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With Leffingwell dissenting, Austin City Council adopts $3.1 billion budget

Wednesday, September 12, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

After discussions that consumed the better part of two days for the first time in most people’s recollection, Austin City Council on Tuesday adopted a $3.1 billion budget for the fiscal year 2013.


The budget adopted by Council on a 6-1 vote includes, among other things, a 3 percent pay raise for city workers and the hiring of 22 new police officers and six paramedics.


Council members approved a budget that was $6 million more than the amount recommended by staff, including funds for at-risk youth, solar rebates and wildfire mitigation. Mayor Lee Leffingwell cast the lone vote against the budget and against most of his colleagues’ amendments.


He also voted against the property tax rate, which would increase to 50.29 cents per $100 of property valuation from 48.11 cents the prior year.


Tuesday was the second day of the budget hearings for Council, which in most recent years had passed the city’s annual budget in less than three hours. The fiscal 2012 budget approved by Council last year was $2.8 billion.


On Monday, Leffingwell surprised his colleagues with a suggestion for a 2 percent across-the-board cut of the proposed General Fund budget after months of budget talks. He revisited this idea in his explanation for voting against the budget on Tuesday.


“We do have to pass the budget for the city, but my intention is to vote ‘no’ as a symbol and an acknowledgment, hopefully, that we could have done better. I’m not going to let this be a unanimous vote,” said Leffingwell.


Leffingwell said that at the time he made the suggestion Monday he looked forward to seeing what other suggestions to cut expenditures would emerge. “So far I haven’t seen any,” he said.


Council Member Mike Martinez did not let the speech slide.


“I can’t let it go without saying that if your offer was meaningful, you should have taken up the offer from many of us on this Council to continue the conversation to get to the budget proposal that you proposed in making those $4 million in cuts,” said Martinez.


“I don’t appreciate the portrayal that the rest of us on this body just out and out rejected your proposal,” said Martinez. “Still, at this point, I’m willing to extend this conversation if you’d like to do that,” noting that Council was not required to approve the budget until the end of September.


Leffingwell told Martinez that he could make a substitute motion to extend the budget discussions. When Martinez deferred the honor to Leffingwell, the mayor declined.


Council Member Bill Spelman then pointed out the extreme difficulty Council would have in making substantial changes to the budget, presented to them in two hefty bound volumes. Spelman suggested that the current procedure of hearing about unmet needs and getting a budget forecast in April has made budgeting a much better process than it was when he served on Council in the late 1990s. He said Council could get more involved in the process earlier next year if they chose to do so. He did not point out that it would have been impossible this year given the Council’s lengthy and intense study of new rates for Austin Energy.


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole also had a response for the Mayor. She said, “I have heard you give speeches ever since I have been on this dais about us having a great city. And it has become an even greater city on your watch, with many initiatives that you have championed — some that we’ve brought to conclusion, some that we haven’t… and we have broad constituencies that have come behind us as a Council and you have supported those. And those constituencies recognize that those things making us a great city — as you say, if there is a list, we’re Number 1 on it — cost money. We simply can’t have it both ways, providing these services, these fees, these major initiatives and at the same time cut taxes. It’s always a careful balancing act.”


The largest expenditure Council added was the $3.5 million to pay for rebates to customers installing solar panels as part of Austin Energy’s Solar Program. Its inclusion was approved unanimously.


The morning hours of the meeting were spent refining additions to the budget from Monday. In the end, these expenditures put the reserve percentage at exactly 12 percent, which is the mark City Council has traditionally stayed below. In total, $806,742 in the additional expenditures came from the budget stabilization reserve, and about $5.1 million came from operating funds.


The only expenditure from the budget stabilization reserve fund that Leffingwell voted for was the highly publicized wildfire mitigation effort at a cost of $248,356. This will fund the hiring of three employees and create a Wildfire Mitigation Division within the Austin Fire Department.


“I am going to vote for this one, because it’s a public safety emergency associated with the critical need for mitigation of wildfires,” said Leffingwell. “This meets the criteria.”


Leffingwell proposed to shift $1 million in funds for public education related to eliminating use of plastic bags to programs for street cleaning, code compliance and graffiti abatement. His motion failed in a vote of 3-4, with Leffingwell, Martinez and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole voting to cut the funds.


The more than 2-cents-per-$100-property-value tax increase passed by Council means the estimated tax bill for a $178,347 median-priced home would be $897 per year. That’s an increase of about $1.67 per month.


Rates for customers of Austin Energy and the Austin Water Utility will also increase starting Oct. 1. The average Austin Energy residential customer, who uses 1,000 kilowatts of electricity a month, will see an increase of $6.53 per month. Typical Austin Water Utility retail customers will pay an additional $6.77 per month. 


Additionally, those who operate short-term rentals will now be subject to an annual $235 fee, which will be used to offset neighbor notification costs and the salaries of new staff to deal with short-term rental regulation.

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