Beside the Point: City Budget

Ya gotta wear shades

In a workmanlike Monday swoop, the City Council passed a $2.3 billion budget (all funds) for fiscal year 2007 in one brief meeting. In the culmination of months of financial talks, mostly transpiring behind closed doors, council adopted the "rollback" property tax rate of 41.26 cents to fund the city's programs for the coming year. While technically a decrease from the current ad valorem tax of 44.30 cents, due to rising property values the rate will bring in more money than last year; as council members were quick to point out, for a median-priced home of $167,000, it amounts to roughly $1.70 more a month.

The decision to fund at the rollback rate was not a surprise. Charged with drafting the proposed budget, City Manager Toby Futrell had based her numbers on the "effective" rate of 39.85 cents (the rate which, permitting for rising values, pulls in the same funds as last year). But Futrell also identified $7.7 million worth of additional programs unfunded in her $525.3 million General Fund budget, largely public safety and social-service needs. Council spent most of its Monday meeting these and other needs with the extra funds garnered by the rollback rate – $9.3 million in all – in a series of 35 amendments to the operating budget.

Like eager kids on Christmas morning, members took turns unwrapping and announcing the extra funds in the carefully choreographed event, following a script drafted down to who seconded which council member's motion. Aside from meeting most of Futrell's unfunded adds, including an extra $2 million in preventative street maintenance, new additions included $186,000 to reduce softball-league fees at city parks, proposed by Mike Martinez; $150,000 for Brewster McCracken's program to help develop local wireless Web access companies; and $50,000 won by Sheryl Cole to combat sickle cell anemia (see below for highlights).

Less trumpeted was the ordinance authorizing "fees, fines, and other charges," the centerpiece of which was a 7.1% increase to water and wastewater costs, estimated to raise average monthly bills about $5 to $54. Evidently nothing would sully council's satisfaction with the budget, mostly remarkable for its lack of (at least visible) controversy. In the only oblique nod to work behind the scenes, Will Wynn thanked longtime number-cruncher and Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley for her "individual shuttle diplomacy work" in brokering the agreed-upon amendments.

As the meeting adjourned, the P.A. segued (sardonically?) into "The Future's So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades)" by Austin Eighties meteorites Timbuk 3.

Prosperity Rocks: Major add-backs

While the city's annual budget is $2.3 billion, come adoption time, it's the General Fund budget, some 22% of the overall total, that we focus on. It's this section that contains items most important to the citizenry – public safety, social services, and the popular library and parks systems. The following breaks down the proposed General Fund budget of $525.3 million, highlights several (but not all) of the $9.3 million in additions made to it this week. – W.D.

Public Safety ($345.8 million total)

EMS: $995,000 and 15 full-time employees to recruit and develop future paramedics

Austin Fire Department: $1,000,000 for protective bunker gear

Austin Police Department: $479,000 for 9.5 FTEs for crime detection & juvenile services

Public Safety & Emergency Management: $143,000 for three officers for enhanced lake patrol

Fund Transfers & City Workforce Initiatives ($67.2 million)

$516,000 to begin a bilingual program for Spanish-speaking city employees

Parks & Library ($52.4 million)

$42,000 for an exhibit specialist for the Austin History Center

$100,000 for two FTEs for expanded tree maintenance

Health & Human Services ($30.9 million)

$1.2 million to assist affordable housing programs affected by cuts in federal grants

$275,000 to establish a day-labor site in South Austin

$155,000, one FTE for outreach and education to reduce animal shelter euthanasia

Neighborhood Planning & Zoning/Watershed Protection & Development Review ($18.9 million)

$333,000 for five FTEs to faster implement neighborhood plans

Municipal Court ($10.1 million)

$36,500 for one assistant to cover increased customer demand at substations

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