Point Austin: A Living Budget
Three cheers for City Council and its major community investments
Mayor Steve Adler and his council colleagues were understandably a bit giddy last week in the wake of approving the FY 2016 budget, and doing so while generally supporting progressive spending priorities overall and reducing both the property tax rate and tax bill. At an Austin Interfaith press conference the next day, the mayor called it "a budget to be celebrated," continuing, "This is a budget that truly reflects the values of the city that I love, and the values that I love in that city." He was echoed in that assessment by Council Members Greg Casar (District 4), Ann Kitchen (D5), and Leslie Pool (D7).
Casar suggested that the budget was "reshaping" city priorities in a more progressive direction; Kitchen noted that without health insurance it is difficult for any person or family to have a chance at a decent life; Pool said she was especially proud of Council having added more than $3 million to the proposed budget for "parks, pools, and libraries ... everybody benefits from those assets." The mayor and all the members congratulated each other for "working together as a team," and there was similar mutual admiration between the public officials and the AI reps for having collaborated throughout the process. In recognition of the moment, Rabbi Alan Freedman called it a "living budget" that "recognizes the values of Austin at its best."
Boom Times, Boom Budget
Council members and advocates had certainly earned their celebration, and there is much to applaud in the first 10-1 budget, even as the dust still settles. The emphasis on health care and social services (much of that effort led by D2 CM Delia Garza) is both necessary and praiseworthy, as was the defense of the across-the-board raises for city employees with the crucial extension of (nearly) living wages and benefits to part-time and temporary employees (without the latter, there would be continuing incentive for managers to shift toward fewer full-timers). Neither outcome was certain when budget discussions began, and both endured opposition from the new council's conservative wing (likely to continue at this week's meeting, when the question of upper management raises is on the table). (For more details, see "Council Wrap-Up," Sept. 18.)
A bit of the triumphalist breakthrough rhetoric, while understandable, was ungenerous – this is a budget that, given the same circumstances, the last decade of pre-10-1 Councils (some of which weathered the Great Recession) would have been perfectly happy to endorse. The task was made much easier by the extraordinary "growth dividend" (as Mayor Adler earlier dubbed it) of a 12.5% bump in certified property value over last year, meaning that just before the hardest work began, Council got a bonus that enabled the additional tax rate reduction and unanticipated utility bill cut.
No complaint here – but the cranes currently looming over our cityscape are not perpetual (and only half-welcomed). When I briefly rained on the parade by asking if there was any concern about potential strains in bad times, the mayor acknowledged economic cycles but brushed away any immediate concern: "I like to think that bad times are not on the horizon." Nevertheless, there's no reason to begrudge Council's post-budget euphoria over the undeniable and important short-term progress. If at times last week they seemed about to flounder off the rails, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo – whose budget experience often showed – abruptly returned them all to task.
Inexplicably, a majority decided in Thursday's very late moments to take $1 million in one-time money and use it to cut another fraction off the property tax rate – for a whopping annual $2 to the median homestead, not quite the equivalent of a yearly ice-cream soda all around. Kitchen – who joined the mayor and Ora Houston in voting for Ellen Troxclair's motion for the cut (thereby assuring the 6-5 vote), defended her vote as addressing "one piece of the affordability problem." (Having won her expensive dollop, Troxclair still opposed the overall budget.) On the dais, Pool noted that it was small strike against next year's Council, by lowering the eventual rollback rate; later, Tovo said via email, "That vote effectively borrowed money from next year to reduce the average annual tax bill by less than $2. We will start next year's budget with a $1 million deficit."
Yet if the mayor's right, and there's nothing but good times ahead, we can all breathe easier at least through FY 2016. And on the whole, I sincerely applaud this budget: Most of the Council (nine of 11) saw the opportunity for deep and broad community investment and took well-considered advantage of the moment, which we can only hope remains sustainable. Rabbi Freedman reminded everyone, "The quality of each of our lives is dependent on the quality of all of our lives." To the extent this book of numbers is an Austin step in that direction, let us all say, "Amen ...."