Point Austin: Thinking About Budgets

We are short-term planners with long-term problems

Point Austin

I've been knee-deep in the FY 2017 city budget for some weeks now, including a deadline-rush overview ("City Council Clashes Over 2017 Budget"), so it seems inevitable to add a few more comments on the fiscal condition of Austin, Texas. Consider these nuggets, accumulated over several years of budget watching, offered as ways to ponder Thursday's public hearings (Aug. 18), as well as to follow City Council's budget deliberations through the remaining few weeks.

"Budgets are moral documents." This is the hoariest cliche about budget planning, and a drinking game might commence over its annual recitation prior to Oct. 1. It's undeniably true – where you put your money reflects your moral values – but like all moral statements, fiscal virtue is in the eye of the spender. Every dime of public spending (or non-spending) carries its corresponding moral defense.

"We're arguing over millions/pennies." Either version is true: The big budget numbers for the 11th-largest U.S. city are imposing ($3.7 billion total; $969 million earmarked for the General Fund), but the spending changes the city makes in a given year – in the context of population growth and inflation – are not dramatic, nor do they have a dramatic effect on residents' budgets. The needs are real, as are the costs – shared across hundreds of thousands of households.

"Look to the Capitol." While Austinites fulminate over the small numbers in Coun­cil chambers, it remains true that the heaviest burden on Austin taxpayers is the Leg­is­lature's refusal to support public education, or to create a rational, statewide tax system sufficient to the state's real public needs (schools, health care, transportation ...). AISD now represents nearly 55% of the local property tax bill, and staggering amounts of that money are redistributed by the state to even more beleaguered school districts. Moreover, arbitrary limits on city fiscal policy (the "rollback rate"), and even arbitrary deadlines (for the homestead exemption) that remain in force without regard to a given year's economic conditions make it even more difficult for cities to design rational budgets. These are permanently "unfunded mandates" baked into the çstate's reactionary fiscal policies, and they permanently overburden local jurisdictions.

Perennial Debate

Closer to home, the annual tug-of-war between public safety and ... everything else has already resumed. The broad regional coalition of social service organizations known as One Voice Central Texas chimed in early, noting Council's commitment last year to bring health care/social service funding more in line with Austin's peer cities. The currently proposed budget doesn't do that – the recommended increase would be about half what's needed – although there is pressure from some council members to find additional funds.

Another advocacy coalition, called Communities of Color United (Mama Sana, ICE out of Austin, Alliance for African American Health, etc.), plans to testify Thursday to support increases for parks, health care, social services, education, and jobs; call for a freeze of APD funding; and to implement "equity assessment" programs to benefit underserved communities. All these organizations make the rational argument that "public safety" spending should include those programs that sustain strong communities and neighborhoods over the long term. The trouble is, city budgets – and especially city budget planning – are mostly short-term endeavors.

Meanwhile, Council spent Wednesday morning hearing the Austin Police Depart­ment's budget presentation, which proposes a roughly $14 million increase and 34 new personnel, though two-thirds would be (less expensive) civilian employees freeing sworn officers to return to patrol or similar duties. That was followed by a consultant's report arguing that the additional officers (hired or deployed) should be more than twice that number, especially to allow more "community policing" (public engagement instead of only call-response). There was some Council skepticism on the numbers, but it's undeniable that the general public – even among those who prefer body cameras to Tasers – supports traditional "public safety" spending as a very high priority.

Values for Money

That traditional thinking is certainly reflected in the gross budget numbers, where public safety – comprising police, fire, EMS, and municipal court – now consumes more than 70% of the General Fund budget. These are (mostly) necessary expenditures – there is no general public outcry for fewer beat cops, fire engines, or ambulances – but as a city going forward, Austin needs to address that 70/30 ratio and steadily find substantive, even if expensive, ways to bring it into better balance. It's no secret that here as elsewhere, cops have become first responders for every social problem we haven't otherwise confronted (or funded) – mental health care, education, homelessness, dysfunctional families, you name it – and an essentially paramilitary response to these issues is a very blunt and inefficient instrument, much too often a counterproductive one.

We return where we began: If our city budgets are to become rational instruments of public policy – let alone "moral documents" – we must correct the historical imbalance that still makes us see every social problem as a nail, because we continue to provide ourselves only with a toolbox full of hammers.

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city budget, City Council, FY 2017 budget, Communities of Color United, APD, EMS, AISD

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