The Austin Chronicle

Beside the Point

Let's Put on a Show!

By Wells Dunbar, June 15, 2007, News

It was a lineup so grand that no playbill, no marquee, no City Council agenda could contain it all.

Downtown – one night only, June 7, 2007: City Hall's Night of a Thousand Czars! Thrill! to a PowerPoint presentation so great, it requires not one! – not two! – not three! – but four assistant city managers! Swoon! as chief of staff Kristen Vassallo dazzles with budget initiatives on affordable housing! Gasp! as Chief Financial Officer John Stephens stuns with transportation and infrastructure financing minutiae! From who else but FutrellCo – the only name in city entertainment!

While stopping just short of a kaleidoscopically choreographed Busby Berkeley finale on the dais, last council meeting's Discussion on Budget Policies made with the razzle-dazzle. Following the city manager's initial financial forecast last month, the discussion was the next act in the run-up to the main event – the city's next fiscal year budget. But first, flash back to another popular routine: City Council's headline-grabbing working retreats last year. Seems their sticker-licking session at the Crossings did more than encourage self-selecting mouth-breathers and spleen-venters to speed-dial talk radio. During the retreat, they cooked up four citywide priorities to inform the FY 2008 budget: a rich social and cultural community; a healthy, safe city; vibrant urban fabric; and sustainable economic development and financial health. During the presentation, the cavalcade of city apparatchiks detailed the individual budget initiatives in each pillar of wisdom: file Downtown quality-of-life, and its master plan, under the "rich social" heading (how about plain-old rich?); Green Water Treatment Plant redevelopment and transportation financing under "vibrant urban fabric," etc.

Great things all, but wait – didn't May's dreaded financial forecast have Austin some $27.5 million in the hole? Well, that very much depends on how you look at things. Seems the 16 priority areas staff covered already have funding secured in the FY 08 budget scenario – to the order of $58 million, on top of Futrell's proposed $7 million in "growth related" and "internal control" investments. Now don't get us wrong – these programs, repairs, and initiatives will likely improve our collective lives, and they're likely underfunded at that. But honestly – why front-load $65 million worth of spending into a budget, only to decry a shortfall less than half of that?

The answer arrived when it was time to talk tax. As a coda to the presentation, Futrell queried council whether to consider raising the property tax above her proposal of the "effective rate" (39.54 cents – lower than last year, but due to rising property values bringing in the same "effective" amount) by one cent. Due to starve-the-beast state laws, the highest council can go without an election is 41.20 cents – the "rollback rate," which garners an extra $10.9 million in revenue. With a $27.5 million "deficit" – accurately named or not – what song do you think council was singing?

Everyone who spoke agreed that effective wouldn't cut it. Betty Dunkerley suggested making it "policy" to tax at rollback for the next couple of years, as the effective rate is "simply not adequate" compared to other cities; Sheryl Cole concurred. Brewster McCracken didn't advocate for it outright but noted the effective-rate lunacy of serving some 50,000 more citizens on the same amount of money as last year. BTP isn't opposed to the rollback rate either – especially considering how low Austin's property tax rates are compared to other Texas cities. But with a budget as fast and loose as this one, it would be nice if the city could approach the budget rationally – making the case to capitalize on the growth we're seeing – instead of an elaborate song and dance about a shortfall.

Speaking of which, a quick word on that forecast – although it was bundled with the discussion handout for reference, Futrell took pains to remind everyone it was based solely "on the first several months" of the fiscal year; when the proposed budget rolls around after council's summer break, it will have "about three more months of information," that "estimates and assumptions will change"; plausible deniability for when the show-stopping $27.5 million "forecast gap" magically shrinks in the actual budget. Stars are always so much smaller when you see them in person.

Council is "hospitalized for exhaustion" this week, returning June 21 for their last meeting before their summer break to consider Austin's sweat-free uniforms ordinance (see "Naked City"). Direct all "BTP" fan mail to Ciao!

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