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Council appropriates more than $14 million in new expenditures

Wednesday, February 13, 2013 by Michael Kanin

After an extended and sometimes contentious debate, City Council members approved more than $14.3 million in fresh FY2013 budget appropriations Tuesday by a 6-1 vote. Mayor Lee Leffingwell provided the only dissent.


In all, 10 programs will benefit from the new funds. That includes $350,000 for an amended program to keep three hike and bike trails open 24 hours a day; $1.08 million for an Austin Fire Department wildfire fuel mitigation program; and nearly $370,000 to hire more personnel for the city’s planning review department and forensics lab.


But the largest portion by far – $10 million on the nose – will go toward affordable housing. Though that figure won’t make up for the six years worth of funding lost at the November ballot box, it will provide the city with opportunities over the next year.


Affordable housing backers were able to collect their $10 million before Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole was able to get her colleagues to sign-off on a $4 million reserve that would have been used to offset property taxes in fiscal year 2014.


The surplus appeared at the end of January. It resulted from substantial budget savings, including that of $8.6 million from the city’s general fund. All told, Council members entered Tuesday’s work session with a potential $12.1 million extra that could be spent on one-time costs. They took their final vote shortly before 3pm, having begun the work session at 9am.


The $12.1 million was coupled with about $2.2 million in additional sales tax collections, a number that could be put toward such ongoing expenses as additional employees.


On Monday, it appeared as though two clear polar factions existed: One marked by Leffingwell and Cole looked to conserve as much of the extra funds as possible. The other was represented by Morrison and to some degree, Tovo. They wanted to spend – especially on affordable housing. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 11, 2013.) That split persisted.


Council members quickly – and unanimously — Okayed a set of mandatory budget increases for cemetery maintenance and costs associated with the city’s new civil service system and the 10-1 districting committee. Then things bogged down.


Cole tried to bring up her idea for property tax relief early. She pitched a $4 million reserve that she said “would be reserved for a half cent reduction on our property taxes.”


Some degree of procedural confusion intervened and the issue was dropped. After Council members cycled through unanimous votes to include funding for extra forensics lab and planning review staff, the issue of affordable housing surfaced.


Tovo immediately suggested that Council members approve the full $10.8 million requested by the city’s affordable housing staff. “I would argue that all of these (affordable housing) programs are really important and critical, and they’re very much part of a mission that, as a Council, we adopted,” she said.


Leffingwell and Cole pushed for a lower, $4.51 million figure that would cover only the city’s portion of a state program that would match those dollars to Federal funds. So paired, the $4.51 million could pay for two affordable housing efforts.


Though there is no guarantee that either of the two efforts will be funded, all of the simple promise of local funds allows the projects to score higher on the state’s matrix. Council members were thus urged to appropriate a figure equal to the highest two local match dollar amounts.


Council Member Bill Spelman was prepared to go higher than that – if not as high as Tovo and Morrison suggested. He pressed the director of the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development office, Betsy Spencer from several different angles. She wouldn’t budge.


Later, Tovo agreed to subtract $800,000 from the $10.8 million figure. And that’s as low as it got. Council members approved the $10 million for affordable housing appropriation on a 4-3 vote. Spelman, Cole, and Leffingwell dissented.


Just before the tally, Leffingwell signaled how he would vote for the rest of the afternoon. “I understand the desire to spend all of the money that we have now, and hope for the best and get the tax relief in the budget for next year,” he said. “But I really think there has to be some kind of padding in there to take care of things we know may be on the horizon…I believe that it is a good idea to go in to this next budget session with some extra money to be able to take care of contingencies.”


Indeed, Leffingwell voted against nearly all of the remaining appropriations. That included money for wildland fire mitigation – a ‘no’ that he registered with “great regret.”


Toward the end of more than four hours of deliberations, Cole finally returned to the idea of property tax mitigation. But by then, it was too late to make a substantial impact. “I am highly disappointed that we have spent $14 million and not have reserved any sums of money for property tax relief or any other contingencies,” she said.


On a unanimous vote, Council members then reserved just under $500,000 for contingencies in FY2014.


When it came time to vote on the whole package Leffingwell again registered the sole no vote. “All of these are good projects that deserve attention and perhaps even deserve funding,” he said. “But I believe that we need at this point in time to preserve the maximum amount of money that we can to address problems in the next fiscal year.


He continued. “A lot of these items are going to have impact on our next budget,” Leffingwell said. “This is my official prediction: This is going to be a year when we’re going to be struggling to find funds…for all the basic services that we have to do every year that we need to do every year.”

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