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City’s projected budget surplus grows to more than $12 million

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 by Michael Kanin

A City of Austin budget surplus projected at $8.6 million last week turned out to be more than $12 million by the time of the Council budget work session Tuesday afternoon.


Council members met in a special called meeting to talk about what they might do with the projected FY2013 budget surplus. Though no decisions were made, the session focused on two clear pressing needs: The lack of city funding for affordable housing and the significant delays in residential construction plan reviews.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell called on city staff to prioritize $12.3 million dollars in needs. That by no means, he said, should commit the city to spend down its entire new found surplus.


Even if Council members wanted to spend all of the $12.1 million surplus – and more than $2 million in extra projected sales tax revenue – multiple city policies would make that very difficult. Still, it appears likely – at least if Leffingwell has his way – that Council members will approve some spending.


The surplus comes from a combined number of sources. These include a general fund excess of $8.6 million (see In Fact Daily, January 24, 2013), and $4 million in other fund surpluses. Staff’s estimates for sales tax revenue have also increased, leaving Council members an extra $2.2 million to consider.


The fund surpluses could be used for any one-time expenses. The sales tax increases can be carried forward.


Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo laid out options for Council members. Needs included additional planning review staff, affordable housing, wildfire fuel mitigation, and cemetery operations and maintenance.


Discussion quickly cemented around planning and development review staff and affordable housing.


Council members who are left to explain why their constituents’ projects have been delayed by up to 12 weeks met Planning and Development Review Department Director Greg Guernsey with a chorus of frustration.


“Frankly, six months is too long to clear this backlog,” Leffingwell offered at Guernsey’s suggestion that it might take that long to fix the problem. “We can’t wait another six months with people waiting, eight, 10 weeks for people to get their remodel permits, their residential housing permits – whether it’s McMansion or not.”


Leffingwell urged Guernsey to let him and his colleagues know what sort of help he needs. “If the Council needs to take some action to change existing rules, let us know what you need.”


For his part, Guernsey said his office was taking immediate interim steps to address the backlog. He said that, beginning today, uncomplicated interior remodels sealed by architects would receive permits “immediately with the acknowledgement that some of the review will be done out in the field by an inspector.”


Additions and other remodels could receive similar treatment.


Council Member Chris Riley pressed Guernsey to tell Council members when his office might clear their delays. Guernsey was reluctant to give an answer.


Council Member Mike Martinez joined in. “I don’t know how to explain to our constituents what it’s going to do, how it’s going to help when we can’t say six months, 10 months, eight months,” he said.


The widely discussed failure of November’s Proposition 15 left affordable housing advocates and city officials alike scrambling to figure out how to fill a $73 million, six-year funding gap. On Tuesday, Van Eenoo Council not to be tempted by Certificates of Obligation, short-term financial instruments akin to bonds but lacking voter authorization.


Council members could still use some portion of the budget surplus, however. Some of that funding could go toward what was originally estimated as a $4.5 million contribution to a federal low-income tax credit program. That program would use those local dollars to bring back matching US funds for construction of one or two affordable housing projects in the city. Qualification for the federal program is dependent on a score that takes local funding into account.


Council will be back on Feb. 12 for more discussion. Though Council Member Kathie Tovo worried that the date wouldn’t provide for enough time, they could be scheduled to make decisions on that date.

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