out the 2005-06 budget with yeoman efficiency Monday, keeping the same property tax rate as last year. Any thoughts of a protracted budget battle were dashed last week, in the wake of Austin's adoption of thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees. With the city crossing its fingers on reimbursement, adopting the nominal rate was a foregone conclusion, compacting budget talks scheduled for three days into three hours.

The nominal rate mirrors last year's, but due to rising property values draws some $1.3 million more in revenue, money the council distributed as add-backs to previously cut programs, and additional funds to social services. "As we go forward into the unknown … we don't know how Katrina's going to affect our budget," Council Member Raul Alvarez said.

After adoption of the session's only major amendment to the city manager's proposed budget – setting the tax rate at nominal – appropriations largely followed a previously circulated council "wish list." A total of $27.7 million went to salary adjustments for non-civil-service employees (all but police, fire, and EMS), raising the living wage to $10.90 an hour, implementing pay-for-performance measures, and bonuses. Some $883,000 went to a study on market adjustments, which will evaluate city-employee pay in comparison to other cities and the private sector. With the new incentives, Council Member Jennifer Kim sought the "opportunity to increase diversity at the hiring level." Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas congratulated the vocal city employees union AFSCME for "working hard with the city manager to get where they are today," which is reportedly a place they're happy with.

Around $1 million was spent on new social service items. $471,000 covered expansions to downtown's Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, giving the ARCH 70 additional beds, extended weekend hours, and additional police security. Restoring cuts to the library's Wired for Youth program came in at $153,000. The Council on At-Risk Youth's violence prevention programs got $150,000, and $50,000 went to the adult job training and support services offered through Capital IDEA. Another $250,000 was divvied up between after-school, violence, and stress reduction programs, with a $100,000 "challenge grant" to Dove Spring's River City Youth Foundation that's allocated when matching funds arrive. In addition to new funding, Health and Human Services got $438,000 for existing social service contracts, a 3% increase over the current proposed budget. A trial program emphasizing residential treatment and caseworker intervention for those chronically arrested for drug and alcohol abuse got $423,000.

The next amendment reserved $127,00 to resolve ongoing collective bargaining with the firefighters union. Brewster McCracken leapt at the allocation, saying funding for the drug and alcohol program was cut to reserve cash for the latter. "We had some questions about when the budget cuts might start, and they're starting today," said McCracken. "I'm sounding a little bit like a broken record, but we have a situation." Rising public safety salary costs are "leading to budget cuts this year," he said, "budget cuts that make us less safe."

Aside from the McCrack-attack on public safety costs, the budget proceeding was a genteel affair, albeit one clouded by the cost of Katrina. Wynn thanked "remarkable corporate citizens" AMD and Temple-Inland, who each contributed $250,000 to Katrina efforts to match funds raised by city employees. With overtime costs from Austin police a rising concern, in addition to the "loss of direct revenue" at the convention center, Wynn said the contributions would help greatly, even as Austin received "federal assurances" of disaster relief. Federal assurances – there's a concept to ponder.

FY 2006 Budget Highlights

Overall Approved Budget: $2.1 billion

General Fund Budget: $481.6 million; 6.9% more than FY 2005

Property Tax Rate: 44.30 cents per $100 valuation (same as current rate)

City Property Taxes for a $150,000 home: $665 per year, same as last year.

Key Add-backs:

City employee wages: $27.7 million

Social services: $1 million

ARCH expanded services: $471,000

Restored library hours: $1 million

Food & disease monitoring: $370,000

Planning and historic zoning: $475,000

Parks and forestry: $320,000

Paramedics: $1 million

Code enforcement: $4.6 million

Solar rebates: $1 million

Cultural arts: $3.8 million

Water/wastewater improvements: $975 million

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