City Counseling: How Many Librarians Equal One Firefighter?

Fire Department budget cuts

With the city facing dramatic budget cuts, the Austin Fire Department – like Lassie at the mine shaft – raced to the rescue last week. As City Manager Marc Ott finalized his plan for $20 million in reductions at the City Council meeting, he announced that planned service cuts to branch libraries – an additional 9.5 hours of closings a week – would no longer be necessary. Instead, the cost would be largely offset by a $200,000 reduction in firefighter overtime; the library would save another $80,000 by using temporary employees in unfilled positions. (An additional reshuffling of positions in the city purchasing office would also save $86,000, allowing the restoration of $80,000 in social service funding that, among other things, underwrites a youth summer camp.)

The specter of additional library closures was widely unpopular, and AFD was under some pressure (most publicly from Council Member Brewster McCracken) for not announcing any cuts previously. So politically, the decision was a no-brainer – but it might not be so easy to implement. Puncturing the congratulatory hullabaloo was Council Mem­ber Mike Martinez, who questioned the change. Fire currently staffs four firefighters to a truck at all times, regardless of overtime costs; the savings arise from switching to three, with a fourth riding along if it doesn't cost overtime. "I don't buy the argument that going from four to three doesn't reduce service," said Martinez, a former firefighter. "It does. If you are the person lying on the floor having a heart attack, having four firefighters there working on you with two paramedics as opposed to three is a huge, huge difference for those of you that understand the business." Martinez also described four-person staffing as a council directive, intimating he would seek council approval of the change.

Lovely Rita, Techno-Meter?

City Counseling: How Many Librarians Equal One Firefighter?

"The current single-space parking-meter system is at the end of its useful life," says Rob Spillar, city transportation director. And while we can't imagine a death less mourned, pay parking is already rising from its grave. This week, council is set to approve a $7.6 million appropriation to replace parking meters with a parking pay-station model. Spillar says that with as many as 16,000 instances of meter failure each year – out of a total of only 3,800 meters – it's coming not a moment too soon. As is commonplace elsewhere, instead of feeding an individual meter, parkers would go to a nearby pay-station kiosk and buy a temporary parking pass to be displayed on the dashboard. Any time remaining when the car leaves would then stay with the car rather than the parking space – which means no more piggybacking on someone else's unexpired meter.

The stations themselves would be decidedly high tech, powered by solar energy and built with wireless transmitters that phone home when full of coins or in need of repair. Spillar expects the machines to pay for themselves in eight to 10 years, short of their expected 15-year life span. Pending council approval, the machines will be installed starting in August. (Parking is still free at City Hall on council Thursdays.)

Free Association

Wrapping up last week: A change from Laura Morrison formalizing the public input process on economic incentive programs was approved, while an ordinance prohibiting incentives for mixed-use retail projects was delayed in order to clean up the language. Expect it to return March 12... This week (Thursday) sees another light schedule, only 49 items deep. Council is set to approve the path of the boardwalk over Lady Bird Lake; the project has been met with noisy opposition from a few near-Eastside condo owners worried it will impact their lake view, but city staff argues it's the best and safest option... Discussion is also set for the $250 million solar array proposed for Webberville (see "Cool City," p.28, for more)... There are two afternoon briefings of note: Wonks should be interested in the presentation on the council's agenda process (Item 34); the other will cover results of Neighborhood Housing & Community Development's housing market study (Item 33). Lemme guess: too damn expensive?

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City Council, Austin Fire Department, Marc Ott, Mike Martinez, Brewster McCracken, Rob Spillar

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