Beside the Point: Money, Money Everywhere
But not a cent to spend
Among Toby Futrell's departure and replacement and discontented rumbles about her preparation of the budget and whether council deserves an independent analyst to slog through the damn thing, there's one additional bit of palace intrigue that may go unnoticed: the actual budget itself.
Today (Thursday, Aug. 9), City Council begins to wade through the 2007-2008 budget in earnest, with detailed presentations on several safety-net agencies devoted to improving Austinites' quality of life: the Parks and Recreation Department, libraries, Health and Human Services Commission, Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, and Solid Waste Services. While not generating the column inches public-safety spending does -- and sitting at 65% of the budget, rightfully should -- nor the meta-discussion that Futrell's budget preparation has generated this year, such social-services categories still engender some of the stickiest funding snafus, particularly for H&HS providers. "My first reaction, looking at the budget, is it doesn't look like we'll be able to do any more for Health and Human Service contracts above a 3.5 percent bump," says Council Member Sheryl Cole. Name-checking Family Eldercare and Communities in Schools, Cole says: "We had lots of those groups coming to us looking for additional funding. That's my biggest concern -- that we're not gonna be able to do more. Many of those agencies have expanding needs." Chimes in Mike Martinez, "Health and Human Services is always one of those areas you can't invest enough in." Adding American YouthWorks to Cole's suggestions, he says: "These are programs we invest in minimally, but [they] have a huge impact. When you can invest 41 cents and get 99 in return -- by having students graduate high school and join the workforce -- it's definitely worth it."
With that in mind, Martinez and Cole may be buoyed by a recent announcement from budget officer Greg Canally: With the late addition of Travis and Williamson counties, the city's property values swelled 13.2% over last year, instead of 10.5% as originally anticipated. The late cash infusion means the city's scaling back the rollback property tax rate (the highest allowable without an election) by nearly a cent, from 41.20 cents to 40.34 cents. Despite the cut, the valuation increase means $846,000 extra in unanticipated tax revenue -- money which could certainly be used to shore up sagging social spending. It also might give rest to the belabored assumption that we're still "building back" from the postmillennial downturn. With property values soaring, growth tenfold that of the Nineties dot-com boom, and nearly 200 new city jobs penciled in the budget, it's resoundingly clear that if we're not where we once mythically were pre-September 11, we're damn close. Building a "sustainable community" or not, save the White House's current occupant, it's hard to find a crew that's gotten so much mileage out of 9/11.
"What we're talking about, 99 percent of cities would kill to be in the position we're in," says Brewster McCracken, backing off rhetoric at the budget unveiling, echoing Futrell's brow-furrowed fret over growth. "[The demands of growth] don't reflect a fiscal meltdown -- obviously you'd rather have growing than contracting revenues." As for those demands, McCracken says, "The fact we're almost maxed-out administratively reflects this is not some spending spree on novel new items." He notes the majority of new positions are police hires demanded by Austin's two officers per 1,000 residents rule. "If your population is growing as fast as ours, you have to add new police officers. We're adding back this year," McCracken says, citing the omnipresent investment in "internal controls."
The buzzword du jour this budget year -- internal controls -- ostensibly comprises an auditlike function at the department level, monitoring spending and efficiency; in their defense, council and staff alike have trotted out the Convention Center's financial shenanigans as a cautionary tale. All told, there is some $2.6 million budgeted for internal controls. "[Internal Control funds are] in almost every department," Martinez says. "But what does that mean? The way it was portrayed was, 'We need some internal controllers to have more oversight over day-to-day operations -- so things like water utility guys buying signs from their family members don't happen.' That's a valid point. But philosophically, for me at least, I don't see an advantage in hiring more internal controllers and putting them under a reporting structure where they're reporting on the people that are their bosses. How are you gonna report discrepancies when you're having to report your boss?" he asks. "The way we avoid that is by having them report through a different management structure -- possibly reporting to the auditor or reporting to council."
From there, it follows that with greater autonomy, fewer controllers could do more with less.
If anything, taxing at the rollback rate, the money is there -- but now it's up to council to perform their due diligence and make sure it goes where it needs to. Starting in earnest today (Thursday), we'll see if they rise to the occasion.
Even Further Beside the Point: Sure, all this breakneck budget excitement is more than anyone could ask for -- right? right? -- but city governance waits for no man. (You wait for it.) Chronic's "City Council Notebook" has the whole rundown online (austinchronicle.com/chronic), but here's a sampling of non-budget-related measures: With Water Treatment Plant No. 4's ever-widening money pit, there's a resolution exploring the possibility of a joint water plant with Round Rock, Leander, and Cedar Park. "That's actually the least likely outcome," says McCracken, formerly a WTP4 agnostic, now troubled by the plant's cost and environmental impact. "A potentially more useful analysis is asking, 'What if we went at a smaller site?'" While ultimately planned for 300 million gallons a day, WTP4's tiered construction plan only calls for 50 million gallons a day immediately; it's not planned to reach 300 mgd for dozens of years. Bearing that in mind, McCracken has asked Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza for alternate sites that could support a smaller 150- or 200-mgd plant --potentially bypassing the expensive enviro-protections demanded of its current, controversial Bull Creek location. Stay tuned...Also noteworthy --and one thinks eminently more doable --is a resolution looking at procuring separate changing facilities in each station for female firefighters. Lastly, new guidelines governing BYOB establishments, including permitting and security requirements --drafted to untie council's hands in regulating Chester's Club, where the struggle resulting in the deadly police shooting of Kevin Alexander Brown initiated --are coming to the dais for discussion.
"Point Austin" returns to this space next week; drop BTP a line at email@example.com.