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Mayor and Council still hope to finish process today

Tuesday, September 10, 2002 by

The first reading of the 2002-2003 budget went smoothly enough yesterday, hitting a couple of rough patches but not grinding to a halt until the discussion turned to funding for arts programs. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Betty Dunkerley had worked for hours behind the scenes to revise what several Council members described as indefensible recommendations from the Arts Commission. The Commission’s recommendations favored some programs over others, ignoring Council’s intention to cut all programs at about the same rate. During the meeting, Mayor Gus Garcia asked whether a Commission representative could come to the budget session to discuss the problem.

Arts Commission Chair Andrea Bryant told the Council she was shocked to learn of so much Council dissatisfaction with the Commission’s recommendations. She said the group had been “pleased with the way the process worked” and implied that the Council had insufficient respect for their process.

Council Member Raul Alvarez took Bryant to task for her lack of attention to Council wishes as well as her expression of dissatisfaction with the proposed changes. He said, “In this difficult budget year . . . I hear from you about us not respecting the process. . . .” The commission did not know how much revenues had declined but the Council got those numbers and figured the cut would be between 30 and 40 percent. But the Commission’s recommendations differed so radically from the Council’s projections that it was assumed they either didn’t understand or disregarded the Council’s wishes.

Alvarez explained that the Council wanted to do what was fair. Some arts groups told him that the Commission’s recommendation would cut their budget to 30 percent of the current allotment, forcing them to close their doors for the coming year. “It just comes down to being able to justify this group being put out of business and another group being funded at the same level as last year.” He said he had told his representative on the Commission, as well as others, that the Council was looking for “a way to share the pain.” Bryant said she had never gotten that message. Alvarez responded that since the Commission members are appointed by the Council they have a responsibility to find out what the Council would like for them to do.

In addition, he told Bryant that the Council had expressed its opinions “about what kind of direction or considerations the Commission should take. But then we don’t see that reflected in the final outcome or the final recommendations—which is fine.” What is not fine, Alvarez said, is the commissioner’s expression of surprise when the Council had communicated its wishes.

Bryant is a consensus appointment to the Commission. Her term ends next month. At the urging of Mayor Garcia, the Council postponed taking action on the arts budget. It requires only one reading, rather than three, since it is not part of an ordinance. The Council is expected to deal with the arts funding today.

Council to keep all employees, cut supplies

While making a series of minor amendments to next year’s budget, Council members reached an agreement to cut their own expenses by 4.2 percent at the urging of Council Member Will Wynn (see In Fact Daily, Sept. 6, 2002). Wynn had originally proposed a much greater cut for the Council’s budget that would have required some staff reductions, but agreed to the smaller cuts proposed by Council Member Daryl Slusher when it became apparent his original proposal would not pass.

“I did have a proposed budget cut. I know that . . . There’s not support for it,” Wynn said in introducing his proposal. Instead of the 19.25 percent reduction originally mentioned, Wynn challenged colleagues to find savings of 8.6 percent, saying this was the average amount cut from “non-public safety support service departments.” But Slusher told Wynn he had received a different figure from the City Manager’s office for comparison. “If you take the non-public safety general fund and the support services and put those together, the figure I was given was 4.2 percent.”

Council members expressed confidence they could reduce expenses by that amount primarily by cutting back on travel, food, and supplies, without sacrificing service to constituents or eliminating staff positions. “I think we could save four percent in the offices,” said Mayor Gus Garcia. “I think we’re probably going to come in saving that much in most of the offices already in this fiscal year.” Garcia specifically pointed out that, overall, the Mayor and Council offices were on track to come in approximately eight percent under budget for the fiscal year that ends September 30th.

While Slusher countered Wynn’s figures on the amount other departments were being cut, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman used the debate on the item to defend Council staffers and the Council’s budget. “We use very little money that is not spent in direct constituent service, and we do that each and every year,” Goodman said.

She also pointed out that the number of Council aides had remained largely unchanged since the early 1970s. “Since that time, we’ve remained with the same number of staff members in an office with an occasional young student intern. So I wanted to compare the size of the city and the number of voters and constituents,” Goodman said. And Council staff, Goodman said, was facing the same hardships as those in other city departments. “What city employees as a whole have been asked to do this year is to not have a pay raise and to take off an extra day. Our employees do the same.”

The Council approved the entire budget on first reading and endorsed the reduction in the Mayor and Council budget by a vote of 7-0.

Specific items outlined for Holly mitigation

Other budget amendments dealt with additional revenues and expenses not anticipated when the budget document went to the printer. The Council increased the amount expected from property tax revenues by $471,223 based on the final figures from the Travis County Appraisal District. One position was restored to the Health and Human Services Department to be split between general youth services and services for youths with disabilities. And the Council accepted federal grants to help fund homeland security efforts.

Money set aside for the Holly Mitigation Fund that was not spent in the current fiscal year will be carried over into next year. “When we began the fiscal year, we thought we were going to have $1.7 million in the Holly Mitigation Fund,” said Council Member Raul Alvarez. “But the revenues did not meet our projections, so we knew that number was going to be smaller.” To prevent a shortfall in the account set aside to help improve the neighborhood around the Holly Street Power Plant, Alvarez says only about $450,000 was actually spent this year. At his suggestion, the Council allowed some of the unspent money in the fund to roll over into the same account for next year, a change from previous years. Alvarez proposed setting a goal of $1 million for each fiscal year for the program, and allowing $500,000 from the current year to continue into next year’s account. “So we’re looking at a total of $1.5 million for Holly Mitigation Funding for the coming fiscal year.”

Most of the mitigation money in the upcoming budget will be used for expanding the Metz Recreation Center. In addition, $100,000 will be transferred to the Austin Police Department to pay the salaries of foot patrol officers in the area around Sanchez Elementary School and the Austin Baptist Chapel Soup Kitchen. The latter has recently been identified as a high crime area. Money will also be devoted to an arts program at Metz Elementary and to reimbursing non-profit groups that pay for building supplies to help home-owners make repairs to their houses in the Holly Neighborhood.

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

Judge steps down . . . Travis County District Judge Scott McCown announced via email yesterday that he is retiring to become executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities. The think tank’s web site says the non-partisan, non-profit policy research organization is “committed to improving public policies and private practices that influence the economic and social prospects and conditions of individuals, families, and communities.” McCown recently ruled against property-rich school districts seeking to overturn the state’s school finance law. Gov. Rick Perry will appoint McCown’s successor, who will serve until the 2004 election . . . Lorenz to chair Design Commission . . . The Commission elected a new slate of officers at last night’s meeting. Starting next January, developer Perry Lorenz will serve as chair, with John Patterson as vice chair. Richard Weiss will be the secretary and Joan Hyde will act as parliamentarian. The early election is intended to allow the new officers to draft a work plan before taking office. Immediate past chair Juan Cotera will serve as a non-voting member of the executive committee . . . 911 events to close streets . . . The Travis County Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Association is coordinating a number of memorial events Wednesday that will close downtown streets. Cesar Chavez from blocks 100 to 400 (west of Congress) will be closed from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. The closures will facilitate a service at the Firefighters’ Memorial at the fire training tower on the North Shore of Town Lake. The following will be closed from 7 to 10 p.m. to allow the formation of a memorial procession from the Congress Avenue Bridge to the State Capitol: blocks 600 to 1000 of Congress Avenue; 11th Street in front of the Capitol and blocks 1100 and 1200 of Colorado Street. The bridge will be closed from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.

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

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