Point Austin: As the Budget Goes, So Goes Council
Turf battles over uncommitted funds may prefigure 2018
In the end, the climax turned out to be an anti-climax.
City Council, which had been intermittently at work on the Fiscal Year 2018 city budget since April – turning up the heat in the last couple of months – adjourned last Wednesday, lucky Sept. 13, at about 10pm, having decided how to spend the last $5 million or so of the $1 billion General Fund budget. (The "All Funds" budget, also approved last week, includes the self-funding "enterprise" departments, and is just under $3.9 billion.)
If that number sounds familiar to budget watchers, it should. On Aug. 2, the city manager and the budget staff presented the proposed budget, as is their annual assignment, and told council members that by their estimates, there remained approximately $5 million in uncommitted or "surplus" funds for the coming year. Since Council's "Strategic Outcomes" – the latest name for the annual wish list of unmet needs and Council-proposed new initiatives – easily outstripped the available $5 million, it was abundantly clear that most of the dais decisions would come down to how to stretch that relatively small amount of funding over several dozen unmet needs.
To be blunt, that chore could have been done by mid-August, leaving council members to the more humdrum business of muddling through endless zoning cases, or grappling more immediately with Mayor Steve Adler's ambitious "Downtown Puzzle," or the even more ambitious CodeNEXT – now subjects returning to the dais with main force for the next couple of months. Instead, it all came down to the last three days – indeed, the last day-and-a-half – with a final Wednesday 12-hour marathon, and cuts and shuffles from a working list (and a lagniappe of about $500,000) drafted by three council members (Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, and CMs Delia Garza and Greg Casar), and presented to their colleagues with more than a little air of desperation.
They got it done, although hardly with the efficiency or alacrity envisioned when the group decided to "accelerate" the budget process by starting earlier in the year and spending more dedicated time in work sessions.
Go to Your Corners
In short, it was not the 10-1 Council's finest hour, and highlights once again this no longer rookie group's recurrent inability to manage its time or its priorities. One or another member periodically congratulates the current Council as "more representative" than previous incarnations, but that might well be reflected in the sense that it is also more polarized – not just geographically, but in ideological tugs-of-war (like this elongated budget debate) that generate a great deal of wheel-spinning and very little decisive momentum.
Adler, who most often plays the role of soft-speaking compromiser, has of late gotten increasingly testy, finding Robert's Rules reasons to deflect motions that he believes target or undermine his own initiatives. The most recent instance is the still-unfinished struggle over the hotel occupancy tax and the mayor's Downtown Puzzle. That debate featured the seemingly unlikely alliance of CM Ellen Troxclair, with Tovo, and CMs Ann Kitchen and Leslie Pool. Troxclair, as the default "fiscal conservative" on the dais (who also consistently testified against Council priorities at the Legislature), would inevitably use that HOT victory as an occasion to pander on property taxes in the budget debate. Then she dragged along some of her colleagues for a cosmetic cut to the tax rate, to which Troxclair, Ora Houston, and Jimmy Flannigan dissented.
Houston and Flannigan are to a degree wild cards in the geographic divide, with Houston more often allying with the Westsiders on the land use and zoning debates, and Flannigan generally joining his Eastside colleagues (Casar, Garza, and Pio Renteria). That might well prefigure the division on CodeNEXT, with the mayor literally and ideologically somewhere in the middle.
Policy and Politics
Half of these folks (Houston, Renteria, Kitchen, Troxclair, and Adler) will presumably be up for re-election come next November (thus far, only Renteria has made his bid explicit), so we can expect the political maneuvering to only become more intense in 2018. Their differences and herky-jerky deliberations have also been exaggerated by the "Escamilla Rules" – policies imposed by Travis County Attorney David Escamilla in 2012 to prevent even accidental "walking quorums," and requiring council members to be wary of even public conversations with too many of their colleagues in a row. It's all in the name of "good government," of course, and yet another mandate imposed by a state Legislature that would never apply such a confining version of the rules to itself.
Policy conversations held entirely in public, of course, produce both more political grandstanding and less effective policy compromise, now commonplace features of our national Republic, so I suppose what goes around comes around, and down. One hopes that City Council's coming year will be marked by major policy progress and be less riddled by dais posturing, but the budget process provided little reason for optimism.