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Budget Town Hall meeting draws crowds and opinions

Thursday, June 11, 2009 by Laurel Wamsley

The City of Austin held the first of three town hall meetings to discuss a variety of possible budget cuts yesterday evening at the Northwest Recreation Center. Approximately 200 community members turned out to the meeting to offer city officials their opinions on what the budget priorities should be.

From folding chairs organized around rows of tables in a gymnasium, community members watched City Budget Officer Ed Van Eenoo present PowerPoint slides explaining the $30 million gap in the city’s 2010 projected budget. Van Eenoo used a pie chart to demonstrate that the general fund has four major sources of revenue–property taxes, sales tax, energy and water utilities, and assorted fees–and that all of these sources have declined. Residential development has “pretty much ground to a halt,” said Van Eenoo. “Fewer homes being built means fewer sofas being bought.”

After the gap was explained, city employees from various departments worked as facilitators to lead community members at each table through an exercise in which they had 40 minutes to decide which budget cuts to approve, and which to reject. Once that exercise was complete, audience members could direct their comments and questions to the managers and the rest of the group.

A number of members of the audience said that public safety was their top priority. “I would rather close seven swimming pools than have less of a police presence in my neighborhood,” said one man.

A summer youth employment program proposed for elimination by the Health and Human Services Department drew a number of defenders to the meeting. One woman stood and announced that she was at the meeting to “absolutely reject” the proposed cuts to the program. “It’s not just employment,” she said. “It’s education. It’s how to act on the job.”

The handouts for the small group exercise said that the summer youth program could likely qualify for federal stimulus funds and be preserved. That seemed to make cutting the program a fairly easy choice for some in the crowd, while others affiliated with the program said that the stimulus money could run out or have requirements that might exclude many of the program’s current participants.

Some members of the audience questioned why the options available for cuts did not include reductions in city employees’ salaries. Ott’s salary of $242,000 a year, in particular, came under fire, as did previous major Council-approved expenditures.

Most of those speaking aloud thanked the City Manager’s office for the chance to express their opinions, but some wanted the opportunity to weigh in on other parts of the budget. “I think it’s very annoying that we have to decide between city services when the City Council decided last year to give $64 million to the Domain,” said one woman during the feedback session. “I think this is a frustrating exercise.”

Linda Secord is an attorney in Austin who said that she was particularly concerned about cuts to the city’s libraries and parks. “I heard what I always hear, that they’re starting with cuts to libraries and parks,” said Secord. “There are people out of work going to the library every morning to look for jobs, and they’re talking about reducing the hours. Young people need a place to go. (Supreme Court nominee) Sonia Sotomayor went to an open library when she was growing up, and it didn’t close an hour early.”

Secord was also concerned with Ott’s salary. “He makes over $200,000 a year, and they want to cut the book budget by $160,000. I can’t help but think we’d be a better-off city with a bigger book budget and a city manager who’s paid less.”

City Communications Director Doug Matthews, who organized the town hall in coordination with the city’s Organizational Development Office, was very pleased with the event. “I think it went great,” he told In Fact Daily. “When you design a program like this, there’s a certain anticipation because you don’t know how it’s going to be embraced.” The format was designed to generate a conversation, he said, “and it’s only it’s successful when that happens.”

Ott gave the closing remarks, explaining that his delayed arrival at the town hall was due was traveling back from Fort Worth on personal business. 

“This is the part of the process of making it transparent, taking the mystery out,” said Ott. “Kind of gives you the opportunity to view the budget from my perspective.”

Two more budget town hall meetings are scheduled for next week. Monday’s meeting is at 6:30 p.m. at Gus Garcia Recreation Center, 1201 E. Rundberg Lane. On Tuesday, the meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. at the Tony Burger Recreation Center, 3200 Jones Road.

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