Beside the Point

Hard Times

How do you know times are tight? When you start calling meetings to talk about how hosed you are.

At the Chronicle's press time Wed­nes­day, City Council was wrapping up its first budget work session, having pored over the city economic outlook and a five-year financial forecast. And there's no shortage of disquieting indicators. As Brewster McCracken was telling anybody with a camera in a five-block radius of City Hall last week, the city is a hair away from a hiring freeze as they scramble to fill a shortfall in sales-tax revenues. Chief Financial Officer Leslie Brow­der affirmed the slowdown – instead of the projected 7.5% growth in sales tax, we've now slouched to 3.8% growth for the fiscal year, down from the 4.7% projected earlier. On the news channels, McCracken was riffing off a memo City Manager Marc Ott had issued in light of the bad news, asking all city department directors to come up with belt-cinching suggestions.

However, hopefully using City Hall like this on Wednesdays doesn't interfere with my income-generating suggestion to hold a swap meet there on off days.

Going into the budget, they'll certainly have a lot to talk about. Like, if even the, shall we say, fiscally challenged Capital Metro didn't project sales-tax growth this high, it makes you wonder what other time bombs might be buried in last year's budget. Discerning readers may also recall that last year, the financial forecast told of a $27 million-odd gap (which, In Toby We Trust, was supposedly closed). But with cloudy financial times here already, what wonders could this one hold? Wednesday morning, we got the anwser: a $20.6 million deficit – by the city's sunniest estimate.

Regardless, it's good to see the work sessions return. Although it was a little before BTP's time, councils past used them regularly to get ahead of the curve, instead of valiantly struggling to shoehorn everything into one weekly meeting. But the work sessions were cast aside during the Kirk Watson era. And who could blame him? After all, it was those high-flying late 1990s – there were photo shoots in front of the Ritz to arrange, nightclubs to demolish, and deals with cutting-edge companies like Intel to ink!

Well, Mr. Ott, here's one unsolicited piece of financial advice from yours truly: While council has scheduled a total of five work sessions for the budget, why not stretch those out even longer? With additional work sessions, say, every other weekly meeting, council could cover some of the interminable presentations they receive each week, capture some of the massive zoning agenda, further tackle the joined-at-the-hip public safety negotiations, and generally provide more bang for their buck.

Now, I'll need those 2 cents back, please. I'm strapped!


On Tap This Week

That's not to say the city's two steps shy of the poorhouse exactly. This week's Thursday council meeting brings plenty in the expenditures department. The city inks three $50,000-plus contracts with the Asian-American, African-American, and His­panic chambers of commerce to create an interconnected database of hiring companies, in advance of an "employment expo targeted to minorities seeking career opportunities." Items from council include a call to upgrade and expand the Austin bike network, with the goal of attaining the League of American Bicyclists' gold-level status, and a sister measure to promote the city's "interconnected bicycling, pedestrian and trails network." Council also looks into a future move of the Austin History Center into the Faulk Central Library, along with allowing overnight concrete delivery and pours Downtown (to avoid any further fogs of profanity from a gridlocked hizzoner – hopefully), plus Mike Martinez's now-gutted ordinance banning mobile billboards, but steering clear of the scenic roadway debate (see "Naked City"). PowerPoint-wise, there's a 10:30am presentation of the Mayor's Mental Health Task Force Monit­or­ing Committee's third annual report and a 2pm rundown on the African-American Quality of Life initiative. On zoning, there's vertical mixed-use opt-in/opt-out from Wind­sor Road, South Lamar, Barton Hills, and Windsor Park neighborhoods. Truly an embarrassment of, if not riches, something.


Stock tips? Money-market advice? Ring wdunbar@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City budget, City Council, Marc Ott

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