Beside the Point

Set Forecast to Stun

Watching Toby Futrell's now-notorious Star Trek analogy in the midst of City Council's turbulent financial forecast last week, one notion came forcibly to mind: Pull up, pull up now! Up, up, and away!

Trying to describe the effect of full-speed growth on the city's resources – and its urgent demands on the upcoming fiscal year 2008 budget – Futrell plowed into a metaphorical asteroid belt, the deep-space equivalent of the iceberg that felled the Titanic.

For those of you who missed it: After cementing Brewster McCracken's burgeoning nerd bona fides by attributing the original analogy to him, Futrell described rapid development's demands as an attack on the Austin Enterprise, with city staff juicing the warp engines to fly from the Klingons. "City staff is Scotty. We're putting out those fires, and we're producing that Warp 10 from that pressure, that growth, that Klingon. But that Warp 10 is not reliable; it's weak. We don't have the internal controls we need for that Warp 10. … We're going to need to reinvest." (We know what you're thinking: You can't take any moooore, but this was a preliminary forecast. A budget policy discussion comes May 24; Futrell's formal budget proposal comes later, on July 26.)

Futrell's lament revealed two things: 1) No one's going to mistake her for a Trekkie, and 2) to defend the Enterprise, beleaguered by its own success, she proposes not photon torpedoes but "core service investments." Much more prosaically, she's suggesting some $7 million in "growth related" expenditures (development review, permitting, graffiti removal, etc.) and "internal control programs" (additional public-safety positions) she envisions in the budget.

Seven million bucks? Why, that's chump change in Kirk's captain's chair! We'll spend far more than that subsidizing waterfront condos at Seaholm – after all, flush times are here, right? Right?

"The good news is that our revenue growth is still projected to be strong," said Futrell, citing "general fund revenue increases in all our major revenue categories. … However, the bad news is that we are projecting increases in all of our cost drivers, so … those are higher than the estimates we showed you last year." How much higher? Last year, she showed a $6.7 million deficit for FY 08; thanks to a ballooned base budget and those evil-alien "cost drivers," the estimate now stands at $27.5 million.

Such a shortfall seems antithetical to conventional (read: Chamber of Commerce) wisdom – especially while condos spawn like Tribbles throughout a booming city – although it also appears that the final tally won't be anywhere near that bad. Setting FY 08 property taxes at the "rollback rate" (the max tax, under state law, that doesn't trigger an election; due to growth it's a smaller percent than last year) garners nearly $11 million, bringing the gap to $16.6 million. It seems possible to make up the difference between this and last year's projected $6.7 million deficit after scraping the honeypots scattered through City Hall (the Budgetary Reserve Fund, et al.) and Futrell's $7 million in investments.

But what really are those investments, pushing us deeper into the red? Thanks to the concerted business-bitching and wheel-spinning, graffiti removal, expedited permitting, and development review are prioritized, along with less cowardly choices like library materials, EMS, fire, and police support. Why are we being asked to go to the well to further prioritize the instruments of gentrification and growth when the city is apparently incapable of channeling our current boom to the city's financial advantage? Doesn't high-speed growth, as we're repeatedly assured, "pay for itself"?

There may be fires below deck – and we don't doubt for a minute that stoking the warp drives of growth is a full-time job – but the real danger is off the ship, where rising apartment rents, spiraling property taxes, and a loss of the city's unique character lap like flames at those Austinites barely getting by – those left behind on another planet as the city explores strange new worlds. If anyone's priorities need to be reflected this upcoming budget season, it's the citys'.

Too bad. The Enterprise must be boldly going …

Off this Thursday, council next meets on May 17.

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Austin City Council, City Council, Toby Futrell, Financial Forecast, Budget, Star Trek, Growth and Development

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