City budget time is like most times at City Hall – except much faster. That's especially true this year, when the budget discussions have heavily overlapped with consideration of the extensive governmental changes proposed on the city charter ballot, simultaneously with preparation of the bond package – all crowding onto the same November ballot. Although this budget year looks a bit more rosy than recent ones (see "A Whiff of Prosperity"), City Council is only beginning to drill down into the details. The meeting today (Thursday, Aug. 30) is the second formal public hearing, inviting public comment on departmental appropriations as well as the proposed tax rate – but it still looks likely that detailed dais discussion will proceed right into the Sept. 10-12 adoption readings (in some years, those readings have been only a formality).
Much more discussion was the expectation earlier this week of Council Member Laura Morrison, who said she is only beginning to focus deeply on the budget details. To judge from the still pending council questions to staff on the budget website (www.austintexas.gov/finance), she's not alone. Morrison said she didn't think she and her colleagues have yet had sufficient time for detailed budget review, and she anticipates amendments right on through Sept. 12.
Morrison says she has particular questions about staff's proposals on the Sustainability Fund, created by Council in 2000 from enterprise funds to support programs that promote sustainability in "economy, equity, and the environment." The staff budget, says Morrison, would "zero out" the contributions from the Transportation and Drainage funds (leaving Resource Recovery and Austin Water carrying the load), and she doesn't believe that should happen without a "holistic" policy discussion on such funding. "We capped the transfers from Austin Energy [at $105 million] during the rate case," she said, "so there won't be additional funds available at the last moments. We just need to be very careful. We have a lot of good conversation at the council level about a city of 'haves and have-nots'; we need to make sure that our actions are trying to break that [economic division] down."
Morrison said she's not yet certain how she feels about the proposed property tax increase. She said a draft budget circulated earlier this year had only a 1.8 cent increase, not the 2.18 cents in the current version. "I want to know what changed, from May to August, to require a roughly 20% increase," Morrison said. I need to understand that."
Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said she's likely to support the tax increase. "I just think the needs of the city are great. ... It's always a balancing act in terms of trying to provide the services and at the same time trying to be gentle on people's pockets," she said. "You can't fund parks and social services and street maintenance, especially when you have growth, without potential tax increases sometimes." Cole also has questions about the use of the enterprise funds – specifically, the funding of the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office, currently funded entirely out of AE transfers (one of the objections raised by out-of-city ratepayers, who argue that those benefits go largely to Austin residents). "It was my understanding that during the AE rate case, we directed that those costs be applied to all the enterprise departments," Cole said. "As I read the budget, those costs remain attributable to AE only, and I don't know why that change hasn't been made." Like Morrison, Cole says the decision this year to cap AE contributions to the General Fund means council won't be able to dip into AE for last-minute additions – so they'll need to be attentive to other ways to protect program funding. "I don't think you'll see any big swings," she said. (Last week, the Electric Utility Commission recommended unanimously that until the ERGSO funding from AE is ended – and the money redirected to utility funds – the budget should not be approved.)
Cole said she was also concerned about proposed cuts to social services, especially early childhood and youth programs. "I don't know yet where we might be able to find the additional money," she said, "but I'm hoping that we can avoid cuts in that area. That's a basic support program that we just need to continue to do. ... We don't want to be penny-wise and pound-foolish."
The FY 2012-13 budget steps front and center this week at Thursday's public hearing (budget and tax rate), and becomes the primary business for City Council through Sept. 12. Barring special-called meetings (possible if the budget deliberations become thorny), the next regular meeting would be Sept. 27, preceded by a work session on Tuesday, Sept. 25.
Bill Spelman is expected to return (following surgery) to the dais this week. Last Thursday in his absence, one measure – a proposal to "in-source" 28 custodial positions currently filled by outside contractors – died on a 3-3 vote when the additional labor cost (about $680,000) proved too high for some members to swallow. Council heard several brief budget-related public hearings, and authorized cost-of-living raises for the city clerk, municipal court clerk, city auditor, and city manager – pending approval of the staff-wide raises proposed in the new budget.
And in a much anticipated decision, Council authorized street closures for a Sept. 29 benefit for Habitat for Humanity, the Karaoke 5K: "the only running event where the crowd IS the concert!"
Get in the shower and start training those vocal cords.
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