Beside the Point

Don't Fear the Reaper

Like George W.'s "Mission Accomplished" landing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln – which just celebrated its glorious fourth anniversary this week – each city of Austin budget season is stage-managed within an inch of its life. The information is teased out by staff over the course of weeks and months, parceled out and combed-over piecemeal, often to underscore the central theme of the city manager's presentation – somewhere between "major budget-slashing operations have ended" and "the boom days are in their last throes." Hell, the things are even titled – last year's focus-group-infused title was Rebuilding Services, Responding to Growth.

What's this year's? Run for the Hills?

The first cannonade in the months-long campaign of Budget FY 2008 is fired today, in the form of the city's Five Year Financial Forecast. An overview of the city's coffers, it's prepared with respect to the potential (not yet proposed) budget, setting the tone for the discussion to come. And this year, the advance buzz down at City Hall is bad. While trying to predict the future is hard work (see Dick Cheney and his "dead enders"), rumors of a budgetary shortfall have been making the rounds, with the insatiable beast of Public Safety salaries inevitably fingered as the culprit.

But is it rumor, exactly? The financial forecast from last year plainly showed a $2.2 million deficit for 2007, ultimately spiraling up to $17.3 million by 2011. And with actual, amended, estimated, and proposed numbers to pick from in a city budget, it's likely the final shortfall could loom still larger.

So why the concerted whisper campaign? Well, up for renegotiation next year is the police contract. And with firefighter contracts to be negotiated at the same time, Emergency Medical Services possibly eligible for meet-and-confer (with Kirk Watson's help – his bill's in a House committee at press time), plus the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees' continued push for similar contract rights, plenty of folks are pulling up chairs to the proverbial bargaining table. Let's also not forget that the five-year projections (and really, who aside from the Amazing Kreskin can see that far out?) stretch past 2011, the zero-hour when public-safety expenditures outstrip new revenue.

So what better way to head off a parade of demands than with a stormy forecast? Clearly, unabated public-safety costs are a problem, one the city will have to meet head-on next year. But it's also increasingly clear that the financial forecast – like the proposed budget, prepared under the city manager's purview – is the city's opening move in contract talks, one reverberating through the selection of a tax rate, what gets funded, indeed the entire budget discussion. Let's hope it's not governed by fear. Besides, if the city can't find a way to make flush times work for us, then really – why bother with a five-year prognostication?

Cyber Austin

The 10:30am financial presentation isn't the only big ticket item at council today (Thursday): There's a trifecta of items of interest. First and foremost is Lee Leffingwell's long-awaited water-conservation task force recommendations, scheduled for a vote and implementation; additionally, an item from Betty Dunkerley accrues interest from the city's $10 million Block 21 sale to endow the operation of the forthcoming central library nearby. Perhaps most imaginatively, an item from Jennifer Kim and Brewster McCracken creates a three-dimensional digital model of the city, with emphasis on the myriad Town Lake Corridor projects, and makes it available for public use.

With respect to the late Dr. Thompson, here's hoping that with the right kind of eyes you can see Austin's high-water mark – the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

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