City Budget

Employee furlough plan may get scrapped

City Manager Marc Ott released his proposed city budget Wednesday with a surprising minimum of cuts. Among the highlights: preserving existing library hours and funding for supervised playground programs and little-league teams, and proceeding with the upcoming police cadet class. Yet talk of employee furloughs drew concern from rank-and-file employees and City Council members alike, and questions still persist about the overall inclusiveness of the annual budgeting exercise.

The overall 2010 budget is estimated to cost $2.75 billion, of which $613.3 million is allocated to the General Fund, money that funds city services such as public safety, parks, libraries, and more. The General Fund spends all it takes in, but the $613.3 million in expenditures is smaller than the original estimate of $645 million. Deferred police and EMS raises, lower-than-anticipated insurance and fuel costs, plus departmental budget cuts (largely cutting unfilled positions) and more shrunk the total. The budget sets property tax at the rollback rate of 43.28 cents per $100 of assessed property value, as high as the city can go without a special election, but Leffingwell promises, "We're gonna be working in the next month to see if we can get that tax rate down."

The city made no cuts to public safety; in addition to approving the police cadet class, the budget also carries over $1.2 million in police overtime. Results from the city's five town hall meetings on the budget were incorporated, as 14 specific cuts participants approved were acted on, including the proposed closure of eight older city pools, permanent shuttering of the South Austin day labor site, and charging South by Southwest for security support services. Three of the top 10 town hall proposals – converting two fire engines to EMS-style medical units, cutting bilingual funding services at the municipal court, and eliminating funding for the LBJ Fire Academy, designed to improve diversity among firefighters – were not adopted.

Plans for a tiered employee furlough program, in which higher-paid employees would take more time off, appear dead. Mayor Lee Leffingwell described "a general consensus of trepidation" among council regarding furloughs, and later, Ott promised to "explore alternatives to not applying a furlough program in 2010." (The program would've saved the General Fund $700,000.) Still, the local chapter of the American Federa­tion of State, County and Municipal Employees took umbrage with the planned elimination of service incentive pay, bonuses tied to an employee's tenure with the city.

Another potential flashpoint could be the process' focus on the General Fund at the expense of the total budget. Discussing Austin Energy, which generates income but also consumes 37% of the $2.75 billion budget, council member Bill Spelman asked, "Why aren't we spending more time talking about reductions in cost to the enterprise funds?" Similarly, Mike Martinez broached the possibility of bumping AE's transfer to the General Fund from 9.1% of proceeds ($100 million) to an even 10%, freeing up some $9 million extra. Ott quickly shot the idea down, saying later it could adversely affect the city's bond rating and that he was "concerned we're even having a conversation about it," as city officials are shortly heading to New York to speak with their bond rating agency.

Council is scheduled to go over departmental budgets in further detail starting Aug. 5.

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