City Hall Hustle: Budget Time
Who You Gonna Cut?
That's overstating it perhaps a tad, assuming that – with endless stretches of 100-plus days and multiplex-busting superheroics – the citizenry's truly attuned to the finer points of its municipal budget. Despite the embankment of camera tripods and talking heads at the budget work-session, followed by above-the-fold coverage, why do I get the impression that most Austinites have a mild impression that, uh, their trash bill's going up, and that's about it? It's unsurprising, as pocketbook and quality-of-life issues are always the big takeaways at budget time. Maybe it's time to start looking at the bigger picture: why we're always scrambling to play catch-up.
Immediate attention focuses on the General Fund departments – city endeavors like libraries and parks that generally feel the first brunt of a tight budget year. But it's the city's enterprise departments – money-earning enterprises like the airport and Austin Energy – that see the most money-shifting action. Let's return to the refuse: namely, Solid Waste Services' proposal to boost fees on 30-gallon trash tubs by $4.40 a month, with increases also slated for 60-gallon ($6.15) and 90-gallon containers ($6.90). While the city argued it would be the first fee increase in more than a decade, public reaction appears to be solidly against it. While no one's clamoring to pay extra, Rick Cofer, a Solid Waste Advisory Commission member and ramrod of the "Bag the Bags" campaign, issued an e-mail blasting the proposal on economic and environmental fronts: "Customers should be incentivized to recycle more and waste less by reducing the cost of the 30-gallon carts and increasing the cost of only the 60- and 90-gallon carts," he wrote, also noting, "It is irrational to change the fee structure now, before single-stream recycling has been introduced and before its effects are known." As he surmised, "A one-time 40% increase is beyond the pale."
Another sore spot with budget watchers – council seemingly included – is Public Works' Transportation Fund, largely funded by road, parking, and meter fees. Contentious here is the cut in proposed street maintenance, shrinking from the current goal to maintain 9.5% of the city's traffic lanes annually to a proposed 8% in fiscal year 2009. While a small correction on paper, falling below 10% establishes a tipping point at which road repairs steadily grow more backlogged and costly. "We strive to reach a target of 10% [per year], that being the magic number," Council Member Lee Leffingwell said at the work-session. "And now we're taking this giant leap backward." Leffingwell announced his intention to close the gap to the current 9.5% at least, a position Will Wynn's echoed.
Aside from fee increases – that old budget-balancing standby – another time-honored belt-tightener was cinched: shuttering all branch libraries one additional day. But as reported last week, the shocker here wasn't decreasing library hours to shift city money elsewhere; it's that the juggling proposal came from library staffers themselves, who hope to improve much-needed janitorial, maintenance, and security services, as to remain habitable on the days they are open.
It's a reminder of the twofold failure that unfurls every city budget season (well, every budget of late, at least): First, the lie at the state level that the clamor for shrinking taxes outweighs all other considerations. It's Republican starve-the-beast grandstanding resulting in nothing but constricted and abysmal local policy, preventing cities from levying taxes a fraction of a cent above a random rate without calling a special election. Which ties into the lie we tell ourselves locally: that our unbounded growth will pay for itself. Train your attention on this budget, and it's clear: It does no such thing.
Block that housing!
Last week's City Council meeting was as notable for what transpired as what didn't: the promised yearlong delay of the Mobile Loaves & Fishes Habitat on Wheels program at Harold Court occurred, but zoning for the severely embattled Community Partnership for the Homeless development on Manor Road was postponed until council's next meeting, Aug. 7. Back from break and already taking time off?
Not us. Everyday we're hustling at email@example.com.