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Candidates Leffingwell, McCracken debate budget cuts

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Mayoral candidates Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken laid out two different strategies for cutting the city’s budget during a debate Monday sponsored by the Central Texas Democratic Forum. McCracken reiterated that the city’s public safety unions should voluntarily forego raises negotiated in their contracts, an idea he originally voiced during a Council budget workshop earlier this month. Leffingwell countered that the city should first turn elsewhere for cuts before asking the police officers and EMS employees to sacrifice their guaranteed raises.


McCracken cited figures showing that the bulk of the city’s general fund budget is for salary and benefits for personnel. To cut the budget, he said, the city must address salaries. “The way we handled this in the budgets after 9/11 is we froze new hires, then we froze salaries, then only in year three did we get into layoffs,” McCracken said. “We have a big challenge in the current budget…92 percent of all new wage and benefit spending is for our public safety departments. There’s got to be a fundamental principle that you have to share sacrifice equally across all departments.”


Leffingwell disagreed that it was time to discuss contracts. “Nobody in city government at this point, except my good friend Brewster, has talked about wage freezes at this point. We are not there yet,” Leffingwell said. “I agree that it would be unfair to ask non-contract employees to give up their pay raise while not the others. But if you have a contract, that requires a voluntary entry into a negotiation. You’re going to need to be highly motivated to enter into that negotiation to amend that contract.”


Leffingwell said that the Council and City Manager could build credibility with the unions by first making some cutbacks of their own. “First, we cut the pay of every senior city official from department head on up by ten percent, and I would include City Council Members and the Mayor in that. We take the cut first,” he said. “Second, we go to those companies that we have economic development incentive programs with and say ‘we’re in tough times, we want to renegotiate your contract, too’. When we have done those two things, then we have credibility when we go to the police, fire and EMS unions.”


On other budget issues, the two current Council Members were in agreement. When asked if they would support a delay in work on a new citywide comprehensive plan, both said they would. “I will support postponing the designation of a consultant to conduct that comprehensive plan and first convene a citizens’ group,” said Leffingwell. “What we have now, because of the rush to get this process started, I think it’s upside down.” Selection of the consultant had been scheduled for this Thursday.


McCracken agreed that the public had not been adequately represented. “We need to have the public’s input in the selection process, too,” he said.


Council Member Randi Shade, who attended the forum, also told In Fact Daily that there is a consensus on the Council to put off selection of the consultant in order to get more public input.


The other major mayoral candidate, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, did not attend the forum, which was noted by moderator Chuck Herring. “We had talked to her campaign four or five times and understood that she was coming,” he said. “But then, Friday afternoon, her campaign called and said she had not been able to clear her schedule.”  A representative of the Strayhorn campaign told In Fact Daily Friday that the candidate had never committed to attending the event, and described the situation as a “misunderstanding.”


Herring, a former chair of the Travis County Democratic Party, drew laughter from the audience when he said, “Clearly her campaign is disorganized, discourteous and/or fearful of an open Democratic forum…”

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