One Fiscal Year Down, Another on the Way

Council gives thumbs up to 2010 budget

The Austin City Council approved the city's 2010 budget in just under an hour Monday morning. Several minor amendments were adopted, but the bulk of City Manager Marc Ott's budget proposals were passed by a largely acquiescent council.

The budget sets property taxes at the rollback rate – yielding roughly 8% more than last year's take, and the highest allowable tax rate without holding a special election – of 42.09 cents. As expected, it keeps $1.6 million for service incentive pay, a yearly lump sum rewarding employees for staying with the city more than five years, largely funded via an additional $1 million transfer from Austin Energy, which is reaping the spoils of this summer's record high temperatures. Also, the budget doesn't include any immediate plans for employee furloughs. Citing his employees' continued well-being and no cuts to public safety, library hours, or recreation center hours, Ott said, "I'm not aware of any other major city that can make these statements."

In light of the tax increase – which Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez characterized as "everyone ... equally sharing in the burden this year" – the council endeavored to rein in additional fees. Austin Energy's plans to raise $5.2 million through a new line-item charge on customers' bills, in order to cover new energy transmission costs, was shelved. Proposed hikes to trash and solid-waste services were canned, except for an increase to 90-gallon residential trash cans (the budget office projected an increase from $16.50 to $18.20, then lowered it to $17.15, but Council Member Laura Morrison offered an amendment reincreasing the fee to $18.20 to further incentivize recycling – i.e., use a smaller can and save). However, council did approve a 4.5% water and wastewater rate increase, which the city says will raise an average residential customer's bill from $63.57 to $67.35. Conservation-minded Council Member Chris Riley noted that the council, along with the newly re-energized Citizens Water Conservation Implementation Task Force, will examine the rate structure, which charges more per gallon the more water you use, so as to further incentivize conservation. "We're all on board with a continuing scrutiny of these water rates to make sure they reflect the continuing reality of where we are today," said Riley. Several small grant increases and decreases to the city's operating budget were also passed, none relating to the hot-button topics the city manager highlighted from his proposed menu of cuts.

Amid praise for the city's staffers, budgeters, employees, and public safety unions that volunteered to relinquish their planned 2010 raises, council passed the budget unanimously on all three readings. But sounding the one disharmonious note was Council Member Bill Spelman, who, longing for greater involvement in next year's budget (Spelman was elected once the process was well under way), said, "By the time a document this size gets to the City Council ... it's like recently poured concrete – movable, pliable, but the longer it sits there, the harder it is to move around."

For more on the budget, see "City Hall Hustle."

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