Council: Of Money and Weirdness

City Council hits its late-summer budgetary stride

City Council
City Council (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Arguably, every City Council meeting is about money – spending money, saving money, moving money around. That's particularly true in August and September – especially this year, when there's a periodic bond package under discussion, simultaneously with the staff presentations of the general funds budget. After some grumbling, the currently six-person quorum (Bill Spelman is still recuperating after surgery but plans to return next week) grudgingly agreed last week to hold the bond package at a no-tax-increase $385 million, but they found it difficult to agree (especially without a swing vote) on the last few projects to be included. For a while, it appeared a consensus would have to be reached in special-called weekend meetings – but they managed to get it done without taking that plunge. (In a slightly different context Tuesday, Mayor Lee Leffingwell groused: "We're not having enough meetings; we need to pick it up.")

Council members' favored projects differed a bit in detail, and there was a bit of horse-trading – Dougherty Arts Center renovations ($4 million) made the final list, but $1 million to $5 million for additions to the Mexic-Arte Museum did not. Mike Martinez offered the most completely developed proposal, and most of his changes were adopted to some degree: Austin Studios expansion ($5.4 million); Violet Crown Trail ($2 million); Barton Springs bathhouse renovations ($2 million); East 51st Street improvements ($3.5 million); Women & Children's homeless shelter ($3.8 million). That required moving money from elsewhere, as did other members' insistence that affordable housing be aggressively funded ($76.8 million).

In broad sums, the total $385 million breaks out like this (more detail in the coming weeks):

$143 million: Transportation and Mobility (roads to sidewalks)

$78.3 million: Housing

$77.7 million: Parks and Recreation

$31.1 million: Public Safety

$30.0 million: Open Space and Watershed Protection

$11.1 million: Health and Human Services

$13.4 million: Library, Museum, and Cultural Arts Facilities

Meanwhile, at its Tuesday work session council spent a good deal of time (with uneven enthusiasm) trying to schedule an upcoming Saturday in September or October for a town-hall-style meeting primarily for extended Citizen Communications – although the cost of such an extra meeting (if it includes staff and Chan­nel 6) might well become an issue. Wed­nesday's all-day work session was specifically a budget agenda, featuring the following departments: Police, Fire, EMS, Code Compliance, Resource Recovery, Austin Water Utility, Austin Energy, and the City Auditor.

Today (Thursday) the money management (or headache, depending on your point of view) continues. Items 93-98 will be public hearings on various aspects of the general funds budget (some from the Wed­nesday list), including a general discussion of the whole megillah (Item 95) as well as the proposed property tax rate (Item 97), anticipated to be less than what would trigger a rollback election. Those are likely to be the headline financial discussions, but there are also a couple of less-prominent items in which the city is proposing to spend money in support of previously addressed priorities. On the public schools front, for example, Items 32 and 52 attempt to establish interlocal agreements with Austin ISD to fulfill a city commitment to share burdens when possible: authorizing negotiation of a general agreement with AISD, and specifically authorizing $250,000 from cable provider fees to help underwrite equipment needed by the district's cable access channel. Tuesday's work session also featured a somewhat worried discussion of Item 3, which would authorize 28 custodial positions targeted to Austin Energy, for services previously provided by private contractors. This "insourcing" proposal is in response to earlier council concerns that outside contractors may not pay living wages or provide benefits – but the potential cost made the mayor swallow hard, and it might make council hesitate today.

There are also a handful of interesting items that are not, strictly speaking, "money matters," at least in the short term. Item 67 takes note of increased private well drilling in Austin's wealthier neighborhoods (an unintended consequence of tighter restrictions on landscape watering) and would direct the city manager to prepare an ordinance requiring well registration, monitoring, and possible permitting of such wells. And in the wake of the recent controversies over park usage by music festivals and the like, Item 72 would direct the city manager to consult with stakeholders concerning the usage of Auditorium Shores and Zilker Park, "and provide recommendations on a balanced solution that enhances public access and enjoyment of Austin's public park system." Item 69 would memorialize legendary gay activist Bettie Naylor by renaming in her honor part of Fourth Street (from Congress to Rio Grande) – three cheers and whatever the signs cost for that one!

Along more ceremonial lines, Item 75 would authorize street closures for the Sept. 29 "Karaoke 5K," a sort-of footrace ( designed both to raise money for Habitat for Humanity and reinforce officially sanctioned local weirdness (nationwide as well). Finally, among this day's proclamations is one in honor of local literary luminary O. Henry's birthday (William Sydney Porter, b. Sept. 11, 1862; A sesquicentennial celebration is undoubtedly a proclamation-worthy occasion.

We should all live so long.

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