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Council hears last-minute appeals for funding in FY2013 budget

Friday, August 31, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks continued to press his case for more funding for wildland fire prevention Thursday as part of the final public hearing on the City of Austin‘s FY2013 budget. 


Nicks was one of roughly two dozen speakers who came to Council chambers seeking to convince Council members to fund other projects ranging from the Central Austin Clean Air Force to minority contractor associations to creating a city office to spur technological innovation.


Nicks has spent the better portion of the past several weeks pitching Council offices and the media on what he sees as a need to comprehensively fund wildland fire prevention programs and a fire station on Loop 360 in West Austin. Nicks has been looking for roughly $2 million for the wildland fire prevention program and about $10 million for the fire station while city officials sort through both their FY2013 budget and a $385 million bond package that will go to city voters in November.


Thus far, Nicks has been shut out. On Thursday, he tried for at least partial funding for the wildland fire prevention program. Nicks showed a video of this year’s Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado. “Can you imagine the economic and social impacts if this was to happen in West Austin?” he asked Council members. “There’s no reason to think you couldn’t translate this same scenario in to Austin.”


If approved, Nicks’ proposed program would bring in staff, including an ecologist, a burn boss – the official who would be in charge of prescribed burns – and “two higher-level positions to work on regional issues, legislative issues,” Nicks said.


“I’m a little baffled that it’s not in yet,” Nicks said. “I’ve been asked, ‘how do we find the money?’ and I don’t know. If you guys have some assignments for me, I’d be happy to do (them), but the thing is, it’s so important it needs to be accomplished.”


Public Safety Commission Chair Michael Lauderdale has urged Council members to boost funds already in the city’s FY2013 budget for fuel mitigation from $5,300 to $500,000. He also suggested that Council members raise wildland fire mitigation operations funds from $3,000 to $46,000.


Council Member Laura Morrison summed up Nicks’ request. “Your point is we need a non-trivial amount of money to get it going, and for the half-year, putting some chunk of money as opposed to the $5,000 that’s in the (current) proposal – I think your point is that’s really important,” she offered.


Nicks agreed with Morrison’s assessment. He added that they could theoretically drop the $500,000 mentioned by Lauderdale to $250,000. “It’s like buying gold,” he said. “When you buy another ounce of gold, you’ve got that much more gold. When you put $1 million in fuel mitigation, you’ve got $1 million worth of measurable progress.


“It doesn’t have to be that number,” Nicks continued, “but it needs to be sizable enough where over a period of five or 10 years, we can measurably reduce the risk in a meaningful way.”


After the hearing, Council Member Chris Riley told In Fact Daily that he is among those who would like to see more funding for a wildland fire division, among other things.


“The first challenge is identifying potential funding sources,” he said. The city has no extra pots of gold lying around waiting to be tapped. So, funding for the fire department, as well as more money for early childhood development or additional staff in the forestry division of the parks department—things Riley would like to see—is going to mean putting off or eliminating funding for other things. 


Environmental Defense Fund Regional Director Jim Marston, who also serves with the Central Texas Clean Air Force, advocated for funding for the nonprofit group that works to reduce air pollution. The group has historically received $90,000 from the city, but it’s unclear whether that may be slashed in the upcoming budget. “Literally, at 9:45, I was having yet another conversation,” Marston said Thursday morning. “Staff has not yet decided what they’re going to come to you with. The leading proposal is to have a $10,000 membership to the Clean Air Force. The other $80,000 would be put some place else.”


City of Austin Budget Officer Ed Van Eenoo told Council members that he was unaware of any loss of funds for the Clean Air Force in the budget. “I am not aware of any cut to this program,” said Van Eenoo in response to a question from Morrison. “It may be that it’s not designated to this specific group at this time.”


Representatives for the Asian, Black, and Hispanic contractors associations also came to ask for more funds. Paul Saldaña  pointed to a resolution passed by the city’s MBE/WBE and Small Business Advisory Group that called for “an acknowledgement that there is a disparity in funding among the service providers that are administered by (the city’s Small and Minority Business Resources division and its Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office), and that there should be an increase in funding for the minority trade association contractors.”


All told, Saldana and his colleagues asked for a total of $388,000 on top of the $45,000 already distributed to the contractors associations. Those funds would be parceled out based on the funding levels that the city offers to minority chambers of commerce. That would mean $120,000 in total funding for the Asian contractors’ association, $180,000 for the black contractors’ association and $223,000 for the Hispanic contractors.


Chip Rosenthal and Julio Gonzalez Altamirano each took a few minutes to speak about a proposed innovation initiative that seems to be gaining some traction. The idea would establish an office that would be dedicated to fostering technological innovation in the city. If Rosenthal gets his way, it could also include something along the lines of a chief innovation officer.


“I think the success of an innovation effort depends on getting this key person in and get that outreach going,” Rosenthal suggested. 


Rosenthal noted that, with the December end of Austin’s partnership with Code for America, a nonprofit group that helps governments improve services by using the power of the Internet, he felt that it was important to “have a plan to transition, to pick up all the good work that they’ve done.”


Altamirano put the cost of an innovation initiative at about $220,000.


City Manager Marc Ott told Council members that he had tasked his Chief of Staff Ray Baray and the city’s Chief Communications Director Doug Matthews with working on the idea. An Aug. 14 memo from Ott also puts Assistant City Manager Robert Goode in on the effort. 


When asked by Mayor Lee Leffingwell if he thought that the initiative might be ready for the FY2013 budget, Ott said no. “We hadn’t gotten far enough along to really focus on the cost side of it … that’s why we didn’t incorporate it in to the proposed budget for 2013,” he said. “As we refine our efforts in conjunction with Julio and others, we would like to come back to Council with a recommendation on funding and how to go forward.”


Council members took no action at Thursday’s meeting. A final vote on the budget is set for Sept. 10, 11 and 12, although all three days may not be necessary.

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