Point Austin: Out of Balance
As we sit down to balance the books, we might consider our largest deficits
This week City Manager Marc Ott released the city's cheerfully titled "Menu of Potential Budget Reductions," a daunting $45 million list of things Austin probably shouldn't do without, but will likely learn to do so at least to the tune of $30 million (making up the rest in property taxes). The Austin ISD board of trustees just received its "efficiency study" from the good folks at MGT of America, suggesting that if the district really, really tightens its belt, it could save $392 million over the next five years (see "AISD 'Efficiency' Study"). The state doesn't deal in efficiency studies – other than the Sunset process it mostly ignores – so legislators huffed and puffed about frugality, crossed their fingers, and then patched this year's quiet financial disaster with federal stimulus funding. Nationally the news is much the same – the Obama administration, while it pours money into failing banks and other financial institutions (I know, we've got to prime the pump), is now promoting a return to "pay as you go" federal budgeting so that the inherited Bush deficit doesn't get so unmanageable as to make impossible health-care reform and similar national needs.
I'm all for watching the pennies – at the Chronicle, we're shrinking from bad times like everybody else, and just listen to the shuddering of my 15-year-old Honda – but there's a depressing sameness to these debates that's not entirely due to the fact that we're generally broke. For one thing, there's the hangover factor. Sensible economists began warning in the Nineties that we couldn't ride this financial bubble forever, then came two massive, extended wars of choice that devastated other countries and our youth, even as they pumped more hot air into the economy. There were dim-bulb variations of the same argument on the state level, especially about Sacred Texas Highways: "You'll charge tolls over our dead bodies," went the public refrain, and, "You damn well better not raise the gas tax" – but hey, why in hell aren't you building any more "free" suburban-flight highways?
The House Always Wins
As an inner-city toiler quite tired of subsidizing suburbanites, I don't much miss those highways. But like any good prog, I'm gung ho on city services and public schools. "Sorry," say the folks in charge – we've got to pay the piper there, too. This week city staff is passing out poker chips for us to play with in our own little budget forums (see "City Hall Hustle"), and they're not the sort of chips that you can cash in for real money at the end of the evening. I'm both looking forward to and dreading those forums. Perhaps at least some previously uninformed taxpayers will learn how difficult it is to balance a public budget in hard times. Nevertheless, the people who most need the lesson will likely stay home, poised at their keyboards, blasting everybody in cyber range for "waste and fraud" and misplaced priorities – that is, for spending money on anything but what the typist thinks is worthwhile.
For some weeks, for example, my e-mail has been angrily salted by the neighborhood police advocates, who oppose cutting one dime from the public safety budgets even though police, fire, and EMS now consume two-thirds of the city's operating funds, with a bullet toward three-fourths. Would 90% – I suppose there has to be something left over for streets and sewers – be more to their liking? Yet some of the very same people, I was not surprised to see, were featured in TV and radio news bites this week complaining that their neighborhoods might have to do without some park resources or swimming pools or library hours this summer. Hey, if you need recreation, there are always squad-car ride-alongs.
My predecessor and colleague in this office, Mike Clark-Madison, used to politely point out to City Council that in good times, instead of the timid rollback rates, the city might consider tax rates that would actually bank money for real, future resource needs. Don't worry, nobody ever listened to him.
The only point I'm making, in my curmudgeonly way, is that in our current circumstances there really are going to be no easy budget choices. We've already had spirited internal arguments here about the AISD efficiency study, which ranges from sensible notes about purchasing matters or administrative featherbedding to cancellation of music, art, and physical education classes to school closures. That's the Starbucks approach, close some franchises – we could really save a great deal of money if we just closed every last one of them, altogether. Or we could just put the custodial staff on 10-month wages, thereby both saving taxpayers' money and increasing the percentage of poverty-status children in the schools, all at one blow.
Over the next few weeks and months, we'll be reporting in detail on the city budget deliberations as well as the school district's fiscal debates, sure to be made more interesting by the ascension of a new council and the arrival of a new school superintendent with her own perspective and priorities. Certainly one of the reasons for commissioning the MGT study (like the city's preliminary "Menu") was to provide the administration with political cover for whatever cuts are finally made; they're quite unlikely to reach the draconian potential of the report, so we'll all be able to say we fended off the wolves at the door and can return to business as usual, bloody but unbowed.
Years ago, those noisy peaceniks were warning that if the country wasn't concerned about international peace and justice, we should at least be concerned about the always sacred bottom line. We were told that the cost for our endless wars abroad would inevitably come home to our states, our cities, our hospitals, our schools. Considering what we've cost the hapless and devastated citizens of the countries of our "enemies," there is perhaps some small justice in realizing that at least the financial chickens have finally begun to come home to roost. But the taste remains bitter – and it is likely to be with us for a very long time.