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City Council set to approve 2009 budget today

Monday, September 8, 2008 by Mark Richardson

In past years, the City Council and budget planners have spent the final few days huddled in small groups to allocate extra dollars for favored departments and programs for the coming year. But that has not been the case this year, as the tiny budget surplus—just more than $302,000—means there is little left to negotiate.


Council members and city management, polled over the weekend, say they plan to change little in the proposed $2.8 billion budget for 2009, but may make some minor adjustments in the health and human services area.


Three Council budget sessions are scheduled for today, Tuesday and Wednesday, though it seems likely they will complete their work this morning.


City Manager Marc Ott said this year’s budget reflects a declining economy. The budget is based on a 40.28-cent property tax rate per $100 assessed valuation, slightly lower than the current rate of 40.34 cents. However, because of rising property taxes, most taxpayers will see a net increase in their tax bills.


The proposed $621 million General Fund, which pays for most of the city’s services, came in about 4.6 percent higher than last year.


Two major areas are likely to get attention from Council members today: road repairs and Health and Human Services programs.


Back in June, Mayor Will Wynn predicted that road repairs would be a major topic this budget year. The Public Works Department says in order to keep the city’s roads in good condition, it needs to repair a minimum of 10 percent of the system each year. However, since the dot com slowdown in the early 2000s, the city has only repaired between 8 and 9 percent, falling behind schedule.


Rich Bailey, Wynn’s Policy Director, said Friday that the Mayor would be supporting fully funding road maintenance at a 10 percent level, adding that the longer a bad road is not fixed, the more expensive it is to repair.


Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken both said they were pleased that the budget will include additional funding for road maintenance. Increasing the monthly transportation user fee will generate an extra $4.8 million. Leffingwell noted that the idea had been under discussion by members of the Council even prior to the proposal from Ott.


“I had made the suggestion that we increase our commitment for preventative maintenance from 8 percent of the lane miles to 9.5 percent,” said Leffingwell, “and we’re actually going to be able to go to 10 percent, which is optimum.”


Council Member Sheryl Cole echoed their comments. “We need to keep up maintaining our roads at the 10 percent level, or we will continue to fall farther behind,” she said.


Cole also hopes to add funds to city’s Health and Human Services programs, which she says are underfunded.  “I want to try and give them a boost across the board,” she said. “We need to fund our healthcare and other programs as much as we can, even in a tight budget year.”


Council Member Randi Shade agreed, saying her major priority is in the Health and Human Services arena. “There is an overall increase in the Health and Human Services of about 3.5 percent,” she said “That is not as much as I wish it could be, but if I see any way to increase anything that is where I would want it to go. All of our providers are experiencing higher need than usual.”


Leffingwell wants to include funding for a new combined facility for Family Eldercare, the Austin Children’s Shelter, and the People’s Clinic in northeast Austin.


“In last year’s budget cycle, the City had planned some funds to help with that construction project. We were going to do half of our pledge last year and half this year,” he said. “So I expect to be offering an amendment to fulfill that pledge from last year to complete our obligation to Family Eldercare to enable them to build their new facility. Some of it will be in the form of fee waivers and some of it will be in direct payment.” Travis County, he said, has already pledged money for the project.


There are a couple of items on Council member’s “wish lists” that might not make it into the budget. Council Member Laura Morrison campaigned on adding neighborhood ombudsmen to the city staff, but funding for more than two positions may be hard to come by. She had originally wanted a staff of four.


“It may be very difficult to be successful having two people do a job that was conceived as a four-person job,” she said. “So, I would hope we could increase the number of funded positions to three, and hold the fourth position vacant, as opposed to eliminating it, which is what was proposed by staff.”


She said last year, there were four full-time positions funded and zero were filled.


“Obviously when were looking at a difficult financial picture we all want to minimize the disruption to the city; and going from four to zero or four to two, both are significant impacts,” Morrison said


According to Ott, he has already addressed the ombudsman issue.


“The budget in its earlier state only had one ombudsman in it and then (Neighborhood Planning Director) Greg Guernsey had that town meeting with the neighborhoods,” Ott said, adding that he was unaware that previous City Manager Toby Futrell had discussed the matter with neighborhood leaders. “I didn’t know that the former manager had the meeting with the Neighborhood Council, so in spite of the budget constraints I added the second ombudsman. I’m still committed to carrying out the promise that was made… but it (four ombudsmen) won’t happen in this budget.”


Council Member Mike Martinez hinted last week that he might seek to have some or all of $950,000 – mostly from cutting a planned training class and holding off on some new hires –in proposed savings to the Emergency Medical Services budget restored. At Thursday’s Public Safety Task Force meeting, Martinez expressed concern that EMS plans to maintain its emergency response time at its 2008 levels while projecting a 5 percent increase in 911 calls in 2009.


“There’s no way that will not result in an increase in response times,” he said. “We need to look and see if we can put some of the manpower cuts back in the budget.”


However, Ott was not optimistic that would be possible.


 “I don’t think so,” he said, “I hope they (Council) don’t open up the budget in that way. I think the budget recommendation we’ve provided is sound, it’s well thought out and it’s a recommendation that’s being offered to them.  I just feel from all perspectives we’ve done everything we could to make this a sound and responsible recommendation.”


Mayor Pro Tem McCracken said he is satisfied with this year’s budget, especially considering the current state of the economy. “The main thing is this is a ‘hold the line budget’, because we’re in a tough economic year.”  He is also pleased that two of the three public safety union groups have reached tentative agreements on new contracts, which will not put additional strain on the city’s budget. “Eighty-nine percent of all the new spending in this budget is for public safety, and that is why I think it is a big deal that our police and EMS unions both have agreed to hold the line on spending, because we are getting out of structural balance,” he said.


Ott said negotiations continue between city management and the firefighters union. He said, “It’s tough . . . I continue to be optimistic but firm. I think that they (firefighters) just need to be realistic, especially about any wage requests they are making. I fully expect them to accept 2.5 percent,” the same as the other public safety employees.

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