City Hall Hustle: Everybody Makes Do With Less ... Except APD
Council tweaks the minor numbers on the FY 2011 budget
Those words didn't come from one of the placard-clutching protesters in City Council chambers Monday, Sept. 13, leering at adoption of the 2010-2011 city budget, but from Council Member Bill Spelman, mildly peeved minutes after approving the package. "Those decisions are actually made way in advance before any of us are paying a lot of attention to the budget, back in January, February, March, when the manager is issuing his instructions to the department heads as to what kind of a budget to prepare," he elaborated. "By the time it gets written down, the vast majority of big decisions have already been made."
He's right, in that the $2.8 billion budget, and its $650 million General Fund, saw rather small tinkering at the last minute. Several minor, staff-proposed amendments to the operating budget were adopted, including a $296,000 increase for sidewalk improvements and a revenue-neutral boost of two additional case manager positions for the municipal court.
Amendments from council were slightly more interesting: Sheryl Cole, who had previously spoken to the importance of reducing the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office's dependency on Austin Energy, kept $333,000 of EGRSO-earmarked money in the General Fund. In the next amendment, Laura Morrison bundled that with additional savings to scrounge up $381,000 for unmet social service needs (with an eye toward uncovering additional leftovers in last budget year's Health and Human Services finances in the coming weeks, we hear). Randi Shade moved to reallocate the $374,000 Trail of Lights budget to fund upkeep and maintenance of city parks generally. Mike Martinez proposed to keep 60-gallon trash bins at their existing $10 rate, rather than implement a 35 cent decrease, bringing in $486,000 to fund Zero Waste programs and other unmet needs at Solid Waste Services. And Chris Riley proposed raising demolition/relocation fees from $25 to $140 for homes 40 years or older, in a historic district, or listed in the National Register of Historic Places, in order to better reflect staff time the oft-controversial cases can eat up. All staff- and council-suggested amendments passed.
But then there's the one that got away: When it came time for council to adopt fees, fines, and rates, Spelman moved to revise Austin Water's rate increases to offset the effect Water Treatment Plant No. 4 had on the them, lessening the hike on residential customers from 6.7% to 5.9%. "We're going to have to increase our water rates just to be able to keep the water system going," he said, but "also to pay for the debts that we have already incurred in our unfortunate decision to start building Water Treatment Plant 4 up to this point." Lee Leffingwell argued that a decrease wouldn't affect WTP4 but would instead hurt "non-core services," including, ironically, AW's funding for the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, slated to be criss-crossed by underground WTP4 pipes. "Let me plead guilty to shameless symbolic politics," Spelman said, acknowledging his intent was to demonstrate that absent WTP4, rate increases, on schedule through 2016, could be lower. With that, the amendment failed along the usual lines, Leffingwell, Martinez, Shade, and Cole saying no to Spelman, Morrison, and Riley.
Afterward, Leffingwell told the Hustle the budget reflected his priorities. "We were able to actually increase our public safety presence – 48 new officers at APD [35 in addition to the originally proposed 13], new fire and EMS equipment and personnel that we had been kinda behind on for the last couple of years. ... Austin has a great story to tell," Leffingwell said, compared to other cities' mayors he'd spoken with who were "singing the blues."
Meanwhile, Spelman was whistling a different tune. Returning to the intractability of the budget, he said, "Over the last 10 years, public safety spending per person, in real terms, has gone up by nearly 50 percent since the year 2000," a 45% increase from $365 to $529. "Spending on everything else in the General Fund, has gone up by 2 percent since 2000," from a little over $175 to $178.
"We've taken all the new money we've gotten from property taxes, sales taxes, and what have you, and put it all into public safety. And none of it into parks, libraries, health and human services, development services, and so on. It's all gone to public safety. That kind of big decision is not the sort of decision we ever have the chance to make on budget day. That sort of decision is basically made by the city manager and staff and department heads, way in advance of when we get to pass the budget. And that decision is so big, involving so many millions of dollars, that we simply don't have the opportunity to move that stuff around. So council and the public need to get involved in these big budget decisions well in advance of Sept. 13."
For more blue material, subscribe to the Hustle's newsletter. Sign up at austinchronicle.com/newsletters.