Point Austin: Unmet Needs
Budget crunch time arrives with values in conflict
Now comes the hard part.
Over the next week, beginning in earnest today (Aug. 27), Mayor Steve Adler and City Council members will be gamely trying to decide how to balance Austin's FY 2016 budget. While they've been considering the problem earnestly over the last month, they now must make final decisions about how to address the city's myriad needs – public safety, health and human services, parks and libraries, housing, affordability ... – with the currently available funding never quite enough to meet the demand.
It's not an easy task, nor one I envy. While it's easy to issue directions from the outside – "spend more here," "spend less there," or just "cut my taxes" – when you watch public officials actually trying to balance one need against another, year after year, the process assumes a seriousness beyond the political cliches that accompany it, but for one: Budgets are moral documents, and statements of community values.
I highly recommend a viewing of last Thursday's (Aug. 20) public hearing on the budget (roughly from 8:15 to 11pm, archived on the ATXN.TV website), when citizen after citizen addressed the mayor and Council on what they believe should be the Council's priorities in making these final budget decisions. The range of recommendations was broad – from educational programs to better health care services, from the African American Cultural Heritage District to youth afterschool programs, from renters' assistance to addressing homelessness, to basic fairness for the city's lowest-paid employees.
As it happens, I didn't hear a single person request more funding for the Austin Police Department, and the few who mentioned property taxes said they didn't see the point of a nominal break on their taxes if the result is a cut in these essential services.
An Inequality Crisis
Although the speakers represented a wide range of opinions and sometimes conflicting perspectives, most argued that the current city budget embodies the wrong priorities. That was starkly summarized by Angela Atwood of One Voice Central Texas, who said, "The budget towards health and human services, since 2005 to this year, has increased 20 percent, as compared to 230 percent with the police, 245 percent for the fire department, 273 percent for the parks, and 270 percent for the libraries. I think that is an enormous disparity and it negatively affects the most vulnerable people in our community." There are some structural reasons for those differences, but Atwood's basic argument is hard to gainsay: Those in the community most in need are generally an afterthought, with the inevitable result that they remain most in need.
As a group, Austin Interfaith told Council members that the amount of funding going directly to "public safety" – now more than 70% of the General Funds budget, 41% to APD alone – defines "public safety" much too narrowly as a law enforcement problem, when in fact public safety is more greatly and proactively enhanced by strengthening community. "Austin Interfaith leaders condemn a budget that prioritizes a non-existent public safety crisis," AI said in a statement, "instead of an inequality crisis." Generic official worries over "affordability" disguise the fact that quite a few of us are affording Austin just fine; city policies should be targeted primarily at those who are falling behind.
How will Council address all these conflicting needs? Earlier this week, some Council members stood with One Voice in recommending a substantial increase in health and human services funding. Some Council members have indeed endorsed continued support for Austin ISD and other educational programs, substantial funding to address inequities, and better wages and benefits for all city employees.
Not all of their colleagues are on board, and the numbers at this point in the process are daunting. Earlier in the year, Council enacted a homestead property tax exemption (with plans for more next year), and the mayor has suggested cutting the tax rate and delaying wage increases – while promising (earlier this week) to provide quite expensive body cameras for police officers (for next year's budget alone, the estimate is $7 million). It's worth recalling that on the campaign trail, in September of last year, the mayor publicly agreed with Austin Interfaith's position that "education and opportunities for low-income children and adults contribute more to public safety than ever-increasing reliance on law enforcement officers and equipment," and said he would move the city's budget priorities in that direction (see "Point Austin: The Campaigns Continue," Sept. 19, 2014).
Again, it's not an easy choice: We're all painfully aware why body cameras for police are in demand, and it's an irony that the $7 million initial price tag nearly coincides with the $6.7 million recommended by One Voice for health and human services. Austin's unmet needs are competing against each other once again, and we've assigned these 11 people to determine which priorities will be addressed in the coming year.
For more on City Council, see "Council: The Public Weighs In," Aug. 28, 2015. A second budget public hearing will be held today, Aug. 27. Follow @PointAustin on Twitter.