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Council, citizens need to lower expectations during budget crunch

Friday, April 26, 2002 by

City Manager Jesus Garza has presided over the passage of nine city budgets, mostly during good times. But he has been involved in city government almost continuously since 1987, with most of his service in Austin. Yesterday, Garza talked to In Fact Daily about the budget crisis and the importance of preserving basic services, such as libraries, public safety and parks and recreation services.

The city must strive to maintain “hours of operation within libraries, making sure they’re staffed properly so you can provide the services” people have come to expect, he said. “Given the budget numbers, they’re going to get right up to that list” of basic services. In order to preserve those, some less important programs may not make it through the budget process. “There’s going to need to be a hard look at the Austin Music Network—one of the services the staff identified as a non-core service,” he noted.

His advice for those who have to deal with the 2002-2003 budget: “I don’t think the way you answer (the crisis) is to cut across the board. You can’t treat all programs equally . . . The standard ought to be what fundamentally can you reduce that won’t hurt in the long term. When you start cutting maintenance, it costs you more when you’re beginning to gear back up. Don’t sacrifice maintenance.”

Keep maintenance despite shortfall, Garza warns

In order to preserve budget money for maintenance of parks and other services, the City Council may have to postpone some capital projects for a year or two, “even though they have already been authorized by the voters,” he said. Opening new facilities drives up operating costs, Garza said. If the budget were cut by two percent for example, there would have to be a reallocation of resources also. The Council must make tough decisions now in order to save on the budgets for ‘03 and ’04.

“We’re facility rich and cash poor,” he noted. “The money just hasn’t grown enough to take care the needs” of all city projects. The manager said he tried to limit the capital program for the 1998 bond election, asking for items such as new roofs and energy efficient air conditioning for existing facilities. “But the Bond Committee said ‘No. We need new parks,’ “ among other things. Given the current system, that may continue to be a problem.

He said the city needs to concentrate on finishing projects already begun, such as the Convention Center Hotel and the Palmer Events Center. Garza believes it is important to keep the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau well-funded in order to market the city to tourists.

When the budget allows it, Garza said, the city should fund land purchases in East Austin where there are legal, though non-conforming uses. Currently those cannot be used for housing or other economic development unless a variance is granted. “We need to remove that inhibitor to create the engine for East Austin.”

Recognizing that public safety continues to be a pressing issue, Garza said funds for those budgets must be carefully considered. “But everyone has got to understand that if you add somewhere, you have to take away from somewhere else.”

“Once you’ve seen all the numbers, you need to look at the revenue side, including fees and the tax rate, which is just as difficult.”

City staff working under too much pressure

Council members and citizens alike need to lower their expectations for city services, especially staff-intensive requests, Garza said. “There are a lot of departments,” such as Neighborhood Planning & Zoning, where city employees are putting in very long hours to make up for the reduction in staff. He cited requests for data and studies, requests for Council or City Manager action as examples of items that must be reduced to make up for staff vacancies. Working all day, and then having to attend long night meetings means such staff members feel spent, he said, which cuts down on their efficiency. “I wish I could change that. It’s a vicious cycle. We know it’s not good from a productivity standpoint.”

Other words of wisdom: “Never ask anybody to commit political suicide” (Borrowed from Sam Rayburn).

“Things are never as good or as bad as first reported.”

Council says good-bye to long-time friend

City Council Members bid an emotional farewell to departing City Manager Jesus Garza during Thursday’s Council meeting, Garza’s last before he begins his new duties at the LCRA May 1st. He will assume the post of Deputy General Manager for Water Resources and Environmental Management at the agency.

Mayor Gus Garcia gave Garza a Distinguished Service Award for his 20 years in city government. “He has truly epitomized the title ‘public servant,’ and has left a legacy of hard work, honesty and adherence to the uncompromising principle that city government does what is right, not always what is easy,” Garcia said.

Garza thanked the Council, along with his staff and rank-and-file city employees. “We have the finest group of professionals in this organization of any city,” Garza said. “I have been blessed to work with some great people.”

In addition to the Distinguished Service Award and an award from the executive team of the City Manager’s office, Garza received a personal gift from some Council members. Raul Alvarez presented a gift certificate to cover greens fees and cart rentals at one of the city’s municipal golf courses. “We wanted to see if we could give you a lifetime pass to golf in the City of Austin,” Alvarez told Garza, “but we couldn’t do that . . . we couldn’t waive the fees because of the budget crunch!” He suggested that Garza might be able to get those when he turns 80—like the elderly swimmers at Barton Springs pool.

Estimated cost from from July to October is $51,000

The City Council will wait until after the May 4 election to begin funding of administrative staff for public financing of campaigns. If Proposition 1 is approved by voters, the Council will look at appropriating about $51,000 for the remaining quarter of FY 2002. Those funds would be used to pay a program manager, a half-time attorney and one support person, said Vickie Schubert, acting director of finance.

Schubert said she estimated the administrative costs for those positions at between $215,000 and $230,000 per year. Using about a quarter of that amount would fund the positions from July through September. Then, the city could do a better estimate of exactly how much would be needed for the full year beginning in October. For more information on possible costs of the ordinance, see In Fact Daily, April 24, 2002, April 22, 2002, April 19, 2002.

Because there are many questions about the effects of the proposed amendment, City Attorney Sedora Jefferson said the Ethics Review Commission would need its own attorney, at least on a half-time basis. The Council unanimously approved a motion by Council Member Will Wynn to place the item on the agenda for May 7, when the Council will have a special called meeting to canvass the vote from May 4.

Absentee voting on all the eight proposed Charter amendments and for three City Council positions continues through Tuesday, April 30. Mobile voting locations will be at St. David’s Hospital, Brackenridge Hospital and the East Rural Community Center in Manor today from 10am to 4pm. A list of permanent Early Voting sites can be found at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/election/5_4_er_perm.htm

Many questions still remain, say Council members

The City Council approved the much-debated front-yard parking ordinance on first reading Thursday night, but at least three Council Members expressed serious reservations about the plan. It would give neighborhood associations the authority to decide if front-yard parking should be allowed or banned within their boundaries. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman was concerned that neighborhood groups getting in on the ground floor of the ordinance would face a less stringent process for inclusion than those coming in next year. Under the proposed ordinance, only a letter from the neighborhood association president is required for inclusion this year. But a year from now, when neighborhood associations will again be able to ask the City Council to be either included or excluded, associations will be required to have public hearings and go before the Planning Commission for its recommendation.

Goodman also wants more information on specific neighborhood associations, especially in South Austin, that want to ban front-yard parking. Some of the associations listed as wishing to opt in, Goodman noted, are actually umbrella groups made up of smaller neighborhood associations. “They definitely have not taken a vote yet,” Goodman said. “There are many neighborhood associations which are on this list which have just been opted in, and I think would like to have a little say for themselves.”

Council Members Danny Thomas, the sponsor of the ordinance, asked his fellow Council members to approve the ordinance on first and second readings, but Goodman requested passage on first reading only. Thomas agreed to that as a friendly amendment. Council Members Daryl Slusher and Raul Alvarez also posed several questions of staff about enforcement and the procedures for neighborhoods wishing to adopt the ordinance. Both seemed less than enthusiastic about the controversial ordinance.

Sammy's House wins Council fight . . . The owner of Sammy’s House, a child-care center at 4814 Red River St., won her fight to expand the center, which is for special needs children, in spite of overwhelming opposition from the neighborhood. The City Council voted unanimously at about 12:30am today to reject an appeal by neighbors to block a Conditional Use Permit granted by the Zoning and Platting Commission. Sammy’s House owner Isabel Huerta said she wants to expand services from six children to 12 children, thus requiring the permit. See In Fact Daily, Feb. 25, 2002; April 19, 2002 . . . Payback . . . Former Mayor Bruce Todd said because of the length of the program he cut his remarks short at Wednesday night’s going away party for City Manager Jesus Garza. One of the things he had wanted to add was, “I meant to bring Jesus a present today but was concerned that, as soon as they learned about it, Kirk Mitchell might run over Linda Curtis as both were rushing to the courthouse to file a lawsuit about it” . . . Aquifer protection land . . .Yesterday the City Council approved purchase of an 84-acre tract in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone in Hays County. The property, which will be purchased in partnership with the Hill Country Conservancy, is the site of an old stone quarry and contains two major wells. Council Member Daryl Slusher said purchase of the land is significant because, “Otherwise these wells could be purchased by private interests and the water pumped to some new development, depleting the aquifer”. . . Speaking of the aquifer, Texans for Aquifer Protection (TAP), has endorsed BSEACD Board President Craig Smith in his re-election effort, and challenger David Carpenter, who is running against longtime Board Member Don Turner. Turner and Smith are frequently on opposite sides of water issues, with Turner more often favoring developer interests. If you live in one of the precincts electing a district representative, you will find those candidates at the bottom of the May 4th ballot . . . City Council appointments . . . The Council made three appointments yesterday: Jennifer Piskun Johnson to the Ethics Review Commission, Marion Sanchez Lozano to the MBE/WBE Advisory Committee and Linda H. Guerrero to the Parks and Recreation Board . . . Single-member districts stir little interest . . . If the proposal to create single-member districts passes on May 4th, the City Council will return to its efforts to set those district boundaries. The Council’s attempt to have them ready before the start of early voting was unsuccessful. (See In Fact Daily, April 12, 2002) However, staff members say privately that any map drawn after the election could not look too much different from the map originally presented—and rejected—by a majority of the Council. The Council could present its guidelines on drawing the districts to staff at the May 8th work session. Staff could wind up doing the bulk of their work between May 24th and June 30th, when four Council meetings in a row have already been cancelled. Watch for additional efforts to solicit public input, since all of the public meetings held on the issue were poorly attended. “Nobody has been passionate about this particular issue,” Mayor Gus Garcia said. “I don't know exactly why, but they’re not.” Our best guess is that Proposition 3 will not win voter approval . . . Haven’t seen the candidates? . . If you’ve missed the various City Council candidates in person, you can watch them all Sunday from 7 to 10pm Sunday when Channel 6 broadcasts a live forum. The Ethics Review Commission is sponsoring the show along with the League of Women Voters, which is providing the moderator.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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