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Public safety agencies face tough city budget talk

Monday, April 21, 2008 by Austin Monitor

As he prepares for the first work session with the Council on the city’s budget, City Manager Marc Ott says police, firefighters and EMS unions should take note of the current economic climate.

 

“I want everyone to know and I want all the public safety departments to know that we are in a posture of fiscal constraint. At the negotiating table, everyone needs to be mindful of that,” Ott said.

 

The Austin Police Association has started negotiations with city management on a new contract. Firefighters and EMS unions will soon begin similar processes, with all three groups timed to complete negotiations by the time the 2009 budget is approved in September.

 

All three groups indicated during a January press conference endorsing City Council candidates that they wanted Council Members who would go to bat for them in increasing their ranks.

 

However, Ott said, “When I talk about being conservative, I’m talking about even in the negotiating process. I expect them to be – with respect to their wants – mindful of the city’s current financial circumstances.”

 

According to Leslie Browder, the city’s chief financial officer, sales tax revenue is up 3.8 percent for the fiscal year, which began in October. However, the city wrote its budget based on projections of about 7.5 percent annual sales tax growth. “If we end the year with annual growth that approximates our collections so far, this would mean a shortfall in sales tax revenue of about $5.8 million,” she wrote.

 

Ott has already asked General Fund department heads to trim costs to make up for the projected gap. “So while we’re not declaring a crisis at this point we’re taking the current set of circumstances concerning our revenues seriously. And in an effort to stay ahead of what were seeing, we’re taking steps now to simply constrain ourselves from a financial management standpoint,” Ott said.

 

The manager said he has asked Jon Hockenyos of Texas Perspectives, Inc., who has served as the city’s economic advisor in the past, to give the Council an economic forecast for Austin at Wednesday’s work session.

 

Ott said he believes his approach to reaching a budget will be “fundamentally different from what I understand it was the past. I intend to have Council involvement in the process much earlier than previously.” He said that way neither the Council nor the public will be surprised when management makes its recommendations. “Obviously, this is all done in an open public setting. It’s a work session and they’re televised,” he said of three planned budget work sessions.

 

Last year, City Manager Toby Futrell presented her proposed budget to the Council on July 26. Between that date and the September approval, the Council and staff wrangled behind the scenes over what to add. Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley, the Council’s acknowledged budget expert. is retiring this spring—just in time to miss the budget process under a new manager. Last year, like many years, she played a pivotal role in making the Council happy.  

 

At the time, Dunkerley said the approximately $2.56 billion budget was about $970,000 more than originally anticipated.

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