Beside the Point: Game Over

How to win friends and influence budgets

(l-r) Sheryl Cole, Brewster McCracken, Mike Martinez, 
and Will Wynn
(l-r) Sheryl Cole, Brewster McCracken, Mike Martinez, and Will Wynn (Photo By John Anderson)

Recently, I was chatting with Richard Whittaker, the blogging British bruiser we keep chained to one of our ancient iMacs in the gutted boiler room better known as the Wellsplex. Recounting the recently expired legislative session, he mentioned his shock at receiving a call from a legislator he was certain had his name penned on a shit list in baby blood. Well, maybe not that bad, but you get the idea.

Which, needless to say, got me to thinking about my own enemies list, those thin-skinned souls I've upset – entirely through no fault of my own (really, honest!) – with one ribald truth or another. (For the record, we're not talking a Dick Nixon-style enemies list; just those people whom BTP won't be getting Christmas cards from anytime soon.) Let's see, for starters, there's that newscaster I got into a pissing match with over Wal-Mart square footage a few months back, that terminally unfunny "humor" columnist cum hatchet-man for the daily, and a certain city bureaucrat whose name rhymes with, uh, Toby Futrell. And then there's the Small Business Group.

Behind the otherwise eye-glazing discussion of the city's fiscal year 2007 budget is a battle over what to prioritize – one all the more trenchant due to a purported "forecast gap" of $27.5 million between the city's expenses and income. The accuracy of that gap – considering Futrell's caveat about changing forecasts and a history of differences in the tens of millions between "proposed" and "actual" budget balances – is of no little import. But rightly or wrongly, the talks are unfolding under the budget-cinching specter of a deficit. And like the last few budgets – ever since the city handed over its own ass in salary negotiations with the Austin Police Department, only to immediately realize the error of its ways – public safety has been at the forefront of the inflammatory editorial and e-mail campaign passing for debate. Except it hasn't been the snowballing police salaries that's drawn the most ire. Instead, it's the relatively penny-ante funding against property crime – thanks to the relentless drumbeating of the Small Business Group. Thing is, they're getting through – with Futrell making graffiti abatement part of her proposed $7 million in budget investments.

Zero-Sum Budgeting

In the Austin Business Journal last week, SBG Vice President Dominic M. Chavez iterated his concerns – and myopic vision: "Under the shadow of official investigations of our police department and convention center, our city council conducted a yearlong task force on low-flow toilets. As street crime and vandalism plagues small business and their patrons throughout our city, the city council explores whether to ban plastic grocery bags. On the heels of our city manager announcing a $30 million budget deficit, despite a booming economy, the city council fashions a legalized graft program for a hand-picked business that is indefensible by any rational observer for both its terms and magnitude." Now let's step back from the incorrect assertions, overgeneralizations, and fear-mongering and consider the core of the argument – one that is, unfortunately, all too prevalent.

A zero-sum game is one in which there must be a loser for there to be winner. Lately, it's broken from the navel-gazing ranks of game theory and into practice in Austin politics. Apparently, for the city to investigate Convention Center slush-fund shenanigans, they can't care about water conservation; to try to end homelessness means they can't tackle wastefulness. Golly, it's a wonder those council members can walk and chew gum simultaneously! We've seen this trend's most vehement expression in the Las Manitas fracas, where fees that wouldn't have been collected if the restaurant weren't being displaced phantasmagorically morphed into the public's sacrosanct "tax dollars": They win, I lose. (As Michael King said last week, there are reasonable arguments against the loan, articulated by Sheryl Cole and Lee Leffingwell; even Brewster McCracken's somewhat dubious, after-the-fact defense raised points against the program, namely its narrowness. And as pointed out online, informed dissenters in the local blogosphere cite reasons far removed from the morning-zoo-style dittohead discourse. But it's unlikely such reasoned argument filled the council mailbag – just hold your nose and gaze upon the Statesman's letters to the editor.)

If the Small Business Group truly believes, in the midst of a self-described $30 million shortfall, that harassing the homeless (which honestly, minus a redoubled bump to outreach services, is all stepped-up enforcement will accomplish) and removing graffiti are the city's highest priorities, then let them make the case. But to scapegoat council's progressive agenda – as part of Austin's "brand," intrinsic in attracting the dollars and employers the bottom-line sniffers at the SBG so dutifully worship – is disingenuous at best. C'mon – can't we all just get along?

City Council Notebook

City staff will have the next month of summer to wrangle, mangle, and revise the FY 2008 budget; after today's June 21 meeting, council is on hiatus until July 26, when they'll return to Futrell's proposed budget presentation. As for today, no one can say they ain't going out with a bang: The overstuffed, 150-plus-item agenda is packed with many important issues. (See BTP's extended agenda rundown of "City Council Notebook.") Budgetarily speaking, there's little today, save an item from Mike Martinez – who wisely fashioned a cudgel for himself from the reins of the Public Safety Task Force – making public-safety staffing reduction "a last option." Also on the police beat is the official approval of Art Acevedo as new Austin Police Department chief and an intriguing item from Sheryl Cole: With calls for greater police transparency, she seeks to broadcast public-safety disciplinary appeal hearings – which include police brutality complaints – over the city's airwaves on Channel 6. The measure also has Martinez as co-sponsor. Another ambitious item from council would prevent the city from buying any uniforms assembled with sweatshop labor. And rounding out the zoning agenda is the current cultural cause célèbre/bane of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, making the Mean Eyed Cat beer-bar zoning compliant.

There will be peace in the valley for us, some day. end story

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Austin City Council, City Council, City Budget, Toby Futrell, Small Business Group

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