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Council weighs in on proposed budget

Thursday, August 21, 2003 by

Mayor to propose cuts in addition to Futrell's $38 million

Mayor Will Wynn is planning to propose further cuts for the upcoming budget year, in addition to the $38 million proposed by City Manager Toby Futrell. The manager has already said she expects to eliminate another $29 million next year in order to balance the budget. Wynn said Wednesday that it would be better to make more cuts this year in order to compound the savings, making next year’s budget process somewhat less painful. “Next year’s budget is going to make this year’s look like the party that it is,” he said.

But Wynn is likely to face stiff resistance from most of his colleagues, several of whom have said they wish to retrieve funds for programs or facilities that Futrell has proposed to cut. Council Members Danny Thomas and Raul Alvarez both want to restore specific facilities that are on Futrell’s list to be delayed for two years. Alvarez is especially interested in a timely opening of the Mexican-American Cultural Center (MACC). Alvarez said design plans for the MACC have been completed and the contract for construction was to be awarded in October. He hopes to find a way to get that back on track and “challenge the community to raise the money for operations and maintenance.” Alvarez said he believes the MACC would need about half a million dollars a year in operating funds, but opening costs would add another $600,000 during the first year of operation.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said she felt “blind-sided” by the proposed 10 percent across-the-board cuts to social service contracts. She said her highest priorities would continue to be children’s advocacy programs, child care and health programs, Meals on Wheels and the Capital Area Food Bank. She said she is asking for specifics about what the 10 percent cuts mean to each program. Overall, Goodman said she found the budget situation “depressing. There’s not much for your creative juices to work on.”

Council Member Danny Thomas was unhappy about the situation too. “I wish I could put it all back together. I do have some concern about cuts to social services, but my biggest concern is the facilities . . . I feel that we should at least keep an open mind if somebody from the private sector wants to come in and help fund the O&M.” Thomas suggested that some Council members be willing to raise taxes a penny in addition to the four cents necessary to bring the tax up to the effective rate.

Both Thomas and Alvarez said they wished to consider eliminating the two percent pay increase for fire, police and EMS uniformed employees. Thomas said it was very important, however, to ensure the continuation of the civilian oversight and police monitor’s office.

Firefighters are currently working without a contract and the police contract expires at the end of September. The Austin Police Association agreed to civilian oversight procedures and more managerial flexibility for Chief Stan Knee in return for the two-percent premium above what other city employees would receive.

Wynn said an agreement from the three sets of employees to forego that pay raise until next year would give the city about 4.5 million dollars, which he would like to set aside for next year. “We’re hoping they realize that their flexibility is in their best interests,” he said.

Council Member Brewster McCracken said, “When you look at the budget and depth of our problem, I agree with the Mayor and Council Member Slusher that we are not financially able, unfortunately, to give anyone a raise this year, although many, many people within the city deserve raises—but we are financially able to afford that.”

McCracken said he was very concerned about cuts in social services, noting that the need for those services is greater during an economic downturn than any other time. That might be one area, he said, in which use of one-time only funds might be justified.

McCracken, Thomas, Alvarez and Goodman have all said that they are concerned about the quint and squad model Fire Chief Gary Warren has proposed in order to cut costs in that department. Firefighters protested the proposal and are conducting a vote of no confidence in the chief as a direct result of the proposal.

For every addition, there must be a cut

Wynn referred to the manager’s $38 million in cuts, the $17 million tax increase and the good possibility of another tax increase next year. “That’s a hell of a challenge, so as concerned as I am about the fire safety model, human services contracts, etc, every time we say no to one of the city manager’s cuts we have to identify where we will cut somewhere else. I don’t think folks are recognizing the trouble we are going to have next year. People are howling about the cuts we are going to have now. We’ll have $30 million more cuts next year, so it’s something we will have to figure out.”

Council Member Daryl Slusher agreed. “I feel strongly if we put any of the cuts back in we need to identify something to replace it with. I really feel we need to do that. Otherwise it’s just going to be more trouble next year.” He said he thought Futrell had done an excellent job “in a very tough situation . . . Where I am right now is the manager’s budget with the health and safety raises taken out, and I would like to put that in the ending balance. Then you’ll have four million that you save this year in the budget as it goes into next year.” The end result, he points out, would be an extra $8 million saved over a two-year time frame.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley told In Fact Daily, “I spent all day . . . reviewing in detail the City Manager’s budget and every cut that I had thought should be made had already been made in that budget—plus a whole lot more that I hadn’t thought of.” She warned that additional cuts should not be made now. “I’m really concerned about going much beyond,” the $38 million proposed by the manager, “because I think it has the potential to destabilize this organization. We may have to cut some more next year, but even if we do, I would rather have the organization have six to eight months to settle down and get a new level of operation and then look at it—because I think we can always do more harm than we intend.”

The former city budget officer said, “We are not a manufacturing organization where you can just turn off a machine and lay off a body when your sales drop. We are a regulatory compliance-driven service organization and you can crater this type of organization if you are not very careful and judicious about how you cut. So, after looking, I am pretty much agreeable with the City Manager’s budget as she’s proposed, (with) some minor tweaking.”

Dunkerley says she is more optimistic than most about the economy next year. “I see very good news on the national level in inventories and joblessness. Just (a) two or three month upswing in the city’s sales tax would be “a pretty good indication that things are going to level out,” she said. “I’m not a seer. I can’t see into the future,” she cautioned “But even if it is worse next year, I still think we should do it in two steps.”

Board skeptical about new review process

New service model intended to address budget cuts

The city’s Watershed Protection and Development Review Department (WPDR) aims to cut the permit processing cycle in half through a highly publicized new service delivery model. Last night, the director and assistant director of the department talked to the Environmental Board about the plan.

Tammie Williamson, acting assistant director of WPDR, presented an overview of the new service delivery model to the Environmental Board last night. The model will be phased in over the next two years. The goal is to cut the permit process cycle from 160 to 79 days, she said.

No codes will be changed under the new delivery model, Williamson said. Instead, the department intends to address some of the department’s current challenges by using smaller cross-trained teams and improving interaction with applicants through early site visits and onsite field corrections.

Williamson acknowledged that the current permit review process is cumbersome, a point frequently made by the homebuilding community. Developers often interact with multiple contacts and frequent handoffs of paperwork, Williamson said. That’s led to a system that is too decentralized, and the department’s staff members often have little ownership in an application, she said.

Communication is more often done on paper than through face-to-face visits with staff members, Williamson said. That system, which has lead to unclear permit expectations for both applicants and staff, can produce compliance on paper with no corresponding compliance at the site, Williamson told the board.

“A lot of times, we have a situation where a project will come in the door and be permitted,” Williamson said. “It’s being built, but the conditions on paper are not reflected in the field. You end up finding a critical environmental setback that wasn’t reflected on the plans when they came in house.”

WPDR is losing $1.1 million under the current budget, which Acting Director Joe Pantalion pegged at a third of the department’s budget. And the workload of the department has remained fairly steady, he said, although the department has refocused on the development of individual homes in the subdivision rather than the overall subdivision plat.

One of the reasons WPDR is taking the delivery model out to so many groups, Pantalion said, is to reassure the community the department will be able to handle the workload despite a reduction in work force.

WPDR intends to cross-train and combine the four distinct functions of the department: land development review, site inspection, building plan review and building inspection. During the first year of the process, the land development review and site inspection staff will be combined. The building plan review and the building inspection functions will also be combined.

Two weeks ago, environmental inspectors were moved into One Texas Center with building inspectors. Ultimately, the department would be linked by technology that will create a database to provides a history of each project and the environmental features, on a parcel-by-parcel basis.

Ultimately, the four sections will be combined under a one-stop shop, Williamson said. The same team will deal with the applicant from beginning to end. Site visits will be completed earlier in the process.

If there is non-compliance, it should happen before the first wall goes up on the project, Pantalion told the board. After the first wall goes up, non-compliance means a significant delay in time and cost.

Chair Lee Leffingwell questioned the effectiveness of that program. Janet Gallagher, who oversees inspections, admitted that the first few months of cross training of inspectors had gone well, but that the city’s construction boom had eventually overwhelmed the inspectors. Most inspectors became preoccupied with simply addressing the life-safety code issues on the various sites. Department officials agreed true cross training will probably not occur until the one-stop shop occurs during fiscal year 2004-05.

As might be expected, the Environmental Board was not pleased with Williamson’s admission that the department would not be completing site visits on every application. Board Member Tim Jones said it was important to have the institutional memory to recognize possible roadblocks.

The department intends to set standards for what might trigger a site visit, Williamson said. A McDonald’s over the aquifer likely would trigger a site visit. A site in the desired development zone might or might not do it, depending on the complexity of the application.

Simple corrections on site plans will be made in the field. That will take some of the delay out of the paperwork process, Williamson said. More substantive changes—those that require a fee, for instance—would require an office visit.

Williamson said the goal is to work smarter rather than harder. The department’s “re-reviews” and “updates” have risen over the last two years. Better education and face-to-face interaction should improve accountability, Williamson said.

Changes to City Code may happen at some point in the future once the process is streamlined, Williamson said.

Downtown leaders praise new 'Dillo routes

Moonlight and Starlight routes offer easy access to downtown night spots

Downtown business leaders mingled with City Council members and officials with Capital Metro at a party to celebrate the launch of the new “Moonlight” and “ Starlight” routes for the Downtown ‘Dillo service yesterday. Guests at the launch party at the Threadgill’s World Headquarters on Barton Springs Road also got to ride the trolleys, which will be free to the public and will run between 6:00pm and 3:00am.

The two routes cover the territory between Riverside and 15th Street on the south and north and Baylor and Red River on the west and east. Capital Metro representatives say it will help visitors to multiple downtown locations avoid the hassle of finding several different parking spaces and provide a free transit option for the growing number of downtown residents. In addition to making downtown more convenient for locals, the service could help Austin’s tourism industry.

“Not only does it help those of us who are downtown during the day and occasionally like to hang out later in the evening because of all the great things to do here, but I think this could disproportionately benefit our tourists,” said Mayor Will Wynn. “Downtown now has hundreds and hundreds of hotel rooms . . . so to the extent that we can make downtown more pleasant, more accessible for tourists, the better.” Wynn predicted the service could provide both short-term and long-term economic benefits by leading to a positive experience for visitors, making them more likely to come back. “I trust and hope that that carries over, and that they bring their conventions to town . . . and that the word gets around that downtown Austin is pretty convenient.”

Downtown business representatives shared the Mayor’s enthusiasm about the new service. Driskill Hotel Managing Director Jeff Trigger said the next step would be to expand the service, which will run Thursday through Saturday, to seven nights a week. “If we want this to be an economic driver, this has to be a seven-day service,” he said. “We respect Capital Metro’s decision to start with three nights a week. But look at these hotel rooms. There are four thousand people looking for things to do on Sunday night when conventions load in . . . there are four other days involved here that will make a huge difference.”

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

No City Council meeting today . . . However, the Audit and Finance Committee of the Council will meet at 10am in City Hall and the Judicial Committee will meet at 2:05pm. They will talk about procedures for appointing Municipal Court Judges, whose terms expire on January 1, 2004, as well as a number of matters involving operation of the community court . . . Rainwater conference here . . . The first-ever national conference on rainwater catchment systems starts today in Austin. It’s being held at the Stephen F. Austin Building at 17th and Congress. Tony Gregg of the City of Austin Water Conservation Program and Nora Mullarkey of the LCRA will serve as moderators for some of the panel discussions . . . Not really news about our air . . . A new study of EPA data by the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) shows most of Austin’s air pollution is related to transportation. Data for 1999 showed over 56 percent of the pollutants in the air here are from transportation sources such as cars or 18-wheelers. That was the fourth-highest percentage in the nation. Other cities with much lower air quality have more heavy industry contributing to air pollution. “Because transportation is such a major contributor in Austin, the challenge of addressing air pollution may fall more heavily on the transportation sector,” said Ann Canby of STPP. The group recommends more federal funding for clean-air programs and an increased role for metropolitan planning organizations such as CAMPO. The full report is available at http://www.transact.org . . . NACA to dedicate green space . . . Members of the North Austin Civic Association tonight will dedicate a new area of green space they’re calling Heron Hollow. It’s at the corner of North Lamar and Payton Gin Road. It had been an overgrown vacant lot until NACA invested $10,000 and hundreds of volunteer hours to spruce up the location . . . Judges applauded . . . Attorney April Bacon was at this week’s Travis County Commissioners Court meeting to recognize the county’s civil and criminal judges. The judges were recently recognized by the Texas Association of Counties for the county courts’ work to comply with the Fair Defense Act. The courts created a software program to provide management information of the program . . . Donation for 4-H trailer accepted . . . An anonymous donor has provided $858 toward the purchase of a new livestock trailer for the Travis County 4-H program. County officials accepted the donation at Tuesday’s court meeting. The trailer was stolen in May. This donation, combined with other funds, will allow the 4-H program to purchase a larger trailer . . . Complaints about Gattis School Road . . . A member of the Forest Creek Homeowners Association was at this week’s commissioners court meeting to protest the unsafe conditions on Gattis School Road. This is not the first time residents have complained, and Commissioner Karen Sonleitner promised homeowner Ginger Harrington the county was working on the road’s traffic issues . . . Emergency fund money used . . . Travis County Commissioners agreed to transfer another $240,000 to cover the shortfall in the county’s Rural Medical Assistance Program. The county has already transferred $750,000 from the General Fund Emergency Reserve to cover budget increases. This time, funding will come from an unused department consulting fee and interest from the county’s tobacco settlement funds. County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty voted against the motion.

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