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Harmonious meeting leads to swift budget passage

Tuesday, September 14, 2004 by

With few changes, 2004-05 budget passes on all three readings

The Austin City Council approved its FY 2004-05 budget on Monday in record time, wrapping up the debate in a morning session before dealing with several items related to the new Travis County Hospital District in the afternoon. While the Council is posted for meetings today and tomorrow, those will not be necessary since the council approved the $2 billion budget and the ad valorem tax rate of 44.30 cents per $100 of property valuation.

Kay Gudea, who has worked for the city for the past 30 years, said she could not recall any budget gaining City Council approval more swiftly or easily. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, in particular, she said, the Council sometimes stayed until 3 or 4am to finish the budget.

“The city infrastructure truly is weary after three years of cuts,” said Mayor Will Wynn, explaining the Council’s quick action. ”The process is also weary. We’ve gotten to where we talk about the budget year-round. Years ago, we used to meet for the month of August, have the public hearings, and approve the budget in September. Now, because of four years of a bad economy, we talk about the budget every council meeting. The approval meeting might look a little easier, but that’s only because we’ve been putting in so many hours throughout the year to make ends meet.”

Even in prior years of budget cutbacks, Council Members have spent the three-day budget deliberations arguing for inclusion of their favorite projects or scouring for funds to cover prized programs. There were some last-minute amendments this year, and while some discussion took place, no major battles occurred. An unexpected boost in sales tax revenues will help pay for two new lieutenants within the Austin Police Department. The Council approved setting aside some money from the Austin Energy transfer to cover the opening of the Turner-Roberts Recreation Center, and agreed to fully fund the Parks and Recreation Department’s midnight basketball program. There was some debate over proposed changes to the Cultural Arts funding process. The Council also debated a proposal to change the formula for the fees charged to the operators of off-site parking lots near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The plan approved by the Council closely follows the recommendation of the Airport Advisory Commission, which was different from the proposal offered by the Director of the Aviation Department.

City employees at the bottom end of the pay scale will get a raise in the new budget. The Council approved a budget amendment of $375,000 to raise the city’s “living wage” from $9 per hour to $10. “Before the amendment, 55 job titles were left where the beginning salary was below $10 per hour,” said City Manger Toby Futrell. “In the proposed budget, one-third of those moved above $10 per hour. So we had two-thirds of our problem left.” While those remaining positions would likely have received a raise in the FY 2005-06 budget, the money approved by the Council will allow those salaries to be boosted in April of 2005 instead. “I want to thank the Council for making this a priority, and the City Manager for working with us to make this happen,” said Council Member Raul Alvarez. In addition to that boost for some of the lowest-paid city workers, city employees across the board will be eligible for raises for the first time in two years.

Hospital district discussion Discussions of the city’s contribution to the reserve fund of the Travis County Hospital District and the upcoming transfer of Brackenridge Hospital to the district dominated the afternoon session. As revealed last week, the city will contribute $10.7 million dollars to the Hospital District’s reserve accounts under the terms of a draft inter-local agreement. About $3 million of that was included in the original budget proposal from the ending balance in an account related to the city’s system of health clinics. The Council’s action on Monday commits an additional $4 million from the overall ending balance from FY 2003-04, along with another $3.5 million stemming from larger-than-expected Disproportionate Share Revenue payments. The State of Texas has provided that money to the city for handling a disproportionate share of indigent health-care costs.

Hospital District Board Chairman Clarke Heidrick appeared to offer assurance that the District’s proposed budget would use those funds as intended. Council Member Daryl Slusher wanted to know how the City’s contributions for reserves would be used. “There was a lot of discussion about every one of those dollars being something that we regard as precious,” said Heidrick, promising that the district would impose appropriate financial controls. “We recognize it as ‘one-time’ money. It’s something that we’ll get once. It’s something that will help insulate us from calamity. We have no intention of using any part of this money as a supplement to our operating reserve.”

As part of the transfer of health care responsibilities to the new district, the city will reduce its ad valorem tax rate by the amount that covered the cost of health care. Although the Council voted to adopt the effective tax rate, which for next year would have been approximately 50.65 cents per $100 of property value, decreasing that rate by the 6.35 cents previously spent on health care funding makes the new tax rate 44.30 cents per $100 of property value. However, the net impact on the average Austin homeowner will be the same, since the Hospital District will set its tax rate accordingly. “The promise of the district was we would not have a tax increase for a city taxpayer who is in the city and in the county,” said Heidrick. “This budget delivers that.”

The Council also authorized city staff to proceed with negotiations that will lead to the eventual transfer of city-owned Brackenridge Hospital to the new district. “The city has dealt with health care for a long time,” said Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who admitted to some mixed feelings about releasing the city’s health care duties. “It’s almost like sending your child off to first grade…or perhaps sending them off to college. It’s a feeling of excitement, and of hope, and a little bit of angst that we’re not going to be involved anymore.”

Futrell looks forward to next year

Tomorrow will be a brighter day, even though city Budget Officer Rudy Garza’s planned musical end to the budget process—“Tomorrow,” from the musical “Annie”—failed to materialize on time.

After the budget vote, In Fact Daily asked City Manager Toby Futrell what made her the happiest. “That it’s over,” she replied. After that, she said the thing that most pleased her personally was that she was able to give city employees a raise for the first time since 2002. Finally, “the folks who kept the city running for the past three years with virtually no additional resources, and cut resources,” will receive some reward, she said.

There are 900 fewer employees now than there were when the economy turned down. That means there are now between 10,000 and 11,000 employees, depending, Futrell noted, on how seasonal and temporary employees are categorized.

But Futrell does not plan any wholesale hiring. As she has stated in the past, the City Manager said downsizing was not all bad; it gave the organization a chance to change the way the city does business.

The upswing in the economy does not necessarily mean adding staff position by position, Futrell said. “But I do think it means we can start strategically planning for what we do want to look like in the future. Citizens can plan for what they want their service levels to look like. That’s the real discussion that’s ahead of us.”

Over the next year, city management will look for service gaps in targeted areas, which need to be rebuilt. “By the time this is rolling into the ’06 budget, we’ll be discussing a bond election,” Futrell said. All the current bond money will be gone, she noted, predicting a bond election in 2007, or at least a discussion of whether one is needed. “So, do we want more bricks and mortar? Are we going to do library services differently? Receive services differently? It’s a very different discussion we could have this upcoming year about how we want to deliver services and what we want them to look like first, instead of trying to automatically looking like what we did in the 90s.”

Angry public does not move CAMPO majority The board of CAMPO ( Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) last night put a public hearing on the toll road plan on hold indefinitely, a sign that they are willing to hold the line on their toll road vote, at least until the state makes its next move.

The mantra of opponents at the microphone was "everybody thinks like us," but the crowd that arrived at the LBJ School Auditorium last night was half the size it was in July. Comments from the audience were more equally divided, although many chose not to speak. And the comments focused more on the partisan "I'm getting to get rid of you" from opponents than the questions that peppered the CAMPO board in July.

Two motions were on the table. The first, proposed by Council Member Brewster McCracken, would have scheduled a hearing on those road projects that were already paid for by tax dollars: US 183(S), State Highway 71 and the William Cannon Bridge onto MoPac. But the board approved a substitute motion by County Judge Sam Biscoe to table the hearing indefinitely, on a vote of 15-8. The dissenters were Reps. Terry Keel, Todd Baxter, Elliott Naishtat, Eddie Rodriguez and Jack Stick, along with Council Members Brewster McCracken and Daryl Slusher and County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty.

Biscoe argued that he had seen no new information that would change his vote on the toll road plan but that extra time could provide more answers. In the next 90 days, the Central Texas RMA will have a toll road policy, as well as information on the impact of removing projects from the overall plan and its impact on bonds. The Texas Transportation Commission also may more clearly signal its own intentions on future road funding.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said that the delay would bring more information into the process and preserve the board's option to reopen debate. Keel countered that he wasn't surprised that in Austin, a motion to suspend a public hearing was considered more open than deciding last night whether or not to support the amendments.

He said the Central Texas RMA should already be able to make an educated guess on the economic impact of removing toll roads from the plan. "If we don't have an educated guess, then why did we put these things in the plan in the first place, if we don't know the impact of the roads?" Keel asked.

A motion by Slusher to rescind the vote lost by the same margin.

Privately, proponents of the delay said that some board members were frustrated by McCracken's motion because it was made without looking at the cost of pulling those road projects out of the overall toll road plan. Opponents questioned the motive behind the delay, saying it was simply a move to save face and that no hearing would ever be scheduled on the plan, even though Biscoe suggested a hearing in 60 to 90 days.

The heat at the July meeting was generated by a comment from the audience that labeled Texas Department of Transportation District Engineer Bob Daigh a liar who misrepresented the toll road plan. This month's fireworks came in a showdown between Reps. Stick and Dawnna Dukes near the meeting's end.

Opponent Sal Costello was the one who lit the match, asking Dukes whether her sister Stacy Dukes-Rhone was a subcontractor for the CTRMA and whether it was a conflict of interest. Costello also asked whether Chair Gonzalo Barrientos was still working for CenTex Beverage, owned by Lowell Lebermann, who serves on the RMA board.

Barrientos bristled at the suggestion, saying he would have removed himself from a vote if he thought there was a conflict of interest. He described his work for CenTex as no more than five hours a week, negligible in pay. Dukes angrily told Costello she had two words for him: " Jim George." George is the lawyer Dukes hired to warn Costello in writing that his website for the Austin Toll Party was libelous to Dukes.

Then Stick stepped in, saying he would like to know what the policy on conflict of interest might be, whether through a family member or employer. Dukes said if Stick had such a problem he should initiate an investigation of the matter with the local prosecutor and accused Stick of "playing political games."

The toll road proposal as adopted by CAMPO at its July meeting included tolls for eight segments of roadway. Those include US 183 from I-35 Southeast to SH 71, US 290 East from US 183 to the new SH 130, and SH 71 East from I-35 to US 183 just east of Thornberry Lane. Those proposals for east-side toll roads did not generate nearly the debate or public comment as the proposals for toll roads in west and southwest Austin. The plan also calls for tolls on US 290 West from FM1826 to SH 71, then from SH 71 to William Cannon Drive and from William Cannon to a point east of Williamson Creek. SH 71 West would also have tolls from about one mile west of US 290W to the intersection with US 290 W. In addition, SH 45 South would have tolls between MoPac (Loop 1) and FM 1626. MoPac itself would have tolls from US 290W to William Cannon Drive. And Loop 360 drivers would face tolls along most of its length stretching from the intersection with US 183 in the north to Walsh Tarlton Lane in the south.

CAMPO removed funding for toll lanes along Loop 360, so those lanes would require an additional vote. But that left the most controversial toll segment still in the plan. MoPac between US 290 to a point south of William Cannon Drive would have toll lanes. For that roadway, toll facilities would be added to existing construction. The same tactic would be used for portions of SH 71 E and parts of US 183.

For toll road opponents, that leads to the claim of paying twice for the road: once with tax dollars, and then again with tolls. But toll road supporters say the same situation is proof of their claim that no existing lanes of pavement on the ground at this time will be tolled, only new lanes added in the future.

The possibility for additional lanes along MoPac and Loop 360 also sparked fierce opposition from some southwest Austin residents, who argued that they would spoil the scenic beauty of the region. They also protested that tolling short segments of road, such as the one mile of MoPac between US 290 and William Cannon, would unfairly penalize those who live in the neighborhood and use that road several times each day.

No decision from HLC . . . After listening to a staff outline — as well as community input — for redevelopment of Rainey Street, the Historic Landmark Commission last night postponed action on the plan. Commissioners agreed that they needed more time to arrive at a recommendation. They will consider the matter again at their next meeting on September 27. The Planning Commission is scheduled to make its recommendation tonight, and the Downtown Commission — which came up with recommendations very similar to the current staff proposal — will take action Wednesday night. The Zoning and Platting Commission has scheduled a special called meeting for Thursday night to make a recommendation on the zoning. ZAP Chair Betty Baker said last week that the commission should have suggestions from all the other commissions involved before taking action . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . In addition to the Planning Commission, the Community Development Commission will meet at 6:30pm at the Street-Jones Building, 1000 East 11th Street, Room 400A . . . Fundraiser for Rodriguez . . . State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez is holding a fundraiser from 5:30pm to 7:30pm tonight at Nuevo Leon Restaurant, 1501 East 5th Street. Rodriguez just finished his first term representing Southeast Austin, a Democratic stronghold. His will be an easy race this time, since he is running unopposed . . . SAD also meeting . . . South Austin Democrats is scheduled to make a decision tonight on whether to support or oppose Capital Metro’s commuter rail plan. The meeting, which starts at 5:30pm at Little Mexico, 2304 S.1st Street, will give David Foster (pro) and Jim Skaggs (con) a chance to debate the plan, around 6:30pm . . . Lake Travis underwater cleanup . . . In addition to providing drinking water and flood control, Lake Travis offers recreational opportunities for thousands of Central Texans each year. The Lower Colorado River Authority is sponsoring the 10th Annual Lake Travis Underwater Cleanup on Sunday, September 26. Last year, about 750 volunteers collected six tons of trash during the cleanup, and organizers are preparing for an even bigger event this year. Local dive shops and scuba clubs are signing up divers, and shoreline volunteers are also needed. The event will take place from 8am to 12:30pm, after which participants will enjoy lunch and live music at a Lake Travis restaurant. For more information about the cleanup, contact Lizzie Pincoffs at 1-800-776-5272, Ext. 2926, or by e-mail at … Futrell going fishing . . . City Manager Toby Futrell, who loves fishing, said she would take off today and go fishing . . . “Unconstitutional” world premiere … Last night’s world premiere of “ Unconstitutional,” a new documentary about the USA Patriot Act and its aftermath, attracted several hundred students and locals to the UT Texas Union, where two free showings took place. The ACLU of Texas hosted the event. Producer Robert Greenwald and the ACLU chose UT-Austin for the premiere, the ACLU said, “because it is home to a burgeoning film school and it boasts one of the largest student bodies in the country, which will allow for the type of lively and critical discussion that ‘Unconstitutional’ hopes to inspire.” . . . Unions oppose recall . . . The leaders of Austin's police and EMS unions will team up to announce their support of the three Austin City Council Members targeted for recall by toll-road opponents. APA President Mike Sheffield and Austin/Travis County EMS Employees Association President Jason Martin will be at the headquarters of CLEAT, 400 W. 14th St. at 10:30am today for a presentation with the theme of "Fix Austin Traffic, Save Austin Lives."

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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