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Economic worries, budget dominate 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009 by Mark Richardson

This is the first of two of a series looking back at the major stories that affected Austin during 2009. The last year of the first decade of the 2000s was a turbulent year for politics and the economy at the City of Austin, changing the political landscape and adding an unusual element of drama to the city’s budget process. Other stories, such as the environment, transportation, and staffing at City Hall, made it on our radar, too. The stories will run in today’s and tomorrow’s editions. 


For many people in the City of Austin the economy was—and continues to be—the only truly important story in 2009.


Falling sales tax revenues due to the national recession carved a massive hole in the 2010 City Budget. But while most large cities, counties and states are struggling, cutting services and laying off workers, Austin’s story came out a little differently. So, for In Fact Daily the top story of 2009 turns out to be the work of city management to cut $45 million out of the budget over a two-year period without employee layoffs.


City Manager Marc Ott warned at the beginning of the budget process that the 2010 budget would require “cuts to the bone.” But in the end, no city employees lost their jobs, and almost all major city programs survived the process intact.


And though for Lee Leffingwell, any story from the last year was bound to take a back seat to his being elected mayor, the new mayor says that for the city the real story of the year was the passing of the budget back in September.


“I think it’s amazing to come through this two-year cycle,” Leffingwell told In Fact Daily, “basically scrubbing the budget. And to maintain our core services and not lay anybody off is an accomplishment that the entire Council and the city manager and his staff can all be proud of.”


The mayor is quick to give credit to several city employee unions, including the Austin Police Association and the paramedics, who agreed to amend their guaranteed pay raises to account for the budgetary restrictions. “Every time I talk about this,” he said, “I mention that passing the budget would not have been possible without the cooperation, the willingness on the part of our unions to step up and agree to amend their contracts to help us out in the situation.”


Ott agreed: “Since I’ve been here, we’ve gone through several rounds of budget reduction strategies. Notwithstanding the challenges, we did a good job of maintaining the level of services with no layoffs. That was a really big issue. I think that going forward that will likely be a challenge for us to manage our way through the continuing impact of the economy and at least sustain our continuing level of service delivery.”


“What that suggests for what we may or may not be able to do is still an open-ended question,” Ott said. “However, my hope is that the economics will have improved enough that we can be responsible to some sort of adjustment for employees who havent received any kind of adjustment over a period of time.”


Council Member Sheryl Cole agreed that the new budget was the story of the year but for slightly different reasons. For her, the passing of the budget represented a new understanding between Council, city staff, and Austin citizens.


During the budget meetings, Cole said, “I was surprised at the net statements of the citizens, which was that police, fire, parks, and other public services meant more to them than the potential for raises of their property taxes. Because that’s often a dichotomy that people don’t want to face. They want everything and they don’t want to pay for it. And I think the City Manager did a good job of saying, ‘We can’t do both’. And the public did a good job for the first time in understanding that point and answering that services matter more than lower taxes.”


Cole also believes the budget process gave Council a chance to prove to citizens that they could be trusted during a time of recession. “I really believe that short of a catastrophe,” Cole said, “more eyes are on us when we pass that budget than at any other time of the year. And because of the issues that have happened in other cities, and because citizens had heard about the budget shortfall, it was not just about passing the budget; they needed to see us stand together and in confidence say, ‘We’re not California. We’ll balance the budget and we’ll do our jobs.’”


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez said the most important story for him was the way city employees responded to the loss of city revenues:


“There’s no way we could have been able to deal with the downturn in the economy without our city workforce. They truly stepped up to the plate and balanced the shortfall on their backs…you could argue that it was the civilian employees more than public safety ….step raises for public safety are in state statute…if their step raise falls in this calendar year (they get it) . . . but they did forego their contractual raise; but also our civilian employees did without a raise in pay or an increase in equipment. There were so many areas cut that I feel it is really important to acknowledge our civilian workforce.


“If we have to do this a third year in a row and not give any pay raises, it’s going to get very difficult on our workforce,” he said, adding that Austin is poised to come out of the economic downturn sooner than most other regions of the country.


New faces on City Council


The powers that be on the Austin City Council changed significantly in 2009, as two new faces joined a group that had already seen a significant change the year before. Gone was two-term Mayor and veteran Council Member Will Wynn, and longtime Council member Brewster McCracken. Former Place 1 Council Member Lee Leffingwell now occupies the Mayor’s office, and Mike Martinez is the Mayor Pro Tem. New faces included former Council member Bill Spelman and local attorney Chris Riley — elected in May of this year — who joined members Laura Morrison and Randi Shade, both elected in May 2008.


With the loss of Wynn and McCracken and the addition of Riley and Spelman, the Council moved just a little to the left – or what passes for that in a basically liberal city.


Riley, who sits on the board of Capital Metro and is a strong supporter of mass transit, brought up Capital Metros problems in starting up service on the Red Line train. 


Riley said, “You could frame it as Cap Metros failure to start the rail system or you could frame it as Cap Metro’s premature announcement of a starting date.” he said. “If from the outset they had said we have to do the safety checks, if they had been more cautious about announcing the starting date, I don’t know what the story would be. That was a big part of the problem.


“Here at Council, one big story has been the Grayco PUD, but I’m not sure that rises to the level of a top story, because for most people, it’s not that important a part of their lives,” he said.  After a prolonged struggle over what to do with more than $3 million the developers pledged to give the city in return for the density they requested on the Lady Bird Lake site, the Council voted 5-2 last week, to change the zoning. Leffingwell and Morrison voted no.


As a bicycle rider with no car, Riley is especially aware of any strides the city makes in bicycle transit. He alone noted that, “We made more progress in bike lanes in the past year than in any other year.”


Spelman told In Fact Daily that only two stories from the year could even be up for consideration as the biggest: “One, that we figured out how to cut $30 million off the city budget without laying anybody off,” he said, “and two, that we decided to build Water Treatment Plant 4, which I still think is a bad idea. But it’s a big thing. None of the other stories from last year rise to that level.”


When pressed, Spelman admitted that the city’s decision to pursue the Neighborhood Matching Fund represented a change in priorities and, hopefully, a change in how citizen groups get things done. 


“Public Works has $10 million a year they spend on neighborhood-level capital improvements” Spelman said. “They’ve got their priority list and the Neighborhood Matching Fund is giving neighborhoods and nonprofit organizations a chance to effect that priority list by kicking in some money, some services, some spare parts, or, most likely, some people power.


“From a strategic standpoint, I can think of two reasons why it’s valuable: First, it’s the first time the public will have an immediate effect on capital improvement priorities. That kind of direct level of effect is a big deal. The second is it gives neighborhood associations something else to think about. Right now, we have a situation where neighborhood associations in the city are only in the position of saying ‘no’. The only weapon they have is getting the troops together and going to City Council meetings and saying, ‘Don’t do this.’ That’s their only source of authority. Neighborhood Matching Fund gives them something to say ‘yes’ to. “


Morrison, with the first year of experience under her belt, found several issues rising to the top of her list of major events. She noted the importance of the protracted discussion over WTP 4, not only for the decision to build the plant itself, but also for the conversations it spawned over planning for water needs and conservation in the future.


Also for Morrison it is important that the city has embarked on the comprehensive planning process. “Just the fact that we are moving forward with it,” she said, gives her hope for Austin’s future.


Another development that gives Morrison a positive outlook is work to eliminate euthanasia of healthy pets who don’t find families through adoption. “We are truly making strides toward becoming a no-kill city. It’s an issue that is very important to a lot of people,” she said. Although the idea was discussed in previous years, she said, 2009 was the year the city became serious about making no-kill a reality.


Another story important to some Austinites but probably invisible to most, she said, was the protracted battle, joining of forces and arrival at a compromise for allowing live music venues to operate while protecting neighbors from unreasonable noise levels.


Another member starting her sophomore year is Shade, who counted Water Treatment Plant 4, the Pecan Street Project and where that is going; and the management team City Manager Ott has assembled as major stories. Of Ott’s new team, she said: “This is the year they all really got to work together. It sort of feels like they are catching their stride, the positions that have been filled. I think that things are beginning to fall into place.”


“With Pecan Street, I think clearly this is going to be important on a lot of levels. From an economic development standpoint – as a city that owns its own public utility – we need to get ahead of the curve in the way the business model is going to change,” she said. “For Austin to have Pecan Street involved, we are fortunate that every citizen of Austin is a shareholder in our utility.


“The other story that we are seeing – there are so many stories with respect to the budget and the Parks Department – is that we have new leadership and it is making a difference,” she said, adding that there are a lot of things the city does that people aren’t aware of. “I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve had so many discussions about the parks. When we do the customer satisfaction surveys, you can see that besides the utilities, the parks are the most used. Most Austinites have some experience with parks. Not everybody’s going to call 911 or use the library system, but with parks it’s always in the 90 percent range, like turning on your water or your light switch. Parks are the (one city facility) that almost everybody will use.”


Tomorrow: The drought, Capital Metro, police-involved shootings, and other stories.

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