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Revenues won't match expenditures for next year either, says Futrell

Thursday, May 15, 2003 by

The city’s budgetary forecast for next year remains bleak, and the two succeeding fiscal years aren’t projecting out any better. That was the message presented by City Manger Toby Futrell on Wednesday to Council members as part of a discussion on the budget for fiscal year 2003-04.

The one bright spot is the revised projection for the gap next year between revenues and expenses. The figure of $77 million, widely quoted and occasionally inflated during the recent campaign season, turns out to be too high. “It was about three months early, and the window of preparing the forecast was much smaller than in the normal process,” City Budget Officer Rudy Garza said of the estimate provided in January. “Normally, departments have three months to prepare the early forecast. Once we knew early on that we did not have the luxury of waiting, departments basically had three weeks to look into the future and figure out what it is that they needed for the upcoming fiscal year. There are mistakes; there are things we overlooked. That’s just a result of moving faster than normal and with less than complete information.” Going over the numbers again, staff found that spending had been overestimated by $23 million. That puts the new estimated shortfall at $54 million.

However, balancing next year’s budget won’t be any easier. “Without substantive revenue increase and significant expenditure reductions, we are going to have a deficit next fiscal year . . . and the year after that . . . and the year after that,” said Futrell. “Our expenditures continue to grow, through built-in cost drivers in areas such as public safety and health care. And our expenditures also continue to grow with the opening of numerous new facilities.” The city is scheduled to open 23 new facilities over the next three years, over half of which are required public safety facilities or are already under construction. These critical expenditures will contribute to the structural imbalance through the 2005-06 fiscal year.

The ongoing, structural imbalance will likely mean a search for new revenue—if not this year, then in the next two or three years. “Reductions alone will not solve our problem,” Futrell said. Staff outlined several possible financial scenarios for those years, including some with property tax increases. “There’s one scenario where we cut expenditures,” said Council Member Will Wynn, “and seven scenarios where we raise taxes. I’m concerned about the signal that sends.” Futrell pointed out the assumptions included in those various scenarios about cutting expenses, and the efforts already made to cut spending. Other Council members focused on the city’s property tax rate, which was lowered on several occasions during the 1990s as property values rose dramatically. At one point, the property tax rate was 62.25 cents per $100 of property valuation. The current rate is 45.97 cents per $100 of property valuation—accounting for 13 percent of the city’s revenues.

Asked to contribute to the solution, various staff members have made thousands of suggestions for reducing expenses to help bridge the budget gap next year. Futrell is working on a variety of options in an attempt to minimize layoffs. She told Council members that staff she had met with had expressed a willingness to make sacrifices, including forgoing raises, to reduce job cuts. But she’s also looking ahead to future budget years, telling Council members that she did not want to go more than three years without a cost-of-living increase for city employees.

The City Manager is scheduled to present a proposed budget to the Council on July 31. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman further suggested that the Council schedule a budget retreat for the final weeks of July. Mayor Gus Garcia, who will not have to deal with the upcoming budget since he is leaving office on June 16, was out of town. Goodman chaired the meeting.

Conservative groups offer highjinks for cameras; Democrats cheer leaders

Only on the South steps of the Texas Capitol could Uncle Sam stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Chicken Little as a group of somewhat unlikely allies announced the death of “The People’s Agenda” this session.

The conservative Texas Citizens Action Network and Citizens for a Sound Economy were joined by a half dozen special interest groups—and a costumed Uncle Sam and Chicken Little—at a press conference on the South Steps of the Capitol Wednesday morning. In attendance were the Austin, Houston and Dallas broadcast media, all chomping at the bit for the next big development with the desperado Democrats.

The press release promised a list of what bills would be lost with the Democrats’ early exit. Instead, comments were sprinkled with television-friendly sound bites like, “Treason in the highest degree,” “Obstructionist behavior” and “Abdication of responsibilities.” The group did have some serious points to make, but they were long on rhetoric and short on specific bills that would be killed.

On a serious note, Jeff Clark, executive director of the National Federation of Small Business said it was frustrating to see 100 days of work lost in the fight over the redistricting bill. It almost guaranteed that any minority could stop any bill by simply walking out the door, equivalent to a partisan filibuster. Jim Cardle of Texas CAN added that Democrats had been “obstructionists” all session, filing 400 amendments to the House budget and 250 amendments to tort reform. Democrats have made it clear that they oppose the Republicans’ proposals on both measures.

Members of both the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce have come out against the redistricting measure that would all but guarantee elimination of Austin’s seat in the Congressional delegation.

“The Chicken D’s have been carrying out a full frontal assault on the people of Texas all session long and they ought to be embarrassed,” Cardle said. “Important work of the Texas people and its Legislature—the state’s budget, education reform and healthcare—is being killed by this walkout.”

House Bill 2, the government reorganization bill that would have cut a half billion from the expenditure side of this year’s budget preparations, was the most popular choice for “bill lost” among the speakers. Among the other bills cited as important to the various groups:

• The Young Conservatives of Texas picked House Bill 2988, which “would bring outdated public health preparedness up to today’s post-September 11 standards.” The bill, which has yet to make it to the floor of the House, would update how the state handles disease outbreaks, such as SARS.

• The Alliance for Sound Education Policy, headed up by Forrest Watson, picked House Bill 2224, which has passed the House but still must pass the Senate. The bill, authored by Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) would provide a clean-up of the state’s charter school legislation. It has passed the House, now sits in the Senate Education Committee and could still become law.

• The Texas Coalition of Average Americans Unified for Stronger Education, led by San Marcos politician Kyev Tatum, picked House Bill 2101, a bill presented by Rep. Martha Wong (R-Houston) that would give certified teachers the right to open their own private academies—similar to open-enrollment charter schools.

• The Hispanic Advocate picked House Bill 16, authored by Rep. Frank Corte (R-San Antonio), which would require the automatic expulsion of students who assault public school employees. The bill has been placed on the House calendar. They also want to see Wohlgemuth’s bill on health and human service funding, House Bill 2292, which has yet to make it to the floor of the Senate.

Democrats' spirits high in celebration of fugitives' battle

A roomful of whooping Democrats celebrated the revival of their party yesterday in a South Austin restaurant. Threadgill’s, which serves as a political gathering spot for many liberal gatherings, hosted Brigid Shea, Babe Schwartz, Jim Hightower and members of the staffs of absent representatives, as well as an excited and receptive crowd.

Former State Senator Babe Schwartz, who served two terms in the Texas House in the late 1950s and from 1960 to 1981 in the Senate, urged the gathered Democrats to be civil to Republicans. “All these folks will have to work together when they get back. And it would pay everybody to be civil in the meantime. Now you’re talking to a guy who was the least civil to anybody for 25 years in the Legislature, but I learned my lesson.” At some point, he said, “the fence comes down . . . and you have to work together to get the state’s business done.”

Former Rep. Glenn Maxey told the crowd, “I have to tell you this. If I was organizing this, they would not be in Ardmore. There’s not a gay bar within a thousand miles. I’m really proud of these Democrats. You know, it took Tom Craddick to organize us, and I told Eddie Rodriguez . . . we were chatting over the last number of days . . . before the flight took place, and every time he called I said, ‘You’ll never get 50 people to do this.’ And he called me when they were getting on the bus. And I said, ‘You’ll never get 50 people to do this’ . . . So I went to sleep about 8:30 Sunday night and my cell phone began ringing at 2 am and he said, ‘We have crossed a state line and there are 50 of us.’ So I’m really proud of what these people have done” . . . Today (Rep.) Arlene Wohlgemuth (R-Burleson) took over the Human Services Committee and had a hearing without the committee chair,” which he said was “unheard of.” Maxey, who is now a lobbyist, said the committee heard bills authored by Democratic Senators and attached amendments that “the Democratic Senators totally oppose.”

Former State Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower pleased the crowd by proclaiming, “There’s a little kick in the old mule yet.”

Arellano named chief of staff . . . Richard Arellano, who has served as executive assistant to both Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and former City Manager Jesus Garza, will serve as Mayor Will Wynn’ s chief of staff. Most recently, Arellano, 38, has worked as an assistant to Austin Energy General Manager Juan Garza. In addition to his city work, Arellano has served as a congressional aide to U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett. Wynn said Wednesday that he has also asked his executive assistant, Josh Allen, to join him in the Mayor’s office. Arellano attended yesterday’s budget briefing and plans to be moving over to City Hall within the next week. Christian Archer and Mark Nathan, the team who helped Wynn take the top seat, are also working with the Mayor-elect on transition issues. Wynn will be sworn in on June 16 as Austin’s 50th Mayor . . . Votes for the Domain . . . Mayor-elect Will Wynn told In Fact Daily yesterday that Endeavor Real Estate’s Domain project seems to be offering what the city is seeking. “Conceptually, I still feel even more strongly today—after this (budget) meeting—than I did beforehand about the need for more jobs and more tax base.” He said he likes the fact that the city risks no money in the project, which would pump millions into the economy and provide jobs and housing within the city limits. “I agree with Council Member Slusher about not having a Wal-Mart over the aquifer,” he said, but added that he was impressed by the extra steps Endeavor has taken to mitigate damage to the aquifer. Slusher said he was still talking with other members of the Council about their options. Wynn said he believes it is important to move ahead with the project today so that Endeavor will not lose the chance to entice retailers that might otherwise go to competitors. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman voiced concerns about the amount of affordable housing that would be available in the Domain and an assistant to Council Member Danny Thomas echoed those concerns . . . NXNW Dems endorse Clarke . . . Democrats in Northwest Austin have endorsed place 5 candidate Margot Clarke over opponent Brewster McCracken, although they were unable to make an endorsement in the May 3rd election. Paula Nielson, Clarke’s campaign manager, said the group agreed to endorse Clarke Tuesday night. McCracken took the majority of votes in northwest boxes during the earlier election. Nielson said Clarke’s candidacy has been helped by the current crisis over redistricting. Mark Littlefield, an advisor to the McCracken campaign, said his candidate has also benefited by the revival of interest in politics among Democrats. He said McCracken is seeing more volunteers this week than he had in the past. Both campaigns are working hard to bring out voters for the June 7 run-off. Early voting starts next Wednesday . . . Call for volunteers . . . The City of Austin needs mental health professionals, victim advocates, grief and trauma counselors and religious leaders to participate in the city’s Disaster Terrorism Crisis Response and Recovery Training Program. Training requires completion of two classes to certify qualified volunteers. The class is scheduled from 6 to 10pm, May 21 at the Joe C. Thompson Center. To register, contact Sue Wendelin, Office of Emergency Management (OEM) at 370-8868, or e-mail Ann Hutchinson at ann.hutchinson@ci.austin.tx.us. The OEM received state funds in March 2002 to establish the Disaster Terrorism Center for Victims Assistance and recruit 2,000 volunteers to serve victims, families and groups impacted by a terrorist attack or criminal mass casualty . . . Convention Center, Palmer, busy . . . More than 33,000 people are expected to visit the city’s two meeting facilities in May. The Austin Convention Center and the new Palmer Events Center (PEC) have already scheduled 29 events and five conventions. Over the next two weeks, the convention center will host the Organic Trade Association’s Convention and Tradeshow and the American Wind Energy Association. A teaching and leadership conference for the University of Texas at Austin is scheduled for the end of the month. The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s Austin Shop for the Cure expects around 3,000 people at the PEC Friday and Saturday. The Austin Symphony Orchestra’s 2003 Promenade Pops on May 30-31 expects around 2,000 people . . . Graduating High School students receive money . . . Senator Gonzalo Barrientos awarded $44,000 in scholarship certificates to high school students in his senatorial district Wednesday at the Driskill Ballroom in the Driskill Hotel. Two top graduating seniors from 22 local high schools each received a $1,000 scholarship certificate. The Gonzalo Barrientos Scholarship fund has awarded more than $300,000 since 1995. For more information, visit www.BarrientosScholarshipFund.org.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights

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