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Departments look for cuts as budget is developed

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 by Austin Monitor

City Council members got an update last week on how some General Fund departments are cutting costs to save money during the current budget cycle. Staffers also presented the Council with information about some of the biggest costs facing those departments next year and a status report on how the city’s sales tax collections are faring during the economic downturn.


“The original budget reflected a 7.6 percent growth factor, and we now have about six months of actual collections under our belt, and we’re seeing cumulative growth of about 2.1 percent,” said Leslie Browder, the city’s Chief Financial Officer.


“So we have revised our growth estimate to 2 percent. That’s about $8.6 million below where we anticipated being,” Browder said. “We have been working with department directors to generate savings that would help us offset that shortfall. We are projecting total savings on the spending side of about $8.9 million.”


Departments could achieve those savings, Browder said, through a combination of factors including holding open vacant positions, cutting back on overtime, reducing spending on office supplies, and reducing travel expenses.


In the Library Department, director Brenda Branch is looking at implementing some of the cost-cutting strategies the city turned to in the last economic slowdown, although on a smaller level. Those include scaling back the purchase of new books and potentially changing the hours or days of operation for some branches. However, she told the Council that the department had never fully recovered from previous budget cuts. The department has proposed a phased-in restoration of $485,000 that was cut by adding back $136,000 over three years.


“Without the restoration of these line items, the library begins every budget year under-budgeted,” she said. “The increased demand on our custodial, security, and maintenance areas has severely taxed the employees in these areas, and they have resulted in regular complaints from the staff and the public that the library facilities are dirty, unsafe, unsanitary, and unacceptable. On our regular Listening to the Workforce Survey, only 46 percent of the Austin Public Library staff said that they feel safe. It is critical that we bring staffing in these areas to an adequate level.”


The staff’s opinion of the safety of the library facilities caught the attention of City Manager Marc Ott. “I don’t think we can over-state how important it is, and what our responsibility is in terms of responding to that issue. Our employees should not have to work in unsafe conditions,” he said. “None of our employees, none of the 12,000, should have to work under those conditions. I think that’s absolutely important.”


In the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, Director Victoria Li told the Council she was also implementing strategies to cut costs, including restricting overtime, limiting travel for department employees, and holding open seven vacant positions. A slowdown in building permit applications is affecting the department’s revenue, obtained through permit fees, but the overall workload is not going down. “Due to the nature of the development process, we are still performing work on projects that began in previous fiscal years,” Li said. “In commercial building inspection, we are seeing an increase so far.”


Li also cautioned the Council that the department would need resources to deal with a number of issues. “Some of the challenges the One-Stop Shop is facing include the complexity of the rules and regulations, inadequate existing infrastructure, and the ongoing AMANDA implementation,” she said.


One challenge is keeping the staff up-to-date on the city’s ever-evolving development regulations. “The adopted regulations such as commercial design standards, mixed-use, transit-oriented development, the ‘McMansion rules’, combined with neighborhood plans…have introduced a new set of intricate review standards with multiple regulatory overlays. All these standards have generated a need for more training, both for our customers and for our staff and contribute to an increased review time,” Li said.


Li had two suggestions for increasing the department’s revenues. One was a study of the city’s fee schedule, since most of the city’s fees were last adjusted approximately a decade ago. The city is allowed to raise those fees based on the cost of providing the service, and Li suggested that the cost of doing business had gone up. The other was a study of the possible creation of an enterprise fund for the One-Stop Shop, “so that the One-Stop Shop would be self-supporting and be more responsive and flexible to meet our customer’s needs.”


Council Member Mike Martinez had questions about setting up a revenue stream for the department. “In the development community, I don’t think that they would mind raising the fees a little bit, but I guarantee that they’re going to ask you to raise the services commensurate with the fee schedule,” he said. “What I’m hearing from the development community right now is that they’re having some very difficult experiences at the One-Stop Shop.”


Council Member Lee Leffingwell also said he would not necessarily be opposed to a fee increase. “What I would like to see is that the fees be a more accurate reflection of the amount of work that it takes to process a particular application,” he said. “The fees may be too high for a small project and too low for a large project.”


Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley suggested an overall review of the city’s code.


“We find that there are conflicts between some of them, and they may not be direct conflicts…they may be conflicts of interpretation,” said Acting Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards.


“Some of them are direct conflicts. We would like to look at all of the different, new ordinances we have brought in the last several years, which have been fairly extensive, and begin to sort those out in terms of what fits and what doesn’t fit…and bring those back to you for consideration,” Edwards said.

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