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Unanimous Council makes quick work of budget

Tuesday, September 12, 2006 by

The City Council’s adoption of the Fiscal Year 2007 Operating Budget on Monday went according to the script – literally. The $2.3 billion budget was approved on first, second and third reading with additions of $9,343,270 made according to an agenda of amendments worked out ahead of time, right down to who was making motions and seconds.

The theme of the 2007 budget is to continue to rebuild city programs and services from the lean years of the early-2000s, replacing laid off employees and adding new ones in areas such as public safety, building inspection, code enforcement, zoning/plan review, health, libraries, parks and road maintenance.

“I think this budget is very reflective of the city’s needs,” said Mayor Will Wynn. “I don’t think anyone (on the Council) got exactly what they wanted, but that means that there was a spirit of compromise and a willingness to do the most with what we had.”

While the “program” of pre-agreed budget adds—primarily brokered by Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley—kept any wheeling-and-dealing strictly behind the scenes, it also cut down on the amount of time it took the Council to complete the process, finishing all of its budget work in just under two hours. Staff had scheduled three full days of work time for the process.

The budget production even had a closing theme song, with a video of the 1980s tune “The Future’s So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades)” by Timbuk 3 playing on the Council Chamber’s multimedia screens. City Manager Toby Futrell said it was appropriate.

"We hand picked the theme song,” she said. “We’re poised on another uptick of the rocket ship right now.” That means more growth for the area, with Futrell hoping that does not mean too many more people, “but I’d certainly be glad for some more money.”

The Council set the property tax rate at 41.26 cents per $100 valuation, a drop of slightly more than 3 cents. That means a median-priced home valued at $167,203 would cost $690 in taxes each year.

Some of the major items in the 2007 Operating budget include:

• An additional $2 million in preventative maintenance fund to increase annual street maintenance from 8 percent to 9 percent. Council Member Jennifer Kim said the move was step a towards getting the city up to the 10 percent level of annual road maintenance, which is considered to be a “best practice.”

• An additional $23 million for Public Safety contracts and commitments for police officers, firefighters, and paramedics. That includes adding six new police officers to maintain a ratio of two officers per 1,000 population, four new firefighter positions, six new EMS positions, and nine and one-half civilian positions for additional forensics and crime analysis resources.

• As the Council voted to increase funding for the city’s public safety services, it approved $100,000 to accelerate the replace of the Fire Department’s protective bunker gear. “I’ll be glad to donate my bunker gear,” quipped Council Member Mike Martinez, a former firefighter. “I’m not using it anymore.”

• An additional $150,000 for the city’s participation in the Austin Technology Wireless Incubator. Council Member Brewster McCracken said by making the contribution, it would make local firms eligible for grants from the state’s Texas Emerging Technology Fund. “Just one business taking off in this arena could mean many jobs and a big boost for Austin’s economy,” McCracken said. The Council also approved a revenue-neutral policy to extend the city’ economic development efforts to emerging technologies.

• An additional $332,863 and five new positions to add an advance planning, facilitation and transition team for Neighborhood Planning to the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department.

• An additional $1 million towards the development of a single room occupancy (SRO) facility as a part of the city’s mental health initiative. “I really like the ability to put a million more dollars into SRO. I think that’s absolutely critical,” said Futrell. “The community has been struggling over defining roles. What are the roles of the hospital district, what does the city do, what does the county do . . . and that was a quantum leap forward for us to say our role’s going to be transitional housing. And this will be our third SRO and we’ll be able to do on site services.”

• An additional $1.2 million for affordable housing programs for the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department. McCracken commented that such funds are becoming more necessary as the federal government cuts back on its assistance to housing programs. “We recently saw the long lines of people wanting to sign up for Section 8 housing, so we know that the need is still there,” he said.

Also receiving extra funding was the city program to deal with sickle cell anemia. Noting the $50,000 increase, Council Member Sheryl Cole said, “This is a real need in the minority community. It’s a growing problem, and it’s important that the city is responding to it."

The Council also approved a proposal to increase the pay of city employees by 3.5 percent, while giving those whose evaluations place them in the top 25 percent a larger raise. (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 8, 2006.)

Toll alternative put at 17 cents more in gas tax

Strama says revenue answer raise more questions than answers

The three-county region would have to come close to doubling the current per-gallon gas tax to cover the cost of the second phase of the Central Texas toll roads. That’s the word policymakers got at Monday night’s meeting of CAMPO meeting.

Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, wanted to zero in on the difference toll revenue made in the CAMPO 2030 plan and what it would take to replace that revenue with a gas tax. The short answer is that the three-county region – Williamson, Travis and Hays – would have to approve a 17-cent local gas tax to pay for roads. If Travis County went it alone – intending to pay for all its toll roads – it would be a 27-cent gas tax. That would cover the anticipated $4.4 billion in bonds and revenue associated with the toll road system.

These are some of the first projections that have come to CAMPO’s Transportation Policy Board about the revenues and costs of tolling. After the meeting, Strama said that he was pleased to finally have some concrete numbers, but that he expected those numbers to raise additional questions at future CAMPO meetings.

“It all raises more questions than answers,” Strama said.

What is known is this: Based upon certain parameters and assumptions, it would take a 17-cent gas tax in the three-county region to replace both the bonded debt and toll revenue from the Phase II toll roads. The current transportation plan anticipates that toll roads would be funded, but if they were not, it would increase the gap between funded and needed roads by an additional $1.2 billion. And if the toll roads were funded, the region could expect an additional $293 million in discretionary funding over the next 25 years, funding that could be used for other toll projects.

Because all these answers come with assumptions, they tend to raise more questions. For instance, Council Member Brewster McCracken wanted a more complete explanation of the traffic and revenue forecasts used in the assumptions, since they vary widely from what has been posted on the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority website.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner was concerned that the assumption was made that local jurisdictions were picking up the cost of maintenance on the projects – to the tune of $555 million – when any state-funded roads would come with state-funded maintenance.

And Strama pointed out, after the meeting, that the revenue boost that was mentioned came not only from toll revenue but also from bonded debt. In the past, Strama has asked why current state gas tax revenues couldn’t be leveraged for bonding capacity.

Those questions went without answers because Chair Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, limited the discussion. Wes Burford of the Texas Department of Transportation, who made the presentation, said McCracken’s question was too complex for the basic discussion and would have to wait for further review. And Burford said maintenance revenues from the state ran so short that it was unlikely the state would be able to cover the maintenance of the future proposed roads, whether or not the state’s intention would be to cover the maintenance of any toll road-turned-free road.

For the conjectures made, the Phase I toll roads were excluded. Those would be State Highway 130, 183A, the segments of State Highway 45 on the north and south ends of the region and the northern improvements to Loop 1. The Phase II toll roads would be the improvements to US 290, east and west, Highway 183 and Highway 71.

Burford stressed, as a press release from the CTRMA did, that the gap between what the region needs and available state and federal funding is $10 billion. That’s a stack of $100 bills, literally, the height of Mount Everest, Burford said. The region’s ideal road plan is expected to cost $26.7 billion. The fiscally constrained plan the region could fund – including toll roads – would be $16.7 billion. That leaves a $10 billion gap.

Board members agreed to submit additional questions in writing to CAMPO Executive Director Michael Aulick. Aulick will post the questions and answers on the CAMPO website.

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

Planner to join Wynn's team . . . Mayor Will Wynn has hired Matt Watson, a planner with the Austin Water Utility to be his new Executive Assistant, replacing Matt Curtis, who moved to Capital Metro in July. "Matt's experience with land use and transportation issues will be extremely helpful as we continue to manage Austin's redevelopment and growth," said Wynn. Watson is expected to join Chief of Staff Rich Bailey by the end of September . . . Bond boosters plan gathering . . . Those with an interest in helping steer city bonds toward victory can drop by the campaign kickoff for "Seven Steps For A Better Austin" from 5:30-7:30pm Wednesday at Nuevo Leon, 1501 East 6th Street. Free food, drink, and live music by Graham Weber ( www.grahamweber.com) . . . McMansions Ordinance, explained . . . As the City's new residential design standards go into effect on Oct. 1, city staff is planning a series of public meetings to educate the public about the new Residential Design and Compatibility Standards. Meetings are planned for Sept.18 at 2pm at City Hall in Council Chambers and at 6:30pm in the Third Floor Conference Room at One Texas Center, 505 Barton Springs Rd. The 2pm open house will be geared towards those in the development community while the 6:30pm open house may be more general. For more information about these new residential standards, please visit www.ci.austin.tx.us/zoning/sf_regs.htm. . . . Commuter Rail briefing . . . Austin City Council Member and Capital Metro Board Member Brewster McCracken, Leander Mayor and Capital Metro Board Member John Cowman and Capital Metro's John Hodges will report updates on Capital MetroRail and Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) to members of the Real Estate Council of Austin at its monthly membership luncheon at the Four Seasons Hotel on Thursday. They will discuss the Capital MetroRail from Leander to downtown Austin, which is an initial phase of commuter and passenger rail transportation scheduled to include intermunicipal rail connections along the IH 35 corridor from Georgetown to San Antonio. The meeting is a noon at the Four Seasons Hotel . . . Meetings . . . The Planning Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Saltillo District Redevelopment Project Community Advisory Group meets at 11:30am at the Capital Metro Administrative Annex at 624 Pleasant Valley Rd. . . . The Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Commission, meets at 6pm in Room 105 at Waller Creek Plaza . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in Commission Chambers at 314 w. 11th St. . . . The Williamson County Commissioners Court meets at 9:30am in the County Annex on Inner Loop Drive in Georgetown . . . The Hays County Commissioners Court meets at 9am at the Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos . . . MBE/WBE rules hearing . . . The Minority and Women Business Enterprise Advisory Committee will accept the last round of public comments about proposed changes in contracting rules with the City of Austin at a hearing today. The hearing will be the last of three sponsored by the City's Department of Small and Minority Business Resources in response to Council direction as it rewrites the rules and regulations to assist in the implementation, administration and enforcement of the City's Procurement Program. The public hearing will begin at 6pm at City Hall . . . ACC to dedicate new South Campus . . . The Austin Community College District will host a dedication and open house at 10am Friday to announce the opening of its newest campus. The new South Austin Campus, located at 1820 Stassney Lane on the northeast corner of Manchaca and Stassney, will serve a growing need for access to higher education in that area. "More than 25 percent of the college's total credit headcount comes from South Austin," said Dr. Stephen B. Kinslow, president/CEO of the ACC District. "This additional instructional space will assist us in meeting the higher education needs of this growing South Austin community." Construction of the new South Austin Campus began in March of 2005. The 86,000 square foot campus provides students with three stories of instructional space and classrooms featuring state-of-the-art media teaching stations. The new campus offers more than 200 credit courses, in addition to Adult Education and Continuing Education classes. Enrollment for the opening semester is expected to reach between 2,500 and 3,000 students.

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