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Public safety costs eat city's lunch

Friday, May 27, 2005 by

Cops, fire, EMS take all tax revenue plus $42 million

Funding public safety—police, fire and EMS—now eats up all of the city’s property and sales tax revenues. For the coming year, FY2006, Austin Chief Financial Officer John Stephens told the City Council yesterday, “We expect 113 percent of combined tax revenue will go to fund public safety costs. We’re going to need all of (property and sales tax money) and on top of it, we’re going to have to use another $42 million of general fund revenue,” to pay public safety costs, he said. Stephens and City Manager Toby Futrell talked about projected increases in costs, taxes and other revenues and options the Council will have to consider in making budget decisions this summer during Thursday’s Council meeting.

Public safety costs have grown explosively since 2001. One reason for that is the cost of unfunded federal mandates, mostly related to homeland security. Another reason is the 2 percent public safety premium. Public safety employees have contracts with the city giving them a 2 percent pay raise above whatever other city employees receive each year.

According to data presented to the Council, the salary of Austin officers is 20-30 percent higher than the average salary in the six largest cities in the state, over their entire career period. The biggest gap in percentages is for a rookie, who starts out making 26 percent more than his counterparts in other cities. An 18-year officer makes more than $6,000 more than the average in the six cities.

For firefighters there is a similar pattern, with first-year firefighters making about 6 percent more than their counterparts. A 22-year veteran makes 28 percent more than the average, Stephens said.

Stephens traced the historical growth of public safety costs beginning in 1992, when public safety consumed 94 percent of the city’s combined sales and property tax revenues. The gap widened during the heady boom years of the late 1990s, so that by FY99-00,”public safety took only 83 percent of our tax and sales revenue,” he said. “However, as we entered the downturn, those lines began to converge…as more and more of our combined tax revenue went to fund public safety….because of meet and confer and homeland security costs.” Finally, last year, the lines crossed, so public safety takes more than 100 percent of the tax revenues.

“One reason for that is the continued increase in public safety expenditures,” Stephens said, and the other is “because we lowered the property tax by transfer to hospital district of 6.4 cents,” so the city’s tax rate went down although the tax burden on property owners did not.

Futrell has already expressed her concern about the creation of two classes of city employees—public safety and others. That is why she has proposed a 3.5 percent raise plus a one-time bonus of 2 percent. She explained that public safety employees would not receive the bonus and their salaries would be calculated only based on the premium. (See In Fact Daily, May 2, 2005.)

Only Council Members Brewster McCracken and Betty Dunkerley were anxious to weigh in on the direction they hope the manager’s staff will take before bringing back more information for nitty-gritty budget discussions.

McCracken looked at the numbers presented and observed that the city would have $20.1 million more to spend next year than this year if the Council elects to set property tax at the effective tax rate. The effective tax rate is the rate that would bring in the same amount of revenue for the city as the previous year. The effective tax rate is projected to be 42.97 cents, while the nominal tax rate—that is, the same numerical tax rate as last year—would be 44.3 cents. One of the questions Futrell put to the Council was, “Are you willing to have us consider the nominal tax rate?”

This year, when citywide property values predicted to be up slightly, the nominal rate, holding steady at 44.3 cents per $100, would yield the city an additional $6.9 million. For the average homeowner, whose city property tax bill was $831 last year, that would amount to a total increase of $25, or just over $2 per month.

Futrell described the cost drivers this way. “Some are Council policies like 2.0 officers per thousand; some are contract costs; some are choices, like opening a new facility, so you have increased O&M. In almost all cases, they are decisions you are making.” The public safety cost drivers include police and fire staffing, public safety contract increases and a complete market adjustment increase for paramedics. The estimated impact of those drivers is $20.3 million–$200,000 more than the expected tax revenue increase. That does not take into account the $6.4 million in pay for performance and health insurance cost increases for all employees and funding of operations and maintenance for new and expanded facilities. That, together with the public safety drivers brings projected increased costs to $26.7 million.

McCracken asked Stephens if he could, in effect, perform any budget magic. “I know a number of us have advocated publicly on the Council—our top budget priority is to restore the things that were cut during the first 5 years of this decade.” Top priorities, he said, would be to keep the libraries open 7 days a week and to take proper care of city parks.

“So the question is this: If we did go back to the precut percentages of the budget…the 2000 were 60 percent for public safety, 5 percent for libraries, 9 percent for parks….and other like enforcing our codes. If we were to say that our spending priority in the budget was to get us back to where we were before the bust happened, can you lay out a strategy for us without cutting our public safety expenditures in current dollar terms?” Stephens said he would have to work on that. Futrell said such a feat might be possible over a three-year period.

Council Member Raul Alvarez said, “I think the perception that a lot of folks had in the community was that this would be the year that we start adding some things back in the budget. I think it's reasonable to look beyond the effective rate but again, trying to go back an prioritize the add-backs.” Council Member Danny Thomas said he too would like to see some of the things previously cut added back to this year’s budget.

Dunkerley said she hoped the city would continue to seek new revenues, pointing to the sale of Block 21 as a good example. She said the city must also be careful about creating Tax Increment Financing areas.

African-Americans have their say

Many say a lot more work lies ahead

African-American business and community leaders mixed praise with some criticism for the City Council Thursday night as they received the results of quality of life forums hosted by Group Solutions RJW last month. The consulting firm, led by Robena Jackson, identified 31 different community concerns ranging from economic disparities to police misconduct, and concluded with 23 specific actions the city could take to improve the situation.

"It's clear that African-Americans are describing a different quality of life in our city, and I'm troubled by this contradiction," said City Manager Toby Futrell, introducing Jackson's report. "Perhaps the broadest conclusion that can be drawn from our study is that race relations remain a serious problem in Austin, a finding that seems incongruent with Austin's image as a progressive, enlightened city with few social problems." Futrell then revealed she was actually quoting from the results of a previous study done in 2000. "My point is that whatever we do here today, we need to make sure we are not back here in five years, with the same findings and no progress."

Based on feedback gathered during the community forums at the end of April, Jackson identified eight areas where Austin comes up short for African-Americans: a welcoming environment, arts and entertainment, police interaction, jobs, investment in East Austin, housing, education, and business and economic development. "We heard that Austin is not welcoming, and welcoming refers to a sense of belonging, a feeling like the community is your own," Jackson said. "Unwelcoming is impacted by not seeing the culture, or having limited social infrastructure, or history not being integrated into the mainstream." That extended to the area of arts and entertainment, she said, with African-American artists and musicians finding it difficult to secure venues for their work.

"Council members, I hate to tell you, but the Live Music Capital of the World doesn't include African-American music," Jackson said, prompting applause from those in the audience. "We're looking forward to that changing." To address that, the report urges the city to develop a campaign to market Austin's African-American culture and history, promoting African-American cultural events such as the Texas Relays through the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, and making sure that African-American artists and performers are included in events sponsored or supported by the city.

Other suggestions in the report include disciplining police officers who demonstrate inappropriate behavior, making city-owned land in East Austin available to African-Americans to help prevent gentrification, offering lower-interest loans for start-up businesses, stricter enforcement of the city's minority business contracting regulations, and creating an ongoing process to monitor the quality of life for African-Americans.

While most of the citizens who spoke at the public hearing following the presentation of the report praised the efforts of Jackson and Group Solutions RJW, some complained that the community forums held in late April were not true public hearings, since discussion was monopolized by pre-selected panelists and community comments were submitted in writing. To address that, the Council agreed to schedule another public hearing on June 23.

Comment on the report came from well-known African-American leaders and regular citizens. Representatives of the NAACP, the Austin Area Urban League, and Capital City African-American Chamber of Commerce stood side-by-side to offer their response. Greg Marshall, the newly hired president of the Capital City African-American Chamber of Commerce, told the Council he had been to more than his share of racial sensitivity training sessions. He estimated that 95 percent of the participants were black. "I really didn't know what we needed to say to one another," Marshall said, drawing some laughs. "I very much appreciate that you have stepped into this opportunity."

Sentiments in the speeches were not unanimous. Some in the audience spoke of the city's neglect. Nelson Linder, president of the NAACP, said it was clear the city lacked the type of social infrastructure that many other urban areas could offer African-Americans. Others, like Richard Franklin, said it was time for the city to "get out of the way" of African-Americans who wanted to make their communities better. Franklin said the city had invested $30 million in East Austin projects, with few or no real results.

Linder said the desires of African-Americans in Austin are simple. They want to good schools and decent wages, workplaces free of discrimination and respect from the police force. They want due process and due consideration on every level. Linder said it was important that the city move to develop a covenant with the community.

"We have an enormous opportunity," Linder said. "We have the ability, and we have the desire to change the whole focus of this process."

Stacey Dukes-Rhone told the Council it was time the African-American community start addressing its concerns to the full Council rather than just African-American Council Member Danny Thomas. That, she said, was the only way for the Council to be fully aware.

Darrell Pierce said the report was not a panacea, but a starting point for stakeholders to continue to address the concerns of the community. He suggested the June 23 hearing, saying that it would give the Council and the community time to digest the information in the report and determine the next step in the process. Mayor Will Wynn said scheduling a hearing for that date should not be a problem.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Voting continues . . . Early voting in the City Council Place 3 runoff continued at a leisurely pace yesterday, with 1,250 voters casting ballots. Northcross Mall drew in 152 voters and the Randall’s on 35th Street attracted 128. At City Hall, 105 voters cast ballots. Voting continues today and then stops for the weekend . . . Leffingwell preparing. . . Council Member-elect Lee Leffingwell has chosen his campaign manager, Andy Mormon, to be his executive assistant. Leffingwell, who will be sworn in along with Council Member Betty Dunkerley and a Place 3 Council Member yet to be determined, on June 20, expressed an interest in joining the board of directors of Capital Metro . . . Another priority for Leffingwell, who said he has recently joined the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) will be bringing non-public safety employees’ salaries more in line with those in fire, police and EMS positions . . . Appointments. . . Williamson County Commissioner Lisa Birkman was appointed to serve in a non-voting capacity on the city's new Bond Election Advisory Committee . . . Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman appointed David Venhuizen to the Resource Management Commission . . . Susana Carbajal was appointed by consensus to the Mexican-American Cultural Center Advisory Board . . . Council Member Danny Thomas appointed Renae Cotton to the Commission for Women . . . Norma Gómez, appointed by consensus, will join the Commission on Immigrant Affairs. . . AMOA announces new exhibit . . . The downtown branch of the Austin Museum of Art is hosting two different portraits of America, through the eyes of two great female artists: American Music, an exhibition of seventy portraits that capture musicians through the lens of the world’s most celebrated portrait photographer— Annie Leibovitz and Scanning the Grand Canyon, an exhibition by painter Charles Mary Kubricht, who lives in Marfa and Houston. The exhibition opens Saturday and will run through August 7 . . . Still working on it. . . Attorneys Steve Drenner and Nikelle Meade asked the City Council yesterday to postpone a scheduled hearing on a zoning case for Gables at Westlake. Drenner represents the property owner, St. Stephen’s School, and Meade represents neighbors who have opposed the change. The case was put off to June 9. The Council also postponed action on the zoning case for property at the intersection of Riverside Drive and I-35. That matter will not come back up until September. . . . Williamson Advisory Team appointed . . . The Williamson County Conservation Foundation Board met this week and appointed four members to the Regional Habitat Conservation Plan Biological Advisory Team. The BAT is a group of professional biologists and scientists from other key disciplines who will provide biological and other scientific guidance in the development of the Williamson County Regional Habitat Conservation Plan. The land-owning members of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee met May 3 to select their appointee. The Foundation Board’s appointees are Dale Mott, Dr. Charles Woodruff, Jr., John Calvin Newnam, and James Reddell; the CAC land-owning members’ appointee is Mike Warton; and Texas Parks and Wildlife representatives are Dr. Duane Schlitter, Dr. Andy Price and Dr. Romi Burks.

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