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Strayhorn, opponents spar over budget, lobby contracts

Wednesday, February 25, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Mayoral candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn identified two areas within the city’s budget she would cut on Tuesday, saying the money saved from those cuts could be used to avoid cuts in library hours. Strayhorn said the city should cancel its lobbying contracts at the state level and that the Mayor and Council Members should lay off members of their staff and take a pay cut.


“I believe that true leaders lead by example, and as Mayor, if there are cuts to be made, I will start at the top,” she said during a news conference outside the Faulk Central Library. “I am always going to look at cutting the bureaucracy and duplication first. You can knock ten percent off those Council salaries and ten percent off the Mayor’s salary, and you still have the highest-paid Council in the state of Texas, and the highest paid Mayor in the state of Texas with the exception of the Mayor of Houston.”


Strayhorn also said the Mayor’s office and Council offices were over-staffed. “In a Council-Manager form of government, why does the Mayor need five assistants and council members need three assistants . . . when you’ve got the entire city staff working at the direction of the mayor and the council,” she said. When asked directly if she would eliminate those positions if elected Mayor, her response was “absolutely….I would never have five. I don’t understand why you couldn’t get very well along as a Mayor with two and a Council Member with one.”


When Strayhorn was last elected Mayor in 1981, the city had approximately 345,000 residents. Projections for the 2010 census show the city’s population next year will likely be 748,000, meaning the number of constituents for each member of the Council has more than doubled since then.


She also predicted that the city would be unable to balance its budget without trimming the workforce in other departments. “If you think that layoff’s aren’t around the corner, don’t believe that,” Strayhorn said. “Nobody’s going to talk layoffs until after May 9th or in June, after the runoff.”


The idea that the city was facing imminent layoffs was disputed by Council Members Brewster McCracken and Lee Leffingwell, who are both running for Mayor. “Right now, based on a forecast decline of 6 percent in sales tax, if all of the Manager’s recommendations would be adopted, we would have a balanced budget,” Leffingwell said.


McCracken was more blunt. “That’s typical Carole. Instead of fabricating statements about the budget, I wish that she would be focused on family budgets and our economy, because that’s the really important issue in this election,” he said.


Strayhorn’s directed her harshest criticism at the city’s lobbying team. “As Mayor, I am going to stop wasting taxpayer money on an army of high-paid lobbyists and legislative monitors approved by the current City Council,” she said. “The city has ten high-paid lobbying firms under contract right here in our own back yard.” The Mayor and Council should represent the city’s interests at the state Capitol, Strayhorn said, not lobbyists.


“If we paid just what Houston paid for their lobbyists at the capitol, we would have enough money to restore all the cuts in the library hours and also the positions that were frozen for youth librarians,” she said. “Houston pays $500,000, Dallas is paying $200,000. The Austin City Council approved $830,000 for lobbyists in our own back yard.”


The City of Austin does have 10 lobbyists and/or law firms at the state level for a total contract obligation of $830,000. That figure is down $180,000 from the previous legislative session. When they approved the contracts, the Council specifically said they wanted to beef up Austin’s presence at the federal level, so they cut $180,000 from their state funding in order to add to the list of Congressional lobbyists. The city has said although that amount has been budgeted, the contract with one firm is actually less than that amount.


According to the Texas Ethics Commission, Dallas is paying eight lobbyists and/or lobby firms and Houston has employed seven individuals and/or firms as outside agents at the Legislature. But they are far from alone.


The Ethics Commission website shows the following cities have lobbyists also with the number of individuals or firms is parentheses: San Antonio (8), Fort Worth (7), Del Rio (6), Amarillo (6), Lubbock (5), Arlington (4), Corpus Christi (3), Laredo (3), Texarkana (3), College Station (2), Temple (1), Port Arthur (1) McAllen (1). Even Sugar Land has three registered lobbyists at one of Austin’s premiere Republican firms, HillCo Partners. It is difficult to tell from the filings exactly how much each is paid.


CPS Energy, which has roughly the same relationship with the City of San Antonio as Austin Energy has with the City of Austin, also has two separately paid lobbyists. Roland Leal and Marc Rodriguez are each paid between $50,000 and $99,999.99 to take care of San Antonio’s energy interests in the state capitol, according to the ethics commission. Add that to the reported figure San Antonio pays its lobbyists, $636,000, and the number could be higher than what Austin is paying.


As for the suggestion that the Mayor and Council take over lobbying duties, Leffingwell said he did not have time nor did he feel qualified to lobby the state legislature. But he did not disagree with the idea that the city should reduce its lobby force here in Austin. “We’ve been working to try to pare that down at the state level and increase our lobbying presence at the national level over the past couple of years,” he noted.


Both Leffingwell and McCracken have said publicly they would support maintaining current library hours. “We have to operate with a balanced budget, so that means we have to find other places to cut,” McCracken said. “I’ve laid out where I think we need to look…let’s have a shared sacrifice among all city employees when it comes to wages. At a minimum, we need to ask the Fire Department to come up with the same percentage of cuts that every other department has had to come up with, about 3.5-4 percent. We’re going to see a new presentation on Thursday and hopefully the Fire Chief will have had time to propose the same levels of cuts that every other department has had to make.”

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