The Austin Chronicle

Council: Valentine's Day Expenses

By Michael King, February 15, 2013, News

At 83 items, Thursday's City Council meeting (Feb. 14) doesn't appear particularly daunting, but there may be a few depth charges lurking in the underbrush. Some of the explosives were gingerly handled at Tuesday's work session, where Council attempted to divvy up $14.3 million in unexpected midyear "surplus" funds over the 2012-13 fiscal year budget; some things hadn't cost as much as budgeted, and sales tax receipts had been higher than initially estimated. It took several hours to work out how that money might be spent; the big bite – $10 million – ended up dedicated to affordable housing, although it was not immediately clear if all that amount will all be spent. Staff indicated that of the handful of projects in development (seven are listed on Thursday's agenda), two projects costing $4.6 million were most likely to garner state (tax credit) matching funds. After much discussion, with Council Members Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison pressing hardest for the money to go to housing, the motion passed 4-3, with Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, and CM Bill Spelman voting no.

That meant that Cole's initial proposal to earmark $4 million for "property tax relief" was no longer on the table, although Morrison and others suggested that the staff estimates on this year's anticipated revenues are too low, and that there would be more wiggle room in the upcoming budget year. Leffingwell argued that even if that proves true, Council should rely on the funds they actually have before them; CM Mike Martinez suggested that it might make more sense to consider next year's tax relief under next year's budget. In the end, spending won out over saving.

Also on the lengthy list of potential expenditures were such items as more Police Department forensic chemists and more staff for Planning and Development Review – both departments are backed up, the former badly enough that district judges are officially complaining. Those both received additional funds, as did a handful of smaller projects ranging from Head Start support to Fire Department wildfire mitigation.

Thursday's agenda also lists (again) the third reading on the proposed Little Woodrow's Bar & Restaurant for North Burnet Road, which has been holding at 4-3 in favor. Officially, that public hearing is closed, but the neighborhood associations are still simmering, and the outcome remains in doubt.

All of this may be a sideshow to Austin Energy matters, as Item 46 (Leffingwell, Spelman, Cole) would direct the city manager to draft an ordinance to change AE governance (currently directly under Council) to an independent board of trustees – a proposal vehemently opposed in some circles. (See "Then There's This," p.16.) By coincidence, the morning briefing is AE's quarterly report – which occurs under the cloud of the pending rate case at the state Public Utility Com­mis­sion, where the utility is already getting raked over the coals for spending too much money on non-utility city priorities. Expect to hear plenty more on that subject down the line.

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