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City’s proposed 2013 budget includes funds for 157 new hires

Wednesday, August 1, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Just three years removed from the low point of the biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression, the City of Austin’s budget is doing well and getting better.

Chief Financial Officer Elaine Hart and Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed van Eenoo laid out its proposed budget for the City Council at a work session this morning, revealing a 2013 budget that projects a total budget of $3.1 billion, an amount that will allow city departments to hire more than 150 full-time employees while laying off none.

More than half of that $3.1 billion total is within the budgets of Austin Energy and the Austin Water Utility.

With a 2.2-cent increase in the city’s property tax rate, the city’s budget should be “structurally sound” in the upcoming fiscal year, according to van Eenoo. That 2.2-cent-per-$100-of-taxable-value increase will translate to about $1.67 in additional city property tax each month – to $74.73 from $73.07 – for the owner of a median-priced home of  $178,000.

Of course, increased property taxes will mean increased property tax revenue; the Budget Office is projecting an increase of more than $33.9 million from FY2012. Sales tax revenue should also increase, up about $5.5 million from this year. All told, property and sales tax revenue will account for nearly 65 percent of next year’s projected $742.5 million General Fund, an increase of $43.2 from the previous year.

With a bigger General Fund, the city will be able to loosen its purse strings and begin hiring again. The Budget Office expects the city will add about 157 full-time employees across the city’s departments.

Under the proposed budget, several departments will receive funding for 10 or more full-time employees. The Austin Water Utility budget includes 26 new employees, including 13 to aid with the operation and maintenance of Water Treatment Plant 4. In addition, $238.9 million will go toward the construction of that facility.

Code Compliance will get money for 19 new employees, including two to implement a brand-new administrative hearing process designed to forestall litigation, and Public Works will have enough for 11, including four for a new street-tree maintenance and planting crew.  To go with that extra staffing, the department will have $20.3 million for bike and pedestrian improvements and $8.9 for the construction of the Lady Bird Lake boardwalk.

Just over $1 million will go toward the hiring of 22 new police officers to maintain the city-mandated two officers-per-1,000 citizens.

According to van Eenoo, there is also funding for two new case managers at the Downtown Austin Community Court (amounting to $140,000) and to convert one half-time veterinarian at the Austin Animal Center to full-time. (The proposed budget also includes $162,000 to operate the old Town Lake Animal Center as an overflow facility for the overcrowded main animal center.)

All this budget news will come at a price, of course. In addition to the property tax increase, Austinites will be on the hook for several rate and fee hikes during FY13.

The most controversial: the Austin Energy rate hike, the first such increase in the utility’s base rate since 1994. Council on June 7 approved the increase, which will come out to about $6.53 per month for the typical Austin ratepayer when it goes into effect in October. To keep rates comparatively low, Austin Energy is looking at several cost-containment approaches, including deferring all non-critical equipment maintenance and hiring no new full-time employees for the fourth year in a row.

Austin Water Utility is proposing a rate increase as well of about $6.77 a month. Add to that the increase in the property tax rate, a 7 percent increase to the Transportation User fee (equaling about 51 cents per household), and several other rate and fee increases, and the average Austin homeowner can expect to pay the city about $18.08 more every month than last year, an increase of 6.4 percent.

Of course, all of these numbers represent city management’s proposal. Through the next six weeks, Council will have numerous meetings, including two public hearings, with many opportunities to put their stamp on the budget.

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