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Mike Kanin is the Publisher of the Austin Monitor. As such, he doesn't report on much--aside from the workings of the Monitor--any more. In his previous life as a freelance journalist, Kanin has written for the Washington City Paper, the Washington Post's Express, the Boston Herald, Boston's Weekly Dig, the Austin Chronicle, and the Texas Observer.
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Council kicks off budget process grappling with affordability issues
With their first swipe at the city’s prospective fiscal year 2014 budget, Austin City Council members took aim Thursday at local affordability issues, the Austin Police Department’s force strength, and the city’s apparent inability to offer 3 percent raises to staff for at least four fiscal cycles.
Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo and
Their discussion kicks off the city’s formal budget process – a civic occasion that always comes with the potential of a property tax increase. According to city figures, the rollback rate – the maximum allowable without a tax election – for the owner of a $200,000 home would result in a 2014 tax bill of $1,031.40. For a $300,000 homeowner, that figure would rise to $1,574.10; $2,062.80 for a $400,000 home and $2,578.50 for a $500,000 place.
Those figures all represent the city’s portion of a property tax bill. Travis County or Williamson County, AISD and the health care district also assess taxes on homeowners.
As In Fact Daily reported yesterday, the expenditure side of this year’s budget is a fuzzier picture than it has been in the recent past. That is because of ongoing contract negotiations between the City of
Council Members quickly picked up on that point. Council Member Laura Morrison wondered when city management might be able to clear the picture. Deputy City Manager Michael McDonald responded that negotiations between the city and the unions were going well.
“Certainly our goal is to try and get those contracts completed around the time – (or) shortly thereafter – the City Manager presents his budget so you will have that information going in to August,” McDonald said before hedging back a bit. “Again, that doesn’t necessarily mean that can occur but that’s certainly our goal.”
Hockenyos’ report amounts to an annual contextualization of the city’s fiscal policies. This year, he pointed to massive growth in multi-family housing – a total of 7,584 units permitted in 2012. This point registered with most Council members.
Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole put her thoughts bluntly. “I have some concerns about whether that is a reflection of a lack of affordable housing within the city,” she said.
Hockenyos replied in the affirmative. “Yeah, inevitably, it’s a portion of it,” he said, before reminding Cole that, “affordability is a complex calculation.”
Council Member Mike
Spelman’s pitch for a change from
“I’ll…point out that, regardless of the merits of the 2.0 per thousand metric, I don’t think that the proper metric is 2.0 per thousand plus something extra for trails that are open for 24 hours,” he said.
Riley’s statement was a reference to double counting. Spelman explained it to In Fact Daily. “We got a couple of trails which we want 24-hour staffing for, San Diego’s got other needs, Tucson’s got other special needs – that all ought to be embedded in…whatever metric you use.”
Spelman carefully noted that his repeated calls for a comprehensive and detailed presentation by APD of its operations and needs would not result in a less safe city. Rather, he suggested, such a business-style argument would make the department more efficient and could free up additional city resources.
City Manager Marc Ott and McDonald continued to defend the city’s approach. “Two per thousand has been in place for a while, and when you look at some of the stats – the metrics – Austin seems to, comparatively speaking, do pretty well,” said Ott.
Look for the discussion to continue throughout the budget process.
Council members also homed in on a graph presented by Van Eenoo that shows their inability to offer three percent across the board raises for city staff. “I think the assumption is pretty clear – we shouldn’t be negotiating at three percent,” said
Changes in this year’s budget process allow for Council members – and the general public – to view departmental budget presentations on-demand via the internet. Those post on April 25.
Council members are set for a detailed, department-level budget discussion on May 2. The process will conclude mid-September with a vote on both the budget and the city’s property tax rate.
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