City Hall Hustle: Puttering Around
When the going gets tough ... let's go golfing, dude
Robert goes golfing every Saturday. One Saturday, he comes home three hours late.
His wife asks him, "What took you so long?"
The guy says, "That was the worst game of golf I've ever had. We got up to the first tee, and Charlie hit a hole in one and immediately dropped dead of a heart attack."
The guy's wife says, "That's terrible!"
The guy says, "I know. Then, for the rest of the round, it was hit the ball, drag Charlie, hit the ball, drag Charlie, hit the ball, drag Charlie ..."
Right now, the city's a little bit like Robert, caddying all manner of baggage for the University of Texas, in the wake of UT's decision to redevelop its West Austin Brackenridge Tract – a process in which UT's been about as (characteristically) helpful to Austinites as a corpse. That may be changing – at least on one side. On Tuesday, Council Members Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez, and Laura Morrison held a press conference at the Lions Municipal Golf Course – cradled in the Brack Tract – announcing their intention to hold on to the greens. That item surfaces at today's council meeting; Leffingwell says council's directing the city manager "to evaluate the possibility of land swaps," in tandem with "a voter-approved bond perhaps." Fore!
Local Slow Down?
But will putters still hit the links with the economic uncertainty gripping the country? Maybe we'll know more after a presentation, slated for council at 2pm today, detailing the potent impact of the national downturn on local government. Specific topics should include the effects on sales-tax and property-tax revenue; city staffing levels; bond programs, plus other capital improvement projects; the city's bond ratings and debt service; plus pension costs and more. "It sounds like a lot to put together," says Leffingwell, "but staff has been looking at this themselves, as they should be."
Another topic I hope will be addressed is the effect on potential add-backs to city services; having just passed a budget cutting library hours and parks maintenance, is hope for additional funding lost? "Add-backs, I think, are gonna be made more difficult," says Leffingwell. "It's gonna be more problematic whether you can add." He says it largely depends on the city's future revenue streams; while property tax "is pretty much set for this budget cycle," new sales-tax numbers arrive monthly. "For example, we had programmed this underlying assumption on sales-tax revenue, that we would see an average of 3 percent growth in sales tax for the year," he says, that 3% having already shrunk from earlier, more optimistic numbers. "And I think if there's a severe economic downturn, that number could be affected substantially, it could even go negative like it did in 2002, 2003." Also, while the city should be "pretty much fully reimbursed by [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]" for its hurricane expenses, Leffingwell says, "Sometimes you have to wait a little while to get it," and it can be "a matter of months, not a matter of days."
For Leffingwell, the intent this week ain't to spook the public. "Hopefully there will be an element of reassurance involved in this. Because I think for years the city's had pretty sound fiscal policies and good-sized reserve funds to deal with crises like this, as long as they're not super-long-term."
It's that time of year: time for the Hustle's own "Best of Austin" accolades for all things City Council related.
Best Council Accommodators: Laura Morrison and Randi Shade, who appeared at Sunday night's Better Austin Today fundraiser at Scholz Garten. The Hustle was in the house recording interviews for the new episode of HUST-FM, our new political audiocast exclusively available at austinchronicle.com. We spoke with Morrison and a couple of other characters who would love to join her on the dais come May – all-but-announced mayoral contenders Bill Spelman and Jackie Goodman. Listen in Thursday for the whole hustle, ya dig?
Teed off? E-mail email@example.com.