The Devil in the Details

Council faces a daunting slate of work sessions


"Who said budgets can't be fun?" – Budget staff as they presented to City Council the August/September schedule of budget planning, complete with winning field goal. The illustration shows the dates of budget work sessions, decision dates, public hearings, and the September "budget readings" – formal public adoption of the FY 2017 budget.

Currently standing at a baker's dozen of meetings (including one meeting-within-meeting as the board of the Austin Housing Finance Corporation), the August calendar for the full City Council is unusually daunting. (Add the committee schedule and you understand why city staff is feeling a trifle overstretched.) In addition to the regular Thursday sessions (only three of those routine marathons, Aug. 4, 11, and 18), they've got four Tuesday work sessions, along with five Wednesday budget work sessions.

Among their major tasks is to finalize the $720 million Mobility Bond proposal, formalizing the ballot language for the Nov. 8 election. The substance of Mayor Steve Adler's "Go Big" package, adopted very early June 24, is unlikely to change – but Council has to agree on fairly complicated proposition language and set the stage for public campaign. The current schedule calls for public testimony Aug. 11, and adoption vote either then or Aug. 18. (See "Go Big," Aug. 5.)

The budget sessions are planned to be all-day affairs as well, as Council tries to get its collective head around the numbers while department heads troop in and condense a year's worth of budget planning into what they hope will be comprehensible and persuasive requests. This week's session alone (Wed., Aug. 3) featured a half-dozen departments, among them both Libraries and Health & Human Ser­vices – both occasions of contention between the liberals and conservatives on the dais.

What must Council decide on the budget by the end of the month?

• The FY 2017 property tax rate, which looks likely to decline, although the tax bill will rise again with rising property values. (First they'll adopt the default "maximum" rate, beyond which they cannot rise; as of Wednesday, they were waiting on final calculations.)

• Whether the city can afford a handful of "Council priorities" that include additional funding to address homelessness, a funding bump for Health & Human Services, establishment of the Downtown sobriety center to decriminalize public intoxication, and implementation of the Colony Park master plan. The staff-proposed budget allocates modest amounts for each of these initiatives – it's unclear whether they will survive pressure for lowering the tax rate.

• Whether to fund a host of structural initiatives described in the proposed budget: more (and how many) additional public safety personnel (some positions based on earlier Council decisions, all with associated costs); salary increases for civilian employees (a "performance-based" 2% increase); additional funding for long-deferred facility maintenance as well as technology upgrades.

That's the very short list, and every decision to raise or cut in one place reverberates elsewhere. For chief example, the dais conservatives (Council Members Don Zimmer­man, Ellen Troxclair, and Sheri Gallo) are likely to push to reduce the proposed property tax rate, often arguing the city should budget at the "effective rate" (last year's revenue, plus new construction). As the effective rate does not allow for population growth or inflation, that's effectively an across-the-board cut, that would bring with it a whole list of harder choices.

August will simmer at City Hall.


Today's To-Do List

Today's substantial agenda (Aug. 4) doesn't promise much headline controversy, but there are plenty of contracts to wrangle over in the morning. A few Items to watch:

• Item 11: Additional funding for AIDS Services, Austin/Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation Center, Project Transitions, and the Wright House Wellness Center. Standard public health initiatives, but subject to increasing scrutiny from some CMs.

• Items 15-19, 20: Would authorize the issuance of bonds by the Housing Authority to cover renovation of five multifamily projects in Districts 2, 4, 5, and 7. These proposals have been bounced along for a while, and CM Zimmerman routinely objects to HACA initiatives, especially those involving U.S. Housing and Urban Development (Item 20).

• Item 33: Would authorize a $900,000 contract (over six years) for Austin Police Department purchase of a license plate recognition system. Punted a couple of times already despite APD assurances about restrictions on use; might survive this round of scrutiny.

• Item 54: Would develop pilot program for Citizens Communication to enable "videoconferencing" for citizen witnesses via Council district offices (only Zimmerman uses one) – making a largely inefficient and mostly ceremonial public testimony even more ritualistic.

• Items 67-68: Two eminent domain land acquisitions related to the Onion Creek Floodplain Buyout program, which continues to drag on. The city and the landowners couldn't agree on a purchase price for these properties, so staff is asking for eminent domain authorization.

There are a half-dozen proclamations – including UT's Tower Garden Memorial Month, and Duck Derby Day – and country duo Love & Chaos (AJ Vallejo with Kendall Beard) are the musical honorees. On the day and evening, let's hope for more love than chaos.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council, FY 2017, $720 million Mobility Bond, transportation, Marc Ott, November 2016 election, Steve Adler, Austin Police Department, Onion Creek Floodplain Buyout

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