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Council approves 2010-11 budget despite concerns over WTP4, tax rate

Tuesday, September 14, 2010 by John Davidson

The Austin City Council unanimously passed its $2.8 billion dollar 2010-2011 budget, including the water rate hikes to help fund Water Treatment Plant 4, at a special budget session Monday morning.


The city will close an estimated $11 million to $28 million revenue shortfall by eliminating or repurposing 21.75 vacant positions and reducing other costs by $8.7 million.


But before the vote, Council members got an earful from city residents opposed to the rate hikes. A crowd of protestors organized by a coalition of groups including the Save Our Springs Alliance gathered outside City Hall before the special session.


Once inside, SOS’s Bill Bunch denounced the rate hike, singling out City Manager Marc Ott for merely sloganeering about Austin being the best-managed city in the country. “We need a better managed city,” he said. “If we did, people would support the rate increase.”


In what he admitted was a “purely symbolic move,” Council Member Bill Spelman proposed an amendment—saying that it would “neither be received as friendly, nor will it likely pass”—to reduce the rate increase from 6.7 percent to 5.9 percent, which would account for the part of the rate hike attributable to construction of WTP4. The amendment failed on a 4-3 vote, with Spelman, Laura Morrison and Chris Riley voting in favor.


Water utility officials, on the other hand, have said that reducing the water rates would only result in elimination or reduction of popular programs such as water conservation and acquiring water quality lands, not stopping the plant.


“In this year’s budget the water plant’s effect is relatively small,” Spelman said after the budget session. “The big issue is what do we do about fiscal year 2012, 13, 14, 15, and 16—all of which have Water Treatment Plant 4 increases built into them and, if we backed away from that plant right now, put it on hiatus, picked up construction when we really need it—which will be years from now—we could save taxpayers a whole bunch of money over the next six years.”


Spelman added that if the city halted construction on WTP4 and resumed construction in five or six years, the cost would not be significantly greater. Exactly how much greater it would be, however, is unclear. AWU Director Greg Meszaros told In Fact Daily “it would really be difficult to calculate” the cost of putting off construction of the plant for five years. “It could swing wildly,” he said, “But I would feel comfortable saying it would be more expensive.”


A less contentious budget issue is a proposed 1.9 percent increase of the property tax rate (the maximum proposed rate is 46.93 cents), which will not be finally done until the Council’s Sept. 29 meeting. Mayor Lee Leffingwell remarked: “We tried to stay as low as we could on the tax rate and we’re going to come in with a number on Sept. 28th that is well below the roll-back rate (of 8 percent).”


“I’m proud of what we’ve done. We’ve adopted a budget that doesn’t lay off any employees – in fact, gives our existing employees a raise – increases our public safety presence and addresses all city core functions maintained at their current levels,” he said.


Allocations for the Holly Good Neighbor program, as they have in the past, stirred up controversy. In particular, funding the planned Si Se Puede Learning Center at the Cristo Rey Catholic Church caught Gavino Fernandez’s eye and he denounced the move as an improper alliance of church and state. More to the point, according to Fernandez, is that the $125,000 allocation falls far short of the $716,000 in requests the city received.


Council Member Randi Shade assured Fernandez that the allocation to Si Se Puede was legitimate, and that the group qualified as a faith-based organization eligible for public funding.


Other budget highlights include:

  • An additional 48 police officers, 30 paramedics and 10 firefighters
  • $500,000 increase in library materials budget
  • Increase of fees for demolition/relocation of homes 40 years or older, or homes in a historic district, from $25 to $140
  • Cutting the “Trail of Lights” program and funneling about $374,000 of those funds back into Parks and Recreation for maintenance
  • Increase Public Works budget by $295,000 to fund sidewalk improvements

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