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Budget proposals for 2010 ‘cut to the bone,’ says manager

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 by Laurel Wamsley

It’s not an appetizing menu—take your choice of $45 million in city budget cuts. As City Manager Mark Ott said Monday, the 2010 budget will require “cuts to the bone”, after previous budgets “cut the fat and the muscle.” Nonetheless, said Ott, “what’s important to know is that they are not cuts yet. Nothing is a fait accompli.”

It’s all up to the City Council to decide what stays and what goes and also to decide how much to raise taxes along with fees ranging from parking fines to ambulance rides.

 

It may also be important for the community to realize that each cut could have consequences beyond the current year.

 

City Budget Manager Ed Van Eenoo presented a full menu of $45 million in potential budget cuts Monday available to use in closing the projected $30 million gap (at the rollback tax rate) in the city’s proposed 2010 budget. Van Eenoo and Ott emphasized that the menu is a starting point for public discussion of budget cuts.

 

Foremost are proposed cuts in the city’s largest outlay – public safety. The department with the largest proposal is APD, which identified ways to reduce expenses by $8.7 million. However, within that menu is postponing APD’s next cadet class until 2010. While that would save over $5 million this year, it would also require the department to fill vacancies in patrol with officers from other areas and leave APD facing a manpower shortage as officers retire or quit.

 

The department estimates it would take anywhere between three and six years to regain normal staffing levels after delaying this fall’s cadet class. Mayor-elect Lee Leffingwell said that is a problem he wants to avoid.

 

“I absolutely think we have to have the cadet class, beginning in October,” he said. “If we don’t do that, we’re going to drop down in our staffing level. And it’s certainly a commitment that I have to maintaining the current level of public safety services. So I won’t be supporting that. But I do think that there are other opportunities within APD to achieve further savings.”

 

Council Members Sheryl Cole and Laura Morrison agreed. Morrison said, “I would certainly be interested in looking at options to avoid having to defer the cadet class. I think it’s very really going to get us into trouble in the long run.” Cole said she was concerned about an uptick in certain kinds of crimes.

 

Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald added that the city has never fully recovered from budget cuts in 2002 and 2004, which means that the proposed cuts for 2010 may be felt by Austin residents for years.


The public safety departments were asked to come up with methods of reducing their budgets by 3.5 percent for 2010. The rest of the city’s departments were asked to find 7 percent reductions in their own budgets. Every department met or surpassed their mandated proposed reductions; the fire department came up with $220,000 in savings beyond their goal, while some other departments met their target to the dollar, according to Van Eenoo.

Cole said she doesn’t see a lot of wiggle room in the proposals. “It is significant that the budget options have not significantly changed,” she said. “That is, if we go to the rollback rate, which is a 1.08 percent increase, then we’ll have a $30 million deficit. Staff has given us options of cuts totaling approximately $45 million.”

 

She said the question is: To what extent should the city raise the property tax rate or cut services? “We’re early, early on in that process in getting citizen feedback and we definitely need to hear it. Council will not be presented with the budget until July 22, and will not set a tax rate until September. So there is plenty of time to contemplate what will or will not be cut and what tax rate we’ll ultimately set.”

 

Leffingwell said Monday that he plans a lot of studying, but he already has some ideas on what might have to go.

 

“We just got it (the proposed cuts) at 3pm,” he said.  “One thing that I’ve already asked for is a listing of all the “frill items.” As an example, he cited the Trail of Lights and First Night, and “other things that are nice to have, cultural events. Nobody would be talking about canceling these but finding other ways to pay for them or defer them. And I have a feeling that we’re going to be talking about several million dollars worth and that exercise has not been done.”

 

In April, the City Manager’s Office forecasted a $30 million to $43 million budget gap. The gap is a structural deficit, not simply a product of the troubled economy, so the proposed changes would be permanent, not temporary fixes for the 2010 budget. 


Suggested budget cuts from the Fire Department include the replacement of at least one “big truck” intended for battling fires that uses four firefighters with a “small truck” which uses two firefighters and responds to medical calls but can’t fight fires. McDonald said that between 70 and 80 percent of the calls that the Fire Department responds to are medical, and the smaller trucks have cheaper upkeep, are cost-efficient, and are more maneuverable than the larger trucks.

 

Another large line-item in the list of proposals is to cut funding by $700,000 for call-takers that handle non-emergency police calls, effectively eliminating 23 temporary positions. The department’s documentation states that such a move would delay the response time for those calls and could also have an impact on 911 services. The department predicts an increase in 911 calls as non-emergency callers become frustrated with a lack of response, and notes that “the increased emergency call volume will increase response times for APD, EMS and Fire.  An increase in citizen complaints is expected.”


Police and EMS contracts dictate raises of 2.75 percent, which amounts to $4.7 million in the 2010 budget. No raises are scheduled for other city employees in 2010, though there may be raises scheduled for the following years.

Other departments outside of public safety are also offering up cuts. After avoiding further reductions in library operating hours earlier this year, the department has submitted a proposal to save nearly $700,000 by scaling back hours at both the Faulk Central Library downtown and branch libraries around the city. The Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department is proposing to eliminate two vacant positions and transfer two other positions to the Austin Transportation Department. The Watershed Protection and Development Review Department has identified 13 vacant positions that could be eliminated.

 

WPDR is also recommending increases in several fees, which the Department says would more accurately reflect the cost of providing those services. Those include the Construction Inspection Fee, the Commercial Building Plan Review fee, and fees for conducting a Traffic Impact Analysis.


A previous point of controversy for Ott’s budget has been reduced hours at the city’s public libraries. That resistance may sharpen if the city approves the Library Department’s suggested cuts: reducing branch hours system-wide by an hour at the beginning and end of each day, as well as cutting the system’s book budget by $160,000.

While no departments are proposing layoffs at this point, the City Manager may adopt a strategy used by some large private-sector employers in the past to lower personnel costs: furloughs. Ordering employees to take time off, without pay, could save the city up to $1.1 million dollars, according to budget writers. Police officers, firefighters, and EMS personnel would not be included in the furlough program. Furloughs are also being considered by local governments across the country in cities such as Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and Chicago

 

Depending on the property tax rate, the 2010 budget shortfall will be between $30 million and $43 million. The $30 million figure is projected if the city continues at its rollback tax rate (8 percent above the effective rate), as it has for the last three years.

Both Ott and Van Eenoo praised the transparency and forthrightness of their budget process, especially compared to previous years. “Everyone is in a position to see, with some detail, the context in which we craft the budget for 2010,” said Ott. “I challenge you to think of when that’s been the case.”

The City Manager’s office will host three town hall meetings over the next two weeks, where community members can watch a presentation of the most likely controversial aspects of the budget cuts, as well as offer feedback through small group sessions. The first meeting is Wednesday night at the Northwest Recreation Center.

Ott said he hoped the openness of the budget process would help the City Council, which is slated to deliberate on the budget in August and approve it in September. “It seems to me the policymakers are in the best possible positions to make their decisions,” he said.

 

All of the potential budget cut listed on Ott’s “menu” are available at www.ci.austin.tx.us/budget.

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