City Hall Hustle: The Reaper Cometh
The budget chips are falling – here's your chance to weigh in
The Hustle was on a Fun Ship cruise with his better half last week, leaving behind the Sturm und Drang of municipal governance for the 24-hour pizza station and sunburned feet. Leaving behind Austin – or so he thought. Returning from an excursion through Jamaica, he overheard some fellow zip-liners raving about their new home. While they love California, they became enraptured with Austin while visiting and moved there. Besides, the houses were so expensive back in San Francisco. Thanks to you, now they're just as expensive here!
But a look at the city's ledgers reveals, unfortunately, Austin would do well to attract more of my tax-generating Silicon Valley friends. This week, the city released a list of about 240 potential cuts – "menu items" in municipal parlance – which in all would whittle some $45 million from the city budget. The potential total is larger than the actual shortfall Austin faces, between $30 million and $43 million (depending on whether the city sets property taxes at the current "nominal" rate or increases them to the slightly higher "rollback" rate, the highest state law allows without a special election).
The breathing room, if you can call it that, is because we face some difficult choices: "There's just no fat," Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald told a City Hall press corps briefing. Describing how city services never fully recovered from the last round of cuts – made during the last downturn, the post-9/11 crash from 2002 to 2004 – he emphasized: "This is a menu of options that hit the bone, as the city manager would say. None of them come lightly."
All city departments examined ways to cut 7% from their budgets; public safety departments, which already consume two-thirds of the entire General Fund budget, were asked to cut 3.5%. While the Hustle will crunch the numbers all summer and beyond, through the budget presentation in July and to its approval in September, here are several areas of primary interest, including both cost savings and revenue increases:
Police – $8.7 million: Canceling the 2010 cadet training class would realize the most savings, $5.2 million, and the most controversy, because it would mean reduced staffing for specialized units like DWI and organized crime. Reducing overtime would realize $1.2 million in savings but could affect "hotspot" programs designed to monitor high-crime areas. Less fruitful but closer to home: $120,000 in waived fees for security support of the South by Southwest Festival (co-owned by Chronicle chieftains Nick Barbaro and Louis Black) are also on the potential chopping block.
Fire – $4.5 million: Converting two engines to medical response units (most fire calls are medical emergencies) would save $1.24 million but immediately engenders complaints of taking firefighters off trucks. Eliminating special pay incentives for firefighters with special certification and bilingual training saves $1.73 million.
Emergency Medical Services – $5.3 million: EMS can save $250,000 by reducing contributions to an Austin Community College program designed to increase minority candidates for EMS jobs. But the agency's centerpiece would be a bump in cost for ambulance fees – from $515 to $772.50 – which would raise Austin to the 75th percentile, costwise, of peer cities city staff examined. This specific measure comes before City Council for enabling approval this Thursday, June 11.
Transportation – $3.5 million: A 52-cent increase in the transportation user fee, that arcane charge on utility bills covering road maintenance, is being considered in addition to a previously planned $1.14 hike, bringing the total to $1.66.
Health & Human Services – $2.9 million: Proposed cuts include shifting the funding of a $200,000 free pet-sterilization program to donations, permanently shuttering the already-closed south day labor site (saving another budgeted $200,000), and seeking alternate funding of $300,000 for a summer youth employment program, possibly through federal stimulus bucks.
Parks & Recreation – $2.8 million: Closing outright two lesser-used pools and replacing seven older park pools with low-maintenance splash fountains for children could save $160,000. Cutting 11 supervised summer playground programs would save $100,000, and a $5 fee on most nights of the Trail of Lights for those 11 and older would collect $250,000 to offset event costs.
Library – $1.8 million: Several reductions proposed here: opening branches an hour later and closing an hour earlier ($700,000), similarly reducing Central Library hours ($130,000), reducing the books budget ($160,000), and reducing library maintenance ($180,000).
Employee Furlough – $1.1 million: The city is mulling a program whereby city employees could take time off for which they wouldn't be paid. The proposal would not apply to uniformed public safety personnel.
Of course, all the above are only proposals, although it's clear from their overall scope and severity, drastic cuts will invariably be made. Don't let that happen without your participation. The city hosts two town halls next week: Monday, June 15, at the Gus Garcia Recreation Center, 1201 E. Rundberg, and Tuesday, June 16, at the Toney Burger Activity Center, 3200 Jones, both at 6:30pm.
Unfortunately, this won't be smooth sailing.
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