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Austin Council debates budget cuts

Thursday, February 12, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Members of the Austin City Council weighed in on City Manager Marc Ott’s proposed $20 million in budget cuts during a special budget workshop meeting Wednesday. Ott also used the opportunity to warn that while the current cuts were significant, the city could face more economic hardship over the next year.


The city council members indicated they wanted to evaluate and prioritize the cuts. Council Member Laura Morrison wanted to make sure that the city looked after its neediest. “In some of our departments, demand is increasing with the economic downturn,” said Morrison. “For instance, in Health and Human Services there’s increased demand because of more people in need. We shouldn’t do across-the-board cuts.”


Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken wondered why the city manager’s recommendations did not include cuts for the Fire Department, and said all departments should contribute. “Looking at the Library Department, the Police Department, the Health Department, they’re all offering sacrifices in the shared burden,” McCracken said. “We need to see the Fire Department proposing cuts so that they’re sharing in the burden.”


McCracken also extended that to the city’s other public safety departments, which make up a majority of the budget. He noted that the biggest costs within Fire, Police, and EMS were related to personnel, and said the Council should look at ways to trim those costs.


“In the current budget, 92 percent of all new wage and benefit spending was new wage and benefits in public safety,” McCracken said.  “And there has got to be a principle in this time of sacrifice in the organization that all departments share equally in the sacrifice.”


He also noted that many city employees in non-civil service departments would be doing without a planned market-rate salary adjustment, and that “if we’re going to have to go to the police union, and perhaps the fire and EMS unions and say ‘we need to have everybody participate in a wage freeze’, then we’re going to need to begin negotiating some of that now.”  (The Austin Police Association and Austin-Travis County EMS Association both signed contracts with the city last year setting pay and benefits. Members of the Austin Firefighters Association rejected a contract recommended by the union’s negotiating team that would have provided a raise for firefighters, and are currently working without a contract.)


Not all Council Members were eager to reconsider the city’s existing agreements. “While I agree with the concept that, to the extent possible, the pain should be shared,” said Council Member Lee Leffingwell. “I do think what we have to do is not approach potential budget cuts with an across-the-board view. I think it’s very important to prioritize where these cuts come from so we are able to maintain the most essential city services.”


It’s a debate that’s likely to continue for a while. “We should fully expect to have those kinds of challenges in 2010,” Ott told the council. “The bottom line is that cities all across this country are experiencing financial challenges as a result of the recession.”

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