Point Austin: Budgets Is Hard
Council takes on the annual number crunching
On Wednesday, the new City Council began digging earnestly into the budget forecast, asking staff to explain in more detail the framework of the forecast, the next stages in the process, and what looks solid vs. what remains, at this point, fairly speculative. It's still very early – Wednesday afternoon's discussion took up homestead exemptions, and staff is returning soon with a working report on potential cuts, for example, if an exemption were enacted – and an actual proposed budget is weeks away. The forecast is just that – an early look at the anticipated numbers, with staff summarizing the expected revenues, the largest costs, and the likely changes from the last fiscal year numbers (Oct. 1-Sept. 30).
Nevertheless, the level of discussion was distressingly low, with extremely elementary questions ruling the conversation, as though quite a few of these new Council members had never bothered to actually monitor a city budget process before deciding to run for office. Some were unclear on the difference between a forecast and an actual proposed budget, and Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo (seconded by City Manager Marc Ott) patiently explained that until departments actually submit their annual budget requests, all these numbers are simply estimates based on prior knowledge. District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman testily dismissed the whole process, saying he wouldn't be saying much now because it was obvious that there are plenty of cuts to be made, most specifically noting that in any large organization, if some people were simply told not to show up for work anymore, "it wouldn't make any difference."
We'll eventually learn if that stern fiscal nostrum applies to the public safety numbers (70% of the expense budget), where (as Van Eenoo quietly noted) the hiring of many additional cadets will inevitably mean rising costs, including health insurance and other benefits. Van Eenoo pointed out that structural "cost drivers" likely mean at least a 5% budget increase before Council begins its deliberations – that doesn't mean nothing can be cut, only that the job is much more difficult (and detail-oriented) than the "waste and fraud" posse ever imagines.
Where's the Money, Lebowski?
I don't envy their task, and I don't blame the low level of discussion on "10-1" – it's much more due to term limits, the knuckleheaded notion (imposed by Austin voters) that we should dismiss public officials just about the time they learn how to do their jobs. The sole experienced Council member – Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo – quietly reminded her colleagues that while it's easy to imagine major cuts at the outset of the process, by the time August rolls around they'll find themselves sweating over seemingly insignificant monies to patch major needs. That advice apparently fell on deaf ears; D8 CM Ellen Troxclair asked Van Eenoo whether large revenues of earlier good years were simply "all spent" by previous Councils instead of banking them away for hard times. Van Eenoo patiently outlined the city's reserve policies, while politely declining to point out that if the CMs think the current years, when Austin's economy is riding high, are not good ones, the new Council has very much to learn.
Tax Somebody Else
Council is in a tight box of its own campaign rhetoric, for which "affordability" came to mean one thing only: lower taxes. That's giving the game away at the outset, especially when even the most generous property tax homestead exemption will mean very little in annual savings for the median homeowner, let alone the majority of Austinites who are renters. Homeowners have recently received our annual Travis County tax appraisals (which also set values for the city's calculations), reported to average an 11% increase: We can applaud our burgeoning equity, or curse our rising tax bills – long before any of the jurisdictions weigh in on any proposed rate.
Austinites (like folks everywhere) want nice things, but we're much less expansive when it comes to paying for them. Two object lessons arose in the past couple of weeks. First came the city auditor's report on the Animal Services Program, which in sum noted that Animal Services simply does not have the resources both to perform its mission and comply with state law or best practices. A few days later, Parks & Rec announced that its budget is overstrained, and that PARD recommends cutting back on public pool availability this summer, most painfully by closing Metz and Mabel Davis pools – a recommendation that generated so much neighborhood backlash that the department is now trying to figure out a way to keep the pools open (even while they need major repairs).
Meanwhile, Council spent Wednesday afternoon trying to determine if it will be able to find $36 million in next year's budget (insufficient, say, to repair all the many pools that need it) to return in small slices to homeowners. I certainly wish them well, but if they expect do that within the 30% of the General Fund not already dedicated to police, fire, and EMS ... they'd better sharpen their magic wands.