City Hall Hustle: Hustling the Budget
Council spreads a few extra dollars and covers its bets
With its constant updates and ceaseless stream of self-reported data, Facebook's worth billions to salivating marketers, eager to data-mine and deanonymize your every move. A shame, then, to see such transparency applied to subjects like last night's party and tomorrow's flash mob, instead of topics that have real impact on the citizenry: say, the adoption of the city of Austin 2008-09 municipal budget, passed in one fell swoop by City Council Monday morning.
When it comes to tech, the budgeteers could do better – the financial questions and answers posted online are a good start, if a little message board circa GeoCities. But when it comes to actual adoption of the budget, it's all old-school showmanship. There's an actual script, for starters, due to the elaborate nature of the omnibus package. Monday, there was also some good theatre. Mike Martinez moved to allocate $100,000 (of Austin Energy money) for the African-American Men and Boys Conference, while Sheryl Cole offered the same in-kind for the Hispanic Futures Conference, an exchange histrionically intended to address recent "diversity" hand-wringing. 'Hood advocate Laura Morrison symbolically added back two slashed neighborhood ombudsman positions but left them vacant, to be staffed if and when funding permits.
But all in all, there weren't many surprises – with a budget this tight and demanding, there just wasn't much room. Through reallocations, fee increases, and other fiscal sleights of hand, some projects re-emerged: Interdepartmental transfers brought $1 million back into the city's Housing Trust Fund, $2 million in anticipated reimbursements swelled sidewalk funding (a favorite of disability advocates) to $5 million, and an 83-cent hike in the transportation user fee on utility bills brought in $4.7 million extra in revenue, all going to preventative street maintenance. "If you don't pay for it now," Lee Leffingwell said of the program, "you pay for it later, a whole lot [more] later." Trash bin fees – except for the smallest, 30-gallon carts – rose, along with water rates, which will show an average monthly rise of more than $4.
As for the only hunk of new revenue – $303,000 extra from higher than expected property-tax rolls – the bulk ($235,000) went to social-service spending. Which agencies? That hasn't been decided yet. "I'm very supportive ... of taking whatever change we have left over and allocating it to our social-service contracts," says Will Wynn, describing the city's new funding model. Currently assisting some 57 agencies – groups addressing child care, homelessness, mental health, family shelters, youth programs, substance abuse, and more – the new approach involves reassessing each agency on a "peer reviewed, very objective scoring matrix," says Wynn. The object of comparison is the city's Cultural Arts Division, which was created to holistically assess arts funding, instead of allocating funds piecemeal. Referring to the "arts wars," Wynn says that, formerly, funding "was a real zero-sum game; let's see who can scream the loudest or strike the deepest nerve." The idea now, he says, is to "get much more to a meritocracy" with service agencies, instead of a system where less-effective groups may be "grandfathered" in their funding. "We will try to have some format like that on our social-service contracts, while maintaining discretion when some group doesn't score well." Leffingwell agrees, saying a "need-and-merit-based matrix" does away with "the squeakiest wheel gets the grease" funding. The Public Health and Human Services Subcommittee, on which Leffingwell sits, will craft funding recommendations to council, which should make the final decisions before the end of the year.
That leaves the things that didn't make the cut: In order to pay for basic security and maintenance upgrades, branch libraries still face one additional day of closure per week, while 24 positions at the Parks & Recreation Department will remain unfilled. Dispiriting stuff – it's enough to make you flee to your Facebook page in despair. But if you're like the Hustle, there you'll see Mike Martinez's most current update: He's "glad the budget was adopted, but [I] am not done and already working to restore cuts that were adopted."
Budget by the Numbers
Property tax rate: 40.12 cents (per $100 value)
Entire operating budget: $2.77 billion
General Fund budget: $620.7 million
Council's cashed out until Sept. 25. The Hustle ain't: email@example.com.