Beside the Point

Budget Revelations

By the numbers: the 2008 budget
By the numbers: the 2008 budget

Town Lake didn't roil with blood, and the solar panels atop City Hall didn't turn as black as sackcloth, but opening Sunday's Statesman, BTP encountered a milder, but no less unmistakable, sign of the apocalypse: agreeing with Rich Oppel. In trumpeting some good ideas, let's hope Rich hasn't given them the kiss of death.

Returning to the topic of recent bludgeonings, the opportunity City Council has to redefine the city manager's office in the wake of Toby Futrell's departure, in his editorial, Oppel itemized four suggestions: Have the mayor's office draft the City Council agenda, give council an independent budget analyst, give them independent legal counsel, and sever the connection between the city auditor and the city manager. "In the final analysis, the council needs to make clear that the manager works for them," Oppel opines. "Not the other way around."

When the Statesman editor sounds like he's subbing for this column -- well, the seventh seal's truly been pried apart.

Of course, this polarity shift didn't arrive unprompted; it occurred partially in response to Futrell's unveiling of the proposed fiscal year 2007-'08 budget last week. And wouldn't you know it -- the cliffhanger looming over its preparation, a $27.5 million gap between incoming revenue and proposed spending, had been closed. Futrell dismissed the deficit that wasn't as in line with filled gaps of budgets past, which -- file away for future reference -- clock in around some 4% of the total general fund.

So now she tells us.


Cue the Locusts

"To me, it brings into question the value of having an early budget forecast," Lee Leffingwell says of the initial financial forecast's dire predictions, ultimately ephemeral as death looming over a chessboard. "The identification of a potential budget gap is questionable at that time," he continues. But ... not if you want to spook everyone into the highest tax rate you can in order to cover an 11% boost in spending, no?

Providing the bulk of the backfill was the extra $10.9 million collected by setting property tax at the rollback rate of 41.20 cents -- practically flat compared to last year's rate. (Thanks to conservative state law, the rollback rate is the highest a city can levy without a vote.) Some $11.6 million more came from revising revenues and scrubbing (well, more like exfoliating) expenditures, but the rest -- a not entirely inconsiderable $5 million -- came from the city's budget stabilization reserve, in what Futrell's budget summary called a "one-time deviation" from policy (see "By the Numbers," p.16). But with the presentation warning of a $30 million gap next year, maybe it's not best to spend your savings while staring at a void dark enough to make Sartre blush?

Council members also arched their eyebrows at some nondeviant spending in the stabilization fund -- some "one-time" needs that don't exactly fit that description, such as $3.6 million in employee service incentives and retirement contributions or $6.6 million for vehicle replacements. "Glancing at them, some expenses don't look too one-time to me," Leffingwell continues. "I'm concerned about us getting into a position where we address structural matters of the budget recurring every year with one-time funds. I want to see the justification for saying they're one-time expenses."

Also drawing ire is Futrell's delineation of $58 million in "council priorities" (because, heaven forbid the budget in its entirety be one!). "What we heard Thursday on a multitude of these proposals was this is a council priority," says Mike Martinez, referring to council retreats where they created four catch-all categories (a "vibrant urban fabric," a "healthy, safe city," etc.) containing 16 more definable initiatives (like "Downtown quality of life" or a "long-term landfill plan"). Martinez feels Futrell's overcompartmentalization of spending has resulted in some stretches. "I don't see how you equate adding a Downtown solid waste [employee] to council's Downtown quality-of-life priorities," Martinez says. "Don't try to bridge this message." Leffingwell concurs, noting council had no hand in budgeting their "priorities." "I don't wanna accuse anyone of ulterior motives, but I am concerned about the use of council priorities; I'm concerned about the term implying they're included not because the people preparing the budget said they needed to be included but because council wanted it done. We did not allocate those funds."


It Is Finished

The closed gap, stabilization funds, and council "priorities" make up three substantive lines of questioning already -- and that's just after a weekend of perusing Futrell's hundreds upon hundreds of pages of analysis. "I think we need some help," says Leffingwell. "I support having someone to help us independently analyze the budget, not just having to take the staff's word for it."

So let's hope, in his characteristically mistimed zeal, Oppel did no harm. His decree can carry a certain stigma; who wants to look beholden to the editor's whims? This must be doubly aggravating for Leffingwell and Martinez, who previously had voiced their support for such measures in the pages of the Statesman (Leffingwell on making the auditor independent, Martinez on moving the agenda into the mayor's office). Not to mention this column either, which supported reconfiguring the city manager's chessboard far before she fell from grace at the bat-guano-drenched offices of the Statesman. But as someone from whom I steal my best stuff says, a good idea is nobody's property.

Let's hope the council agrees.


Our heartfelt apologies to Ingmar Bergman. R.I.P. Write BTP at wdunbar@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

city budget, Toby Futrell, property taxes, Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez

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