Beside the Point

No Surprises

It gets said a lot, but it bears repeating: The City Council meeting adopting the $2.5 billion fiscal year 2008 budget was literally scripted. Council-watchers could pick up the 19-page packet and directly follow the action on the dais, as it happened. It was a done deal, foolproof – which further fuels controversy and questions surrounding the budget process and city staff's role in drafting it.

Politically, the FY 2008 budget was born under a bad sign, into a more politicized environment than years past; Toby Futrell's initial prediction of a since-closed $27 million "gap" in funding was decried as a scare tactic designed to make taxing at the higher "rollback" rate (40.34 cents per $100 valuation) a foregone conclusion (or alternatively, a way of making it politically impossible for council to propose additional spending). Plus, as BTP wrote during our live blog of the budget adoption, Futrell's budgeting the bulk of discretionary spending as so-called "council priorities" – priorities council members didn't directly allocate themselves – left far fewer scraps to fight over, a move more Machiavellian readers might ascribe to a divide-and-conquer ideology on Futrell's part.

Although the budget passed readily without public fireworks, controversy reignited with the Statesman's publication of a pissed-off e-mail exchange between Futrell and Council Member Mike Martinez, in which the city manager chided him that he might be unprepared for his budget-line reading and insinuated he was troublesome and unappreciative of staff. Martinez responded, "Please stop with the rhetoric, Toby. It really is not necessary. And it's painfully and embarrassingly transparent." Martinez tells BTP he didn't meet with Futrell and staff due to previous sessions being "unproductive" and "full of rhetoric."

"The budget is arguably the highest responsibility we have, but we [council] spend three weeks of the year haggling over $800,000," Martinez says, referring to the few dollars not already allocated. "It's important to the groups that benefit, but there's no process to building the budget or breaking it down. It's presented in July; we get three, four weeks of glossy presentations with general, vague information, and then we have to vote on it."

And with the budget now adopted, how will Martinez continue the push for more oversight? "As we go through this search with a new city manager [funding for which was also allocated Monday], we'll ask candidates to lay out what the idea of a budget process looks like to them. If it doesn't provide enough input from the public or include council members in a collaborative process, they're not gonna fare very well." Here's the budget in a nutshell:

Operating Budget

Encompassing a single year's expenditures, this covers the entire $2.5 billion package – and the funding changes council made were, by comparison, chump change. Through taxing at the rollback rate, reimbursements, and reduced costs, council generated an extra $1.32 million in general-fund dollars, the bulk of which went to social-service contracts. Here's the breakdown of those additions: Capital Idea, $275,000; American Youthworks, $166,000; Center for Child Protection, $140,000; Eldercare facilities, $125,000; Communities in Schools, $100,000; Austin Children's Shelter construction, $100,000; Fuentes After School Program, $40,000; Michael Lofton's Men and Boys conference, $40,000.

Additionally, $100,000 was transferred to Austin Energy to create a "small business mapping" website promoting locally owned businesses, a brainchild of Sheryl Cole, Jennifer Kim, and Brewster McCracken. And $125,000 was transferred to the Austin Technology Incubator to fund McCracken's goal/campaign promise of biotech research and development but only after Lee Leffingwell offered an amendment making further funding contingent on a full report to council – and the gray goo not becoming sentient and enslaving humanity. (Well, maybe not the last part.) Deep Eddy got $37,000 to keep it open year round while Barton Springs is closed for construction (i.e., Phase 1 of the swimming hole's master plan; see Capital Budget below), $26,650 went to bilingual bonuses for Asian-language speakers, and $25,000 to the new Alliance for Public Transportation. The remaining $20,000 was transferred to the budget stabilization reserve.

Capital Budget

Large public construction and improvement projects are funded over several years by bonds and certificates of obligation in the capital budget. There were three main council-driven allocations from the CB, along with others from staff:

Barton Springs Master Plan: $6.2 million. The funds are to implement Phase 1 of the master plan, including the erection of bathrooms and bathhouses. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) Minor disagreement ensued when Martinez suggested the city make improvements to the south side of the Springs, a project for which no funds here are allocated.

Hike and Bike Trail extension: $1.7 million. This allocation will create a boardwalk on the south side of Lady Bird Lake.

Firehouse locker rooms: $2.1 million. This item from Martinez funds "design study and construction" of changing facilities for female firefighters.

Closing the Company Store

McCracken deep-sixed the snow-globe-emporium cum quasi-slush fund known as the Austin City Store, which will close Sept. 29. Shuttering the shop means transferring $396,000 and three full-time positions back to its parent, the similarly upstanding, untroubled Austin Convention Center. While McCracken called for the city to find an outside retailer to fill the space, Martinez implored the city not to give up on a public use for the space, such as police or public safety responders; whoever takes the space must be approved by council when the time comes. In other Convention Center news, Futrell split its funding into separate accounts (Repair and Replacement, Marketing and Promotion fund) as part of new "controls" on the center.

Grant Me This

Your taxes and utility payments aren't the only sources of income (just the overwhelming majority). Here are some grants the city has received: $200,000 in Federal Aviation Administration Airports Safety Management System Project grants; $90,000 in Tuberculosis Elimination grants; $3,000 in Youth Literacy grants; $230,000 from the Ryan White Minority AIDS Initia­tive Pro­ject; and $200,000 in Bureau of Justice anti-gang "assistance."

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City budget, City Council, Mike Martinez, Toby Futrell

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