Beside the Point: Pray for Drought
The unexpected blessings of global warming
As Wells Dunbar reported last week (see "Budget Buzz," Aug. 21), in this year's edition of our annual budgetary cliffhanger, last-minute rope tricks by our old friend Rising Property Values on the one hand and Austin Energy on the other together provided roughly an additional $1.6 million to soothe the savage fiscal beast – credit the heat wave and consequently exploding AC bills. That means a recalculated rollback rate (the tax rate beyond which, under state law, City Council would be required to call an election) of 42.09 cents (per $100 valuation). The current rate is 40.12 cents, and the draft budget proposed a rate of 43.28 – so the council gets to look good for pulling back from the higher rate, while still raising an additional $644,000.
That adjusted rate should be more or less formalized today (Thursday) as council will consider setting 42.09 as its "maximum" possible rate. (Actual adoption does not occur until after public hearings and after the whole budget is approved in September – tentatively Oct. 1.)
Good news, right? Like all things budgetary, yes and no. The most important changes allowed by the additional windfalls (heatfalls?) include restoring the service incentive (aka "longevity") pay for city employees and dropping the proposed unpaid furloughs for those earning less than $40,000 (furloughs above that scale remain a possibility). The local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees had noisily balked at those proposals – insisting employees had sacrificed quite enough – and publicly roasted City Manager Marc Ott sufficiently so that he indirectly responded this week on his website, noting that Things Are Much Worse Elsewhere. "More than 900 people working for the City of Dallas will lose their jobs," Ott wrote. "While we tackle a $30 million budget gap, [Dallas is] dealing with a shortfall reported at $190 million." Dallas is still considering furloughs, the city manager added, and in Fort Worth, "the current proposal includes more than 100 layoffs and up to eight unpaid furlough days for employees." So you damn well better eat your brussels sprouts.
AFSCME Business Manager Greg Powell didn't sound terribly chastened by visions of municipal doom elsewhere. "We're not going to apologize for bringing good information to the City Council and drawing a line in the sand for our members," Powell said. He said the union is "quite happy" about the changes in the revised budget proposal, calling the outcome the result of a "good perfect storm" in unanticipated city income. "We're glad that management and the council decided to take a second look" at the proposed cuts, and he reiterated his argument that employees have already sacrificed enough in raises and other benefits over the last couple of budget cycles. "We always seem to grow out of these [budget bust] cycles," Powell said – credit our old friend RPV – but at some point, he argued, the city will reach "a saturation point," when structural expenses can't be matched by rising income.
So what used to be called the Dunkerley Dance – the annual budget deficit two-step magically resolved at the last minute by curious financial maneuvers – has now outlasted former Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley herself and may need to be renamed, say, the Heat Wave Waltz.
But what happens if our old friend RPV should move to Aspen – or, God forbid, next summer is mild? BTP asked Mayor Lee Leffingwell if he would be praying for more heat next year. "I'll settle for cooler weather," he laughed, "and take my punishment."
One of these years, so will we all.
Keep Your Distance
While you're pondering that paradox, here are selected highlights of Thursday's abundant council considerations:
• Items 7 & 8 (Consent agenda): rental breaks for Austin Java City Hall and RunTex – things are tough all over.
• Item 23 (Consent): confirmation of proposed changes in council rules not yet in effect (see "City Hall Hustle," Aug. 21) – the usual suspects will likely use citizen communications to remonstrate accordingly.
• Item 30 (Consent): formal creation of Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Task Force, with a membership almost as long as its name.
• Item 55 (Mike Martinez, Leffingwell, Chris Riley): ban on texting while driving and creation of a 3-foot passing buffer around cyclists, aka "Driving for Dummies."
• Item 73: 2pm briefing on progress of the Austin Technology Incubator.
• Items 74-83: mucho zoning matters, including a brace of vertical mixed-use decisions (Brentwood, Crestview, Central East) and a possible high-rise PUD on Lakeshore Boulevard (SaveTownLake.org is gathering the oppo troops; buzz predicts postponement).
Plenty more where that comes from: The Council Meeting Information Center is on the city website: www.cityofaustin.org.
The City Hall Hustler took the week off to visit his El Pasoan relations and will return next week. BTP will be eternally grateful.