City Hall Hustle: And So the Money Goes
Final city budget adoption not quite so final
Exhibit A: the editorial, published the day of the budget's adoption, Monday, Sept. 14, featuring a rote recital of one of the Statesman's key editorial planks: that council, by not sufficiently slashing city employees' pay, reneged on its promise of "shared sacrifice." Couched in conservative condescension, for example, calling for tax "relief" – language more befitting a hemorrhoidal wipe than a budget barely keeping existing city services and salaries afloat – it closed with an attack-ad-style entreaty to e-mail the mayor yourself to register your disgust!
"I really don't agree with this morning's editorial that this [sacrifice] is not spread evenly," said Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez at the time of the adoption. "Everyone is equally sharing in the burden this year, and it's unprecedented," he continued, compelled to point out the obvious. "They are going to have to pay a little more in taxes, and a little more in fees, to maintain the same services ... not bells and whistles." In City Hall's saner chambers, rather than disgust, there was recognition of what the budget actually is: one written for a city that, while doing better than most, still isn't doing well enough; one that's trying to maintain the services its citizens have consistently supported; one that struggles to reconcile Austin's ever swelling size with state-capped taxes perpetually lagging behind real expenses. That's not to say anyone was particularly pleased to pass the thing – the trending meme was definitely "sacrifice," despite congratulation to the city's beleaguered budget staff. However, there were more substantial critiques than the Statesman's budget caterwauling – from the dais itself, i.e., Bill Spelman.
After expressing gratitude to the city's financial mandarins and noting items he's "very happy" with – such as waiving the $5 million Austin Energy was about to collect in fees to cover energy transmission, a deferral he later defended by saying, "There's so much in the fund balance ... we didn't need to soak the ratepayers" – Spelman explained what he was "less happy" about: "I'm less happy with the fact the property tax is where it was when we began. I'm less happy about the fact we missed some opportunities," including a smarter allocation of public safety funds. As an example, Spelman cited city reluctance to exchange two fire trucks for EMS-style medical response units; though most fire calls are medically related and the proposal garnered nearly 80% approval in budget town halls, it went nowhere. "There were a lot of internal constituencies less sold on the idea," he says. Internal constituencies: that's LBJ School-speak for "insiders with more stroke than you."
"This is not quite the budget I wanted," he continued. "I think it's probably true for many of us on the dais, we never quite get the budget we want." But, he went on, echoing the Stones, "You don't always get what you want; you get what you need." Looking to fiscal year 2011, Spelman said it was time to start considering "what is it exactly we're looking for in advance ....The sooner we can do that, the clearer we can do that, the more likely we are to get the budget that we all want next year."
Spelman told the Hustle he's not quite done and is planning to put his handprints on the "recently poured concrete" of the budget. Reiterating his plea to "move money from less valuable programs to more valuable programs," he plans to bring items to the next council meeting (Sept. 24) that include funding the inspection of city projects to ensure disability compliance and beefing up construction safety and security ("we're losing people on tall buildings"). Council Member Laura Morrison e-mails to say she's also pursuing the above, plus "the development of a systematic approach to allocating our Health and Human Services Department social service funding." Spelman is also looking to fund additional veterinary technicians at the Town Lake Animal Center.
"I came in in the middle of the process," Spelman says, referring to his May election while the budget process was well under way. "Direction had already been given." That direction emerges in part from the city's business planning process, an annual winter ritual where departments "review goals and performance standards," says Budget Officer Ed Van Eenoo. "I would like to see some tweaks to it," Eenoo adds.
Missing out on these early decisions, plus the total $2.7 billion budget's dwarfing of the general fund, must be why Spelman sees adopting the rollback property tax rate as a failure of creative budget solutions – if not a triumph of PR. Noting that rising property values allowed council to lower the actual rate from an earlier high while still pulling in slightly more revenue, he said, "It's the same amount of money ... but some people were considerably more happy" with the optics of a lower rate. To Spelman, though, "It still looks like we're gonna take as much money as we possibly can out of your pocket, in the middle of a recession."
Even if you don't entirely agree – or balk at even indirectly deferring to the Statesman's knee-jerk city bashing – Spelman's take is refreshingly frank in a business so fixated on smooth public relations.