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City residents chime in on budget cuts

Wednesday, June 16, 2010 by Michael Kanin

No solid theme has emerged as Austin residents consider which fat to trim from their city’s 2011 budget. Still, responses continue to arrive at the city-sponsored web survey that asks for popular opinion on the matter.


Given an opportunity to have some input in how the City of Austin closes a multi-million dollar budget gap, Austinites are taking a hard look at subsidies handed out by the Parks and Recreation Department (PARD). According to an online survey posted by the city, that division owns three of the top 10 programs that the general public would like to see cut.


The first-ranked community suggestion for program elimination is currently the free co-sponsorships of community special events (at a would-be savings of $404,350). A suspension of the Trail of Lights Festival (for $374,044) sat at number three on the Internet cut list as of this writing.


That list also included officially sanctioned options to “discontinue the LBJ fire academy” ($118,080), reduce the overtime paid out to sworn police officers by $1.2 million, and “eliminate payment to jurors who report for service but do not serve on a jury,” a $40,000 savings. Citizen-penned suggestions to “eliminate funding for F1 race,” and “eliminate 20% top heavy city administration” — a proposal to drop the salaries of all city employees who make $100,000 or more down 20 percent — were also in the top 10.


All of those possible cuts had received more than 550 votes at press time. Each respondent is afforded 25 votes to distribute among their selections.


On Tuesday night, City Manager Marc Ott, Communications Director Doug Matthews, and Budget Officer Ed Van Eenoo hosted an in-person forum for further public discussion about the budget. There, Austinites were given a chance to take part in a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down vote on what their collective budget axe priorities were.


Parks and Recreation took another hit here, with a majority of those present voting to cut three of four proposed programs. Other echoes of the online survey were an apparent desire from attendees to cut sworn police overtime and kill the LBJ fire academy.


Before voting took place, attendees were invited to peruse a collection of exhibits from the departments that were on the public chopping block. Amid the various pen-and-plastic-cup freebees offered here, interested parties could also find information that addressed the role and, in some cases, the value of each department. Given the context, it all felt like a plea.


Assistant Fire Chief George Blackmore said his department was indeed there to “justify some of our budget policy suggestions, decisions, what have you.”


“In this economy,” he continued, “the struggle is to satisfy service demands of citizens by also living within the budget policy parameters of city management. And that’s become increasingly tough … So, our recommendations and our suggestions and our ideas are basically up for citizen scrutiny, and that’s what we’re here for.”


PARD Director Sara Hensley acknowledged the hit some of her programs had taken. “If you look at the online voting, a lot of people are voting to eliminate subsidies to these groups that are using the parks and getting reduced fees or paying no fees,” she said.


“I think there’s a good side and a bad side to that and that has to be weighed,” she continued. “Those smaller nonprofit groups that could really get hurt by it, but then (there are) the larger ones, I think, that are using the parks to make money.”

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