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Council stays late to hear citizens complain about budget

Friday, August 26, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

The city’s commitment to public safety services, long the untouched sacred cow in budget negotiations, came under direct attack at last night’s budget hearing.


In good years, few have questioned the kind of dollars spent on police, fire and EMS services. But with budget proposals that suggest boosting water fees, cutting solar incentives and privatizing or shuttering two recreation centers, speakers at last night’s budget hearing were emboldened to question directly the city’s budget priorities.


Rudy Williams, no stranger to past Council budget hearings, said it might be time, given the direction and concern of those in attendance last night, to start thinking about the community services citizens wanted rather than beefing up the city’s police force.


“Maybe we ought to think about spending $40,000 on keeping Dottie Jordan (Recreation Center) open rather than hiring another officer,” Williams told Council. He added that he would like for Council to take another look at its agreement with police. “If it’s not serving the community, then maybe we need to go back to civil service rules.”


The city’s police force was not the central focus on the hearings on maximum tax rate, new water fees and the city budget – higher water fees got the most criticism – but Williams’ comments were well received by the small audience. Brian Rodgers underlined the point by offering a chart that showed that Austin appeared, proportionally, to have twice as many employees making over $100,000 when compared to other major metropolitan cities in the state.


Both the Dottie Jordan and Austin recreation centers had contingents on hand to support their respective centers. Joan Bartz, who led the group of about 10 Dottie Jordan supporters holding signs, spoke for 15 minutes on the University Hills-area recreation center, noting its importance in the neighborhood plan and the legal conveyance to the city that expressly forbade its use as anything other than a recreation center.


“It’s regarded as a safety valve for the community, for our youngsters,” Bartz said. “We work very hard for them not to end up on the street, and we’re not willing to spend $40,000 to do that? They say they’ll go to Virginia Brown (Rec Center)… They’re not going anywhere, unless you’re willing to provide free transportation.”


Any improvements to the center, once owned by the neighborhood, have come from grants and homeowner efforts, Bartz said. If the center was underutilized it was because the Parks and Recreation Department had failed to support it, Bartz said. She added that city staff had told her they wanted to “repurpose” the building for city offices.


In other comments about recreation center, activist Susan Moffat said the idea of privatization of recreation facilities needed the full vetting with various boards and stakeholders. Water and Wastewater Commissioner Sarah Faust, speaking for herself, expressed similar sentiments about bringing the conservation side and water rate discussion into the same room with stakeholders, instead of being handled separately.


While many speakers were unhappy, most were respectful. The only sharp exchange came between Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Bill Bunch of Save Our Springs Alliance. Bunch called the city’s water utility a rogue agency, hiding contracts and changing numbers. People needed to be fired, Bunch said, leading Leffingwell to warn him he was “getting close to the edge.”


Even long-time activist Mary Arnold seemed frustrated by what she considered a lack of transparency in this year’s budget documents. Arnold rejected city claims that the water rate increase would, in no way, pay for Water Treatment Plant 4.


“I call that a crock,” Arnold told Council.


Additional hearings on the budget are scheduled for Sept. 1.

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