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Community services could return to pre-bust levels

Friday, August 11, 2006 by

Council hears advocates for social services, parks

City Council members got their first look at a breakdown of 2007 budget requests Thursday, as they received briefings from the community services departments: Parks and Recreation, Library, Health and Human Services, Housing and Community Development, and Solid Waste Services.

Community Services make up 16 percent of the proposed $525.3 million General Fund for 2007. Those departments were among the hardest hit by budget cuts during the economic downturn, but next year’s budget will almost restore them to their 2002 level of funding.

Speaking up for social services, parks Affordable housing dominated last night’s budget hearing, with other speakers emphasizing support for various programs, particularly those within the Parks Department.

Walter Moreau, executive director of Foundation Communities, spoke of the unmet need for transitional housing. While Dallas’ unmet need is 26 percent and Seattle’s unmet need is 12 percent, he said, the percentage of unmet need in Austin is 53 percent. Foundation Communities’ own goal is a $2 million increase in funding next year, with the ultimate goal of putting an additional 100 affordable units on the market.

The Austin chapter of the Sickle Cell Association also was on hand to ask for support. Tiny Gabriel George, only 7 years old, spoke to the Council about the impact of sickle cell anemia on his life and the support the association had played in his illness.

Three of the four people who addressed the Council four years ago when the association was formed have since died from the illness, including Marc Thomas, the husband of executive director Linda Thomas.

Supporters of parks and recreation also spoke, including those who wanted to see softball fees reduced and more support for the Zilker Botanical Garden and Barton Springs Pool.

Parks and Libraries The Austin Parks and Recreation Department will get a $4 million budget increase next year under the proposal set forth by the City Manager. That money will allow the department to restore services cut during the economic downturn and add more than 70 positions as it brings new facilities on-line.

Those new facilities include the Mexican American Cultural Center, Town Lake Park, and the Turner/Roberts Recreation Center. Staffing those will account for 18 of the department’s new employees. The department will also convert 43 employees from temporary to permanent status. Other new positions will be used to restore maintenance cuts made during previous years, establishing dedicated maintenance crews for each park facility. “We will have the ability to provide janitorial services, building maintenance, change air conditioning filters…and do all of those types of things that are necessary on a daily basis to take care of all of our recreation centers,” said PARD Director Warren Struss.

The Zilker Botanical Gardens will get six new employees for security and customer service. “This add-back will enhance quality and repairs and security to deter vandalism,” said Struss. “We are rebuilding our ability to bring it back to its level prior to 2001. It is our desire to bring the maintenance and the quality of Zilker Botanical Gardens back to those levels as well. We’re expecting 400,000 people to attend next year.”

PARD is also setting aside $500,000 for renovations at Barton Springs Pool and $500,000 to repair pools elsewhere throughout the city.

The Library Department is also getting a budget increase to cover the cost of opening new facilities, some of which were put on hold during the economic downturn. The department plans to finish the expansion of the Spicewood Springs Branch Library and begin construction on the new Twin Oaks Branch Library. Library Director Brenda Branch said the budget also includes money for adding five new support staff positions that had been cut in previous years including one security guard, two administrative positions, one human resources specialist, and one accountant position. “Our backlog is so great in these areas (HR, accounting) that we have had to pull people from our public service areas where they are needed,” she said. “We have one employee to screen 150 to 200 applications for 25 to 35 vacancies per month.”

Health and Human Services The city’s Health and Human Services Department covers a wide range of services, from disease prevention and social services to animal control and graffiti abatement. HHS is seeking a total of $54.6 million for 2007, a 2.7 percent increase, according to HHS Director David Lurie.

"Our biggest challenge is providing social services," he said. "The entire social services arena is one where we can’t keep pace. The number of people needing our services is growing much faster than our ability to serve them."

Social Services accounts for 38 percent of HHS expenditures, with Public Health accounting for 35 percent. Support services account for 12 percent, Animal Control is at 8 percent and Youth Services is 7 percent.

Most HHS program were ranked close to same as the previous year, with communicable disease prevention, food safety inspection and pest control all showing a small gain or loss. Animal control services showed a drop of 3.8 percent in approval.

"The animal control situation is a problem," Lurie said. "We continue to see an increase in the number of animals along with the population growth, while our resources to deal with them remain flat."

Statistics show that Austin euthanizes 56 percent of all the animals that come to its shelter, which is above the goal rate of 49 percent, according to Lurie. But Austin’s rate of shelter kills is the lowest among major cities in Texas.

Council Member Brewster McCracken questioned Lurie about his department’s graffiti removal program, noting that the current 10-day response is well below the best practices rate of 24 to 48 hours.

Lurie responded that it was a money and manpower issue, and City Manager Toby Futrell said her office would provide McCracken numbers on what it would take to reach the shorter response time.

Housing Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Director Paul Hilgers has maintained a steady level of service to clients despite a drop in funding, mostly due to cuts in federal grants in recent years. Hilgers’ proposed budget for 2007 is $30.1 million.

The two largest sources of funds for the Housing budget, CDBG and HOME grants, total 35.3 and 41.7 percent of revenues, respectively. But funding from those two grant programs has dropped each of the last three years, from $13.9 million in 2004 to a projected $11.9 million in 2007, an 18 percent decrease.

Despite that, the Housing program only saw a 2.2 percent drop in the number of eligible households served, with a 2.4 percent increase in homebuyers served and a 25 percent jump in SMART Housing units occupied.

Hilgers is seeking an additional $1.2 million to fill the gap in CDBG funding to bolster programs in Public Service, Economic Development and Owner-Occupied Housing.

He presented statistics showing that Austin was among the top cities in leveraging outside capital and ranked significantly higher than a number of similar cities in the number of new housing units completed.

Solid Waste Solid Waste Services Director Willie Rhodes presented a $53.8 million proposed budget for 2007. SWS draws only a small amount from the General Fund, funding its coffers with revenues from trash collection and other services.

Rhodes noted that SWS services continued to rank high in the annual Citizens Survey, with an 86.6 percent satisfaction rate for garbage collection, 83.3 percent for brush and bulk pickup services and 75.9 percent on the appearance of neighborhoods.

He also noted that the 2007 budget is the tenth in a row that SWS has not sought an increase in the city’s Pay as You Throw garbage collection service. He also told Council members that the department is planning to begin its All-in-One recycling program in January 2008.

Code Enforcement was added to SWS last year, and continues to grow, according to Rhodes, who said the division has divided the city into the same four zones as APD’s Community Policing program. He is projecting a 13.3 percent increase in the number of enforcement actions by that division in 2007.

Rhodes also supplied statistics showing that Austin has one of the lowest average tons of refuse collected per account in the country, with a rate of 0.86 tons per household.

Council sets maximum tax rate at 41.26 cents

Members of the Austin City Council voted Thursday to keep their options open when it comes to next year’s tax rate. City Manager Toby Futrell’s proposed budget is based on the effective tax rate of 39.86 cents per $100 of property value, and the rollback rate is 42.12 cents

The Council opted for a number in between those, voting to post a notice required by state law listing the maximum tax rate for the coming year as 41.26 cents. That slightly higher rate would generate about $8.4 million in additional revenue.

The final decision on the tax rate is still weeks away, but posting the higher rate allows the Council to consider whether to use that money to fund some of the items not funded under Futrell’s proposed budget. "My hope is that we will do something lower than this rate by being creative and looking at the needs in this community," said Council Member Jennifer Kim, "but also being sensitive to the needs of people who are feeling the brunt of increased appraisals and a higher tax bill."

Several Council Members expressed a desire to offer some type of property tax relief to homeowners without lowering the actual property tax rate. "One of the things I want to request that we consider is a five percent homestead exemption for homeowners in Austin," said Council Member Mike Martinez. "We’ve already discussed this as a ‘meat and potatoes’ type of year, and I firmly agree that we need to reinvest in some of the basic infrastructure. But by looking at a five percent homestead exemption…it wouldn’t kick in until next year, so maybe next year we could provide some tax relief for our homeowners who also have been footing the bill for us." That exemption, Martinez said, would cost the city approximately $6 million in foregone revenue.

Council Member McCracken also called for property tax relief, but said that a homestead exemption would not be the appropriate tool. "The challenge with the homestead exemption is it doesn’t protect against the rate of increase," he said, explaining that the savings to a homeowner under a five percent cap could quickly be devoured by rising property values. "And, it has a very significant hit on the budget…so that unfortunately, what the homestead exemption does, it will cause us to have to slash our budget."

McCracken said he would prefer to see the city lower its cap on increases in a home’s value. That increase is currently set at 10 percent for tax purposes, but the Council voted earlier this year to seek permission from the state to change that number. "If you do the appraisal cap route, it offers all of that protection for homeowners and still allows us to meet our responsibilities to keep kids safe, to invest in the future, to invest in job training for folks who want to work hard for a better future," he said. "We can meet all our responsibilities and still protect homeowners."

Futrell agreed to have the staff provide additional information on both options, including how each would affect the city’s financial picture in future years.

Council Member Sheryl Cole provided a preview of the debate the Council will engage in during the next few weeks over the tax rate, noting that "this has been called a meat and potatoes budget, and I think the hard choice that we’re going to have to make is whether or not we’re going to add the vegetables. To me that would include some of the items that have been put forth as unfunded," she said.

"I recognize the need to protect the homeowner from both rising appraisals and unnecessary taxation, but the community needs to understand that there’s a balance. "We need to hear from them about that balance, and those vegetables include many health and human services items, along with parks, open space, street maintenance, libraries, and even maintaining our water capacity. So I hope that we remember our vegetables as we try to decide what tax rate to adopt," Cole concluded.

Lost Creek residents decry city’s annexation plans

A hearing on the proposed annexation of the Lost Creek neighborhood, sandwiched between Rollingwood and Westlake Hills, brought the predictable mix of opponents to last night’s Council meeting, a foretaste of what Council will see Monday night when it holds a hearing at Westlake High School to take public comment.

Only a dozen of the 100 residents who showed up at last night’s Council meeting chose to speak, most of them echoing concerns that the area already has better services – at a cheaper cost – than what the city would be able to provide the area. Lost Creek, about the size of the former Mueller Airport site, is completely built out as a residential community, has a taxable appraised value of $574 million and is home to 3,900 residents.

Residents and city staff disagree about just what value the land would bring into the city. Local residents, who commissioned their own annexation and service study, predict the financial benefit is minimal, or even a loss. Rick Sherry, in charge of the Lost Creek MUD, says it would cost between $14 and $25 million to hook the community up to the city’s water services. Gabe Thornhill says his analysis is the city would gain only about $500,000 a year, especially given that the area already is paying the city’s wastewater and electric rates and has no sales tax base in the community.

"This is not worth it to the city, and it’s not worth it to Lost Creek," Sherry said.

The city’s own estimates is that the area would yield a positive cash flow for the city by 2012, after the city makes an initial investment in drainage and wastewater improvements. The analysis is $8.5 million of cash flow over 25 years, in today’s dollars. Responding to questions from the speakers, Mayor Will Wynn said he had yet to look closely at the service and revenue plan but would be studying it closely.

State law would not allow the city to annex Lost Creek into Austin until the end of 2008. It would also require a service plan that would provide local residents with city services.

A number of speakers noted that the Lost Creek MUD had higher ratings from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality than the city. Others spoke to the fear that the area would lack in police service and that roads would not be properly maintained.

The one group that likely would feel the pinch immediately post-annexation – other than Lost Creek taxpayers – would be the Westlake Fire Department. Former Austin Fire Chief Gary Warren, who is now Westlake’s fire chief, predicts that 14 percent of the department’s overall revenues will be lost if Lost Creek is annexed. That will mean a reduction in services – or an increase in fees – to Rollingwood and Westlake Hills.

The next annexation hearing will be Monday night at Westlake High School Fine Arts Facility, 4100 Westbank Drive, at 6:30 p.m. Those wishing to speak can register at the high school, beginning no later than 5:45 p.m.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

New taxi plan to move forward . . . The Council voted unanimously on Thursday to follow up on the recommendation of the Urban Transportation Commission that the city’s next taxi franchise be awarded to the most qualified applicant, not decided by a lottery. "It’s something that I believe is not a good pubic policy," Council Member Mike Martinez said of the lottery proposal. "It’s something that we don’t use for any other decision-making in awarding franchises." City staff will work with the UTC at its regular meeting next week and a special meeting the following week to finalize the ranking criteria before presenting the evaluation matrix to Council. The UTC, said Martinez, "has given us a good starting point. I really want to thank them for the work" . . . One of those seeking the franchise is the Lone Star Cab Co. The group of African immigrants has banded together to offer taxi services and has hired Xen Oden to represent them. Oden registered as a lobbyist with the City Clerk’s Office Thursday after the Council action . . . Oops! . . . A quote in Wednesday’s In Fact Daily was incorrectly attributed to Don Koehler, the city's BCP program manager. It was actually Kevin Connally, Travis County BCP staff member, who cautioned the committee against putting time limits on the Austin Water Utility’s search for an additional 2,000 acres of Black-Capped Vireo habitat necessary to complete the BCP permit. The Citizen’s Advisory Committee did not go for the time limit (See In Fact Daily, Aug. 9, 2006.) . . . No zoning cases to report (again) . . . The City Council postponed the one case that was slated for discussion on Thursday’s zoning agenda . . . Messing with MoPac . . . MoPac Expressway (Loop 1) was pulled off the list of area roadways originally designated by CAMPO to become a toll road after a public outcry over the plan last year, but the Texas Department of Transportation may yet mess with MoPac. On Thursday, TxDOT announced the inception of MoPac 1, a new project to improve conditions along MoPac. MoPac 1 will study the feasibility of managed lanes and other improvements for Loop 1 consistent with and included in the Mobility 2030 Plan, adopted by CAMPO in June 2005. Managed lanes are similar to high-occupancy lanes, but can be tolled at certain times of the day to allow faster travel for those willing to pay. Bob Daigh, TxDOT’s Austin District Engineer said the project would look first at improvements on north MoPac, between Parmer Lane and Cesar Chavez, and later would study MoPac south, between Town Lake and SH 45 near the Hays County line. Daigh says a series of public meetings are planned to discuss MoPac improvements, as well as addressing environmental and sound abatement issues . . . Board and Commission appointments . . . Shih-Jen (Shiller) Liao was a consensus reappointment to the Asian American Resource Center Board; Randy Polikahl is Brewster McCracken’s reappointment to the Electric Board; Former Council Member Raul Alvarez is Mike Martinez appointment to the Electric Utility Commission; Catherine Kyle and Velva Price are both consensus appointments to the Ethics Review Commission; Jeffrey Beckage is a consensus reappointment to the Renaissance Market Commission; Casey Walker is a consensus reappointment to the Solid Waste Advisory Commission; Rose Lancaster is a consensus reappointment to the Travis County Healthcare District; and Ronnie Jones is Sheryl Cole’s appointment to the Water and Wastewater Commission . . . Hutto residents battle power lines . . . If they are not fighting an expanding landfill and a regional wastewater treatment plant in their backyard, Hutto residents are battling with the LCRA and TXU electric over high-voltage transmission lines. The proposed route for the lines runs through downtown Hutto and through several residential areas of the city, but a group of citizens led by former mayor Mike Fowler is protesting to the Hutto City Council over those plans. The group has the backing of the Hutto City Council and the Hutto Economic Development Corporation, which have both contacted the LCRA with a request to move the 345 Kv lines to an area outside of the city limits. Current Hutto Mayor Mike Love says he’s optimistic that the problem can be solved, noting that the final route for the lines has not yet been submitted to state officials.

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