ANC: Do More With Less

ANC members see breath of fresh air in new Parks director

A double-bill attraction of City Manager Marc Ott and new Parks & Recreation Department Director Sara Hensley brought a standing-room-only crowd to last week's Austin Neighborhoods Council meeting. Ott gave a sobering talk about the city of Aus­tin's looming budget shortfall, emphasizing that the cuts now necessitated by shrinking municipal revenues aren't just about finding "fat" but rather will require cutting painfully into "muscle." He let city of Austin Chief Financial Officer Leslie Browder present the depressing details: "Impact of Recession on 2009 Budget." For 2008, the city made $8 million in spending cuts necessitated by lower sales-tax revenue; for 2009, a $25 million budget gap is projected, requiring more than $20 million in additional cuts. If city revenues from sales tax and development fall even lower than projected, the surgery could get bloodier for both 2009 and 2010. Still, Ott pointed out, many cities have it far worse.

Ott then asked for ideas from the crowd for ways to save on city spending. In response he heard a "greatest hits" list of ANC members' hot-button complaints. Among the suggestions: Domain subsidies (stop them), the animal shelter (don't build a new one), Water Treatment Plant No. 4 (don't build it), the Riverside Boardwalk (don't build it), parks and libraries (fund them anyway).

After Ott departed with his entourage, an upbeat Hensley transformed the energy in the room. She spoke of initiating interdepartmental cooperation on a new comprehensive plan for trails in Austin (with Public Works Director Howard Lazarus and Transportation Director Rob Spillar). She's pursuing collaborative efforts with Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Director Mar­ga­ret Shaw and Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Director Greg Guernsey (who also attended) for projects such as new "pocket parks" for parkless neighborhoods. She's already read and forwarded recommendations for expanded parks facilities from the "Families & Children Task Force Report." She's asked Roger Duncan at Austin Energy to use PARD as a city pilot program for buying only electric, eco-conscious mowers, blowers, and vehicles. She wants to reduce her vehicle fleet – and put her staff on bicycles and scooters. ("Wow!" was one spontaneous response.)

Hensley asked the ANC crowd for suggestions and responded enthusiastically to every one – then gave out her e-mail and phone number. (All contact info for city staff is available by calling 311.) Predictably, folks asked for more services, more parks and facilities, better maintenance, and longer hours. Hensley offered to send PARD staff out to gather input and solve problems at neighborhood association meetings. The ANC crowd clearly was knocked out by her openness and responsiveness. Said ANC President Danette Chimenti pointedly in closing, "It was very refreshing to hear from our new Parks director!"

There was only one problem: a total disconnect between all the new goodies that ANC members want and the presentation they'd just heard on the grim realities of the city budget.

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Austin Neighborhoods Council, ANC, Marc Ott, Sara Hensley, Parks & Recreation Department

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