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Council members question changes to Austin’s Sustainability Fund

Tuesday, August 21, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo used the Austin City Council’s meeting on the proposed fiscal year 2013 budget Monday to express concerns about the city’s Sustainability Fund – and whether a decrease in contributions to the reserve fund might represent an unapproved policy shift.


Morrison and Tovo’s questions came as part of a more wide-ranging discussion about the budgets for the city’s Parks and Recreation, Library and Planning and Development Review departments. Council members also tackled parking and staffing at the Emma Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, parks fees and the impact of mid-year staffing additions to the Planning and Development Review department.


The city’s Sustainability Fund was created in FY2000 to provide financial support for “inspections, site plan review and subdivision review, water quality, recycling, lake and stream quality, traffic and road maintenance, and air quality,” according to a staff response to a budget question from Morrison. Staff further noted that Council later approved adding workforce development, childcare and affordable housing.  


The Sustainability Fund has drawn its financing from Austin Resource Recovery (formerly Solid Waste Services), the Watershed Protection Drainage Utility, the Austin Water Utility and the city’s Transportation Fund. Each of those units have historically contributed roughly 1 percent of their annual budgeted revenue to the reserve fund. The city’s General Fund also contributed what staff calls “significant funding” from FY2000 until FY2007.


But the city’s budget plan for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 zeros-out contributions to the Sustainability Fund from Drainage Utility and the Transportation fund. All told, the budget estimates FY2013’s version of the Sustainability Fund at just more than $5.1 million – the second-lowest amount in the more than 10-year history of the fund. It is also roughly $200,000 short of its requirements.


“The bottom line is, we have the enterprise funds specifically designating some of their monies – a small portion of their monies – to support these priorities, which I assume were Council priorities associated with what goes in to the Sustainability Fund,” said Morrison. “Now, with this shift away from that, we need to realize that … General Fund dollars have to go farther.”


“We no longer have this designated fund to address sustainability issues,” Morrison continued. “For me, that’s a grave concern.”


Responding to Morrison, City Manager Marc Ott told her that the reduction reflected Council concerns over saddling the city’s enterprise funds – the accounts generated by city-owned utilities such as the Water Utility and Austin Energy – with city expenses that might otherwise be better funded by Austin’s General Fund.


“That doesn’t diminish the significance of having the larger, over-arching policy discussion,” Ott added. 


As part of their lengthy discussion about an upcoming rate increase for Austin Energy, Council members broached the question of whether Austin Energy should fund the bulk of the city’s Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office, as it currently does. In the end, while there was some discussion of moving the cost burden from the utility, funding for the office remains in the FY2013’s proposed Austin Energy budget – a shade more than 98 percent of the Economic Growth office’s funding.


In response to Ott, Morrison did not recall a policy shift for the Sustainability Fund. “I didn’t realize that we were talking about – and maybe, I’m forgetting – all enterprise transfers,” she added.


Tovo agreed. “I don’t remember as part of our Austin Energy work sessions adopting a policy related to changing the focus of the Sustainability Fund,” she said.


Tovo also wondered if the proposed change in FY2013 funding would also steer the Sustainability Fund away from furthering the missions added in FY2010, namely workforce development, childcare and affordable housing.


“I absolutely agree with Council Member Morrison,” she said. “That’s a policy discussion that we need to have, and it’s not one I believe we had during the Austin Energy rate case.”

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