Point Austin: In the Shadow of the Capitol
Council approves its latest budget with the Lege over its shoulder
City Council members surprised themselves Tuesday, with an audible sense of satisfaction, by concluding their annual budget adoption in a single day, a feat they had not accomplished in three previous years. Although September "budget readings" are officially scheduled for three days, prior to the 10-1 Council the occasion was mostly ceremonial, with the first day – even morning – serving to officially ratify decisions that had been incrementally made in the previous weeks. Although the debates over final details in both eras have often been similar, the change has been more than a question of style. The structural political shifts on the dais reflect related changes in the city as a whole.
Some of that was apparent on Tuesday, as the debate waxed and waned over whether to move above the staff-proposed property tax rate increase of 4.9% and closer to the already adopted limit of 6%, thereby to create a cushion of additional funding either for reserves (i.e., emergency funds) or for a handful of urgent needs not fully satisfied in the base budget. The final debates inevitably reflect as much symbolism as substance. In this instance, the roughly 1% difference in rate would mean about $5 million in a $1 billion general fund (expense) budget, virtually a rounding error (.005).
But the final expenditures – to bump up the senior/disabled homestead exemption, to address homelessness and mental health emergencies, and to supplement public school programs – added only about $2.2 million of that potential $5 million, and the majority voted to stop right there. No more for programs, no more for reserves. The split on the dais was unusual, in that the six holdout council members were Ora Houston, Delia Garza, Pio Renteria, Jimmy Flannigan, Ellen Troxclair, and Alison Alter. The votes pleading to squeeze a bit more juice from the lemon were Mayor Steve Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, and CMs Greg Casar, Ann Kitchen, and Leslie Pool.
Sending a Message
Those were unusual voting blocs that reflected unusual strains in the discussion. Houston and Troxclair predictably balked at any additional spending, but the usually more flexible Garza and Flannigan also began the day insisting they wanted to hold at 4.9%, and resist any increases that didn't also require matching reductions elsewhere. Kitchen and Casar pressed for more spending on homelessness – they were asking for $3 million, but in the end it was Alter's motion of $1 million that carried the day. All of the debate concerned a relatively small amount of money, but the phrase "sending a message" – to constituents as well as to the Capitol – became a recurring motif.
In large part, that was because of the shadow of the 2019 Legislature, and its pending proposal (declared by the governor) to reduce the current "rollback" cap on tax hikes from 8% to 2.5% (requiring a rollback election for anything higher). That threat forced council members to weigh potential responses, even though their already proposed rate was the lowest in recent years. At one end, Flannigan argued that holding fast at 4.9% was the most effective public "message"; at the other, Casar responded that the budget should defiantly address the city's actual needs, reminding his colleagues that the Lege's failure to fund public schools is undeniably the root cause of the property tax crisis.
The various spending amendments didn't resolve that disagreement, which featured considerable merits on either side. There was also an ironic justice in Troxclair's sole dissent on final budget approval – whether she adequately represents the majority of her Southwest Austin constituents, she certainly has been the voice on the dais representing the Republican Lege. She dismissed her colleagues' concerns over a lowered cap, noting that "all you have to do" in the event of exceeding the cap is schedule a tax referendum (a multimillion-dollar expense in itself). And she ignored the references to Austin ISD's recapture predicament which, as the mayor has repeatedly noted, has effectively created an unacknowledged state property tax for an already overburdened school district.
In other words, it's additionally difficult to come to a consensus on the local dais when there's an 800-pound state gorilla waiting at the other end of Congress Avenue. That said, it's worth noting that City Manager Spencer Cronk's first budget, as amended and approved by Council this week, takes advantage of Austin's continuing prosperity to improve public safety, add police officers and fire stations, increase civilian employee wages, address public health emergencies – and even kick in a bit more for both the general homestead exemption and the senior/disabled exemption. None of these were easy choices, but council members have indeed earned the right to catch their breath and congratulate each other – at least until next week's meeting.