City Hall Hustle: Budget, Bonds, and Big Plans

Hard times and planned projects to collide at city forums

Our public participation frenzy is again in full swing with two – count 'em, two – public input opportunities this week on major financial decisions facing the city: the city budget and the proposed November bond election. Blame the crush on the encroaching heat, the humidity, or maybe the fact City Council has one meeting left (next Thursday, June 24) until its monthlong summer hiatus, and council members want to peruse public opinion in the meantime.

Council's plaudits for City Manager Marc Ott were few and far between at his annual performance evaluation, which transpired last month in the shadow of the city's mishandling of the KeyPoint report on the police shooting death of Nathaniel Sanders II. But Ott's strong suit, said Randi Shade in announcing the council's evaluation, was his handling of the budget process – opening it up to create a veritable wealth of transparency compared to fiscal years past and hosting several well-attended community meetings last year for citizens to prioritize services.

The city tried to recapture that feeling this week with a Convention Center forum Tuesday night to elicit reactions to proposed budget cuts for fiscal year 2011. If feelings of déjà vu permeated the process, that's because some $9.3 million of the proposals were on the table last year, too. Of the $45 million "menu" of proposed cuts Ott offered last year, some $28.3 million have been adopted, leaving $16.7 million in potential savings that could still be realized. "However," Ott wrote in a memo announcing them, "several of the remaining menu options are no longer viable," owing to changing economics, public safety contract terms, and the like. Of the remaining $9.3 million in proposed cuts, many "present difficult choices that would negatively impact services – in some cases significantly. My sincere hope is that the continued efforts of our departments to improve operational efficiencies, combined with the improvements that we are beginning to see in the local economy, will enable the city to balance its budget without further disruptions to services." These oldies-but-goodies include suspending the Trail of Lights, eliminating co-sponsorship of special events, reducing park pool and library hours, delaying the 2011 police cadet class a year, and converting two fire engines to medical response units.

Then there's $19.2 million in "unmet service demands," a wish list of funding for new hires and programs necessitated by growth and previous budget cuts, spread over 197.5 new jobs. Those jobs include add-backs to parks and pools maintenance, police positions, implementing council's "four-person staffing" resolution on fire engines, growth in Code Compliance and internal departments such as human resources, and more – and the city manager's staff wants public input on prioritizing these demands.

Let's hope you haven't satisfied your financier fantasies yet, because today (Thursday) there's an open house on the transportation bond package (City Hall, 301 W. Second, 4-8pm.) Earlier this week, Ott and the Transportation Depart­ment released their preliminary recos for the November bond election. In a massive press release outlining the proposal, subject to public and council review, the package is slated at $85 million, roughly half of the city's bonding capacity, with $70.8 million earmarked for "immediate construction" projects and $14 million for design and engineering.

Interestingly, many of the projects proposed effectively circumvent the dais controversy over the November bond election – i.e., whether we can afford a targeted bond this year, followed by a likely rail election and an omnibus $500 million to $700 million bond – by procuring alternate funding mechanisms for particular projects. "Projects in the draft bond package include studies that will be conducted in conjunction with regional partners and that aim to develop regional funding solutions," reads the release. "All projects on the 'A' list of prioritized mobility needs" – those ranked highest on a city-developed matrix weighing community needs and desires – "will be addressed using general obligation bonds or other means of available funding." That means some highly prioritized projects, like the Downtown bike boulevard and other new bike lanes, I-35 improvements, and preliminary work on urban rail, aren't even part of the $85 million bond but are still listed among the bond projects, as not to skew the prioritization results, we suppose.

The projects that could be funded in the November bond election represent a multimodal mix of roads, sidewalks, trails, and public transportation: $17 million – 10% of the city's total bonding capacity of $170 million – for the Lady Bird Lake boardwalk, completing the trail system around the lake; $2 million to pave the way for rapid bus lines on Guadalupe/Lavaca; $8 million to rework the Third Street/Lance Armstrong Bikeway corridor; $1 million for pedestrian improvements for upcoming Waller Creek redevelopment Downtown, and much more. "The variety of mobility improvements included in the bond package proposal reflects the importance of multiple forms of travel to reduce congestion and our reliance on cars alone," Assistant City Manager Robert Goode says on the website announcing the allocations (www.austinstrategicmobility.com). "The City of Austin should build the infrastructure that supports walkable and cycling environments and promotes long-term sustainable mobility that is better for our pocketbooks and the environment."

The juxtaposition of the two public events raises two opposing questions: facing a budget shortfall that necessitates a property tax rise, should the city consider another increase via the transportation bonds? Or on the other hand, facing our growth, can we afford not to?


City Council's off this week, but the Hustle's always on at austinchronicle.com/tdh.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council, budget, transportation

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