The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Balancing Budget Numbers and Needs

Council wants a property tax cut but service needs are real

By Michael King, May 15, 2015, News

Expertise has its limits.

Jonathan Allen, the Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., city manager who was invited to Austin in March to explain the curious ways of women to city staffers because (reported the States­man's Lilly Rockwell) his tiny Fort Lauderdale suburb has an all-woman city commission, was fired by those commissioners in April. Assist­ant City Manager Anthony Snipes was the Austin genius who hired the Florida genius ("women ask a lot of questions and don't like numbers"), but City Manager Marc Ott took the blame, apologizing in retro­spect for the fiasco as "disappointing and unexpected" and not reflecting "the views of the city." City Council members (not to mention social media) are responding with well-deserved public outrage and mockery.

Let's hope the CMs also save some of that energy for the budget review process they interrupted Wednesday to hold an anti-sexism presser in the City Hall atrium. Council is just beginning its budget work, and the CMs have already found themselves treading rough water. They would like to enable a homestead property tax reduction – the latest proposal on the table is Mayor Steve Adler's 6% exemption – but now they're discovering that even at that level (down from the campaign vision of 20%), the cuts do not come easily. The mayor has suggested that the exemption (representing perhaps $50 annually for the median homeowner) could be paid for by raising the overall tax rate.

City budget staff had earlier explained that "cost drivers" – additional police officers and firefighters already in the pipeline, rising health insurance costs, etc. – represent a structural increase of roughly 5%, so the numbers were not breaking even before they began. Then, this week Ott delivered his report on "Potential Service Reductions and Revenue Enhancements" (targeting another 5%) that Council had requested to help enable a homestead exemption.

An Expensive Fifty Bucks

The General Fund (operating expense) and Support Services Departments came up with $23 million in potential cuts (the enterprise/income producing departments are not in this exercise), and your judgment of their wisdom will likely depend on your sense of city service priorities. At a minimum, I would think folks might wonder if a $50 kickback to homeowners would be worth what it will cost in community needs.

• The single biggest cut would be to the Austin Police Department, which could save $8.7 million by eliminating 93 positions: district representatives (44 positions); Office of Community Liaison (11); Highway Enforcement (38).

• Austin Fire Department could save $2.8 mil­lion, by overtime and service reductions, not filling vacancies (thereby creating more overtime pressure), cutting back 50% on wildfire fuel mitigation, and eliminating five civilian-support positions.

• Parks & Recreation could save $1.6 million, via cutting costs ($890,000) by ending Trail of Lights storage and eliminating 13 Ranger positions, and raising revenues ($730,000) by eliminating event fee waivers and raising prices at Barton Springs and Deep Eddy.

• Emergency Medical Services could save $1.5 million, by eliminating 13 positions in various support roles, including three sworn positions, training staff, civilian CPR training, warehouse, etc.

• Communications and Technology Man­age­ment could save $1.7 million by eliminating one FTE as well as contractors and overtime (quite a lot of which has been devoted this year to covering the plethora of additional meetings of the new 10-1 Council).

Plugging Leaks

There's more, of course, like the Library Department ($935,000) and Animal Ser­vices ($240,000), both popular services and not terribly expensive in the larger scheme, but 5% is 5%. The recent Animal Ser­vices audit reported that the department already cannot afford its assigned duties; similarly, PARD is overstretched in general, trying to maintain 26 leaking swimming pools long past their expected functional life-span, and is about to exhaust its 2015 repair budget patching just two of them.

Why would APD/AFD/EMS incur such big hits? The answer is simple: Public safety departments represent 70% of the General Fund budget. Ott's memo puts the situation succinctly: "although property tax and sales tax represent about $596 million or 66% of General Fund revenue sources, that sum does not completely cover public safety expenditures totaling $621 million in the FY 2016 Forecast. As a result, when developing a General Fund reduction report, a large portion of the reductions will be in our public safety programs."

I'm one of those Austinites who believes APD could do fine with less claim on the total budget, but we're certainly in the minority; former Council Member Bill Spelman tilted regularly at that windmill, and his effect was mostly philosophical. Nevertheless, if you're intent on cutting the city budget to enable tax cuts – an ideological obsession more in keeping with the Republican dominion at the Capitol – you're going to have to look hard at public safety spending, because there's little where else to look. Simply ranting about "government spending" fails to acknowledge the obvious: We share community needs that require community support, and they can't be wished away.

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