If We Had Budget Enough, and Time ...

Council closes in on a final FY 2017 city budget

City Council resumes budget deliberations today, Sept. 8, planning a nearly full day of work around a midday meeting of the Audit and Finance Committee. They're scheduled for Friday as well, although at last Wednesday's budget work session, they attempted to persuade themselves that the remaining winnowing of amendments could be accomplished in a single day. Nevertheless, Mayor Steve Adler was speculating that they might instead need all three budget "reading" days – Sept. 12, 13, 14 (historically reduced to a single day) – to complete the reckoning. Based on last week's meeting and what's left on the "Concept Menu" of proposed amendments, the mayor sounds more prescient than his colleagues.

To give an idea of where things stand, the menu's "roll-up" of all possible amendments reflects roughly $52 million in potential budget increases (that is, to the initial city manager-proposed budget) and more than $187 million in potential cuts – and neither of those numbers are in the realm of real possibility. And that initial proposed budget was already "maxed out" (in the mayor's phrase) even at the rollback property tax rate. At that Wednesday work session, Adler recited a short litany of possible cuts amounting to about $7 million – although several were based on delaying or parceling out expenditures, and he acknowledged that even he might not support all the changes. But the overall drift of the discussion was on identifying ways to fund the highest-priority items, and those adjustments – should any of them occur – would be at the margins of the $969 General Fund budget.

Here are a few highlights from the Con­cept Menu, selected on the basis of scale and the number of declared sponsors:

$3 million: Spirit of East Austin Initiative

$2.2 million: AISD parent support, afterschool programs

$1.9 million: Funding to resolve forensic DNA backlog

$1.6 million: Tenant relocation assistance program

$225,000: Austin Technology Partnership (workforce training)

$950,000: Increase Senior Homestead Exemption

$150,000: Downtown toilet facility (pilot)

$336,000: Umlauf Garden & Museum Support

$200,000: NW District Park Master Plan

$300,000: Phase 1 Funding for Emma Long Park

$345,000: Two Paramedic Response Units

$119,000: PARD Senior Transportation Services

$75,000: Additional PARD rec center hours

($1.98 million): Reduce Economic Incen­tive Reserve Fund

Those are by no means all of the proposed increases or cuts remaining on the list, but they give a sense of the range of possibilities, if there were more flexibility in the budget. In fact, most of the programs and spending have already been determined either by structural costs – e.g., public safety staffing or existing infrastructure – or by decisions made during last year's budget cycle. That means, for any increases, council members would have to find cuts elsewhere – for example, the $1.98 million proposed to be shaved from the Economic Incentive Reserve Fund, which would still not fully fund the Spirit of East Austin ("Quality of Life") Initiative that several members would like to see.

During last Thursday's budget hearing, several speakers recommended that money could be found in the public safety budget (i.e., from the Austin Police Department) to provide more social service spending. (Last year's Council recommendation to steadily increase Health and Human Services spending is largely unfunded in the draft budget.) Asked the next day if he thought Council would be receptive to that sort of change, Adler responded that the draft budget already recommends a reduced version of APD's budget requests (it includes only about a third of the requested staffing additions), and that the Public Safety Commission, the recent Matrix Report, and other advocates argue that APD is already underfunded. "It's already been cut back," said the mayor, although he and other council members have tentatively proposed shifting 1% of total non-personnel public safety spending (about $6.8 million) into Health and Human Services and Austin ISD programs.

Not all the proposals are so precisely focused. Council Member Ellen Troxclair, under her "affordability" banner, has once again proposed the "effective" tax rate – raising the same revenue as last year (plus new construction value) and ignoring population growth and inflation. In execution, that would mean a $36 million cut across the board, leaving insufficient funds for even the reduced APD increases, and no other additional programs. (Nevertheless, Troxclair is also the sole sponsor of $555,000 for the Circle C Metropolitan Dog Park.)

While most of the budget discussion has been pragmatic in detail, occasionally the conversation drifts into ideological backwaters. Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo warned Council that FY 2018, with existing commitments, also looks to be a difficult year, and among other likely expenses projected a civilian pay increase of 2.4% – a number based on the 10-year average allocated by previous councils. CM Don Zimmerman bristled at that projection, arguing (once again) that staff – "the people who stand to profit from exaggerating the salary increases" – were imposing their own budget process on the council. That earned a rebuke from the mayor, who noted it's only "data-driven" for budget staff to use previous Council policy decisions as a guide to financial projections.

Zimmerman was undeterred, insisting that staff was intentionally overriding Council's budgeting authority. His outburst finally provoked an extraordinary response from Marc Ott, the usually deferential city manager. "Council Member Zimmerman," Ott began, "our responsibility, and mine in particular, is to make a budget recommendation. And I'm required to do that by the charter, not the council." Ott defended the forecasting methodology of the budget staff, and noted that it's Council's responsibility to accept or reject staff's budget recommendations. "But your constant berating of us because of how we go about doing our jobs," Ott continued, "the implication that you ought to be able to determine what our budget recommendation is and the related methodologies that we use to make that recommendation, is just really inappropriate. And you've made this argument ... last year, and you make it repeatedly, in other ways. And it doesn't make any sense to me. We have a job to do on this side of the equation, just like you do on your side as a policy maker."

Zimmerman was almost chastened – but not quite. "I appreciate that passionate defense," he told Ott, "and disagree on behalf of the people paying the bills." Among the various proposals flying through the budget discussions, it never seems to occur to the grandstanding defenders of "the taxpayers" that the 13,000 or so people doing the work down at City Hall are themselves taxpayers, subject to the same economic pressures affecting all Austinites, and certainly among those "paying the bills."

For more on Council and the budget, see "Council: No Zombies Before Midnight," Sept. 5, and follow the Daily News at austinchronicle.com.

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City Council, FY 2017 budget, Audit and Finance Committee, Steve Adler, AISD, Parks and Recreation Department, Spirit of East Austin Initiative

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