The Austin Chronicle

Council: Zoning Futures, Budget Preview, Cilantro

By Michael King, May 2, 2014, News

This week's City Council agenda (Thurs­day, May 1) includes a relatively moderate 72 items, but there will be plenty to wrangle over, notably a couple of matters repeatedly postponed over the last couple of months.

Among a baker's dozen of zoning cases, today marks the return of the Baylor House historic landmark case (Item 66), an unresolved question that has been kicked up to the dais for deliberation because neither the staff nor the Planning Commission could decide on a recommendation (see "Then There's This: Saving the Baylor House," April 11). And right behind that (item 72) is the revised "vested development rights" (aka grandfathering) ordinance that has limped a lengthy road since Attorney Gen­eral Greg Abbott declared the city's existing ordinance in conflict with state law. Neither environmentalists nor developers claim happiness with the current draft – with the central argument over the length an inactive project can retain its permits, somewhere between nine and 20 years – so after much fustian debate, perhaps Council will attempt (heroically, of course) to split the baby.

Those two knots should require some time to uncoil. Little else jumps dramatically out on the agenda, although several resolutions from Council anticipate plenty of work ahead when they return from staff development: an alternative funding plan for special events; a new financial plan for Austin Water; full cost recovery for Austin Energy line extensions; and plans to facilitate the development of "point towers" (slender residential skyscrapers). If staff can get all that done before September, it'll be a good summer's work.

In the meantime, the opening briefing bell rang last week on a much longer shadow – budget development, and was followed by Tuesday's work session briefing on bond capacity. We'll have more to say on the budget details as they develop, but here are some of the takeaway numbers in the initial staff proposal:

a 0.7-cent reduction in the property tax rate (49.57 cents/$100 evaluation)

$1.7 billion increase in total property values

an estimated $28/year property tax increase on a median-value home ($193,000)

fee increases totaling $13.38 a month (median); Austin Water's is the largest: $4.84/month)

continued strong growth (5-6%) in sales tax revenues

59 additional police officers

19.75 new enterprise positions

One wonkier but telling budget detail is that this year's focus, per City Manager Marc Ott, is on "affordability," as department heads were asked to concentrate on "critical priorities." In past years, the initial budgets have been accompanied by a laundry list of "unmet needs" for Council to consider for possible inclusion – those lists have been abruptly jettisoned this year. In a January memo to department heads, Ott wrote: "As we look ahead to fiscal year 2015 and beyond, our focus needs to increasingly shift to balancing community demands for new and enhanced services with growing concerns about affordability. Accordingly, I have but one pronouncement for next year's budget: NO INCREASE IN THE PROPERTY TAX RATE."

That declaration found reverberation in a statement released by Mayor Lee Leffing­well after the initial briefing, which opened with a glowing financial forecast by Jon Hocken­yos. Leffingwell welcomed both the forecast and the proposed rate cut, then added, "I look forward to seeing if we can do even better than that."

Here's one way: Today's musical honoree is Cilantro Boombox, which describes its fiercely rhythmic effusions as embracing "Dance/World/Funk/Pop/Brown/Sexy." If that's not enough to hook you, the Boombox boasts one enthusiastic fan's post-performance endorsement: "I feel like I just had sex." So if you needed a reason to attend a City Council meeting ...

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