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City finance officials find $1.5 million more to craft FY2014 budget

Thursday, August 29, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members are now working with $1.5 million more as they put together the city’s FY2014 budget. Austin Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo told members of the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee Wednesday that the extra cash was thanks to larger-than-expected property tax collections.


“Everybody doesn’t always pay their tax bill, so we budget at 98.5 percent – and we’ve done that for years,” Van Eenoo said. “This year our collection rate is coming in so strong we just felt the need to update the year-end estimate now.”


Van Eenoo added that he would return for a Sept. 3 Council budget work session with a recommendation about what to do with the funds. He noted that it would look a lot like a suggestion from Council Member Laura Morrison, under which staff would use the $1.5 million surplus to pay for existing one-time expenses – a move that would allow staff to shift dollars already allocated to those efforts to ongoing programs.


After the hearing, Morrison told In Fact Daily that she’d been working on her budget priorities. She indicated that she was thinking about the work done by a recently founded organization looking to put $4.5 million more in the Parks and Recreation Department’s budget, as well as a still-short youth librarians program.


Morrison also indicated that the extra funds – ultimately, the result of growth in tax collection – could be part of a larger budgetary inflation phenomenon. “What is it about our budget that we’ve just exploded?” she wondered. “There have been suggestions: Special events are not paying for themselves, we have too many vacancies, we have an explosion in management level. Getting at those is really hard, but I really think we should pull back on those, get ourselves below the nominal (tax) rate, and then be able to add back.”


She continued on to suggest that parks and what the community paramedics program could benefit from such an action.


For her part, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole also honed in on parks. “We’ve heard from the community about the need for park maintenance and that our current conditions can actually pose a public safety risk,” she told In Fact Daily via email. “We need to be good stewards of the public purse and also good stewards of public parks and facilities so as savings and opportunities exist in the budget, I’ll be pushing to do more to address this critical gap in funding.”


Council members are in the middle of what has been a tough budget season. That includes perennial questions about the appropriate number of Austin police officers, as well as perennial concern about a lack of funding for city parks and libraries.


On top of those issues, the union that represents local municipal employees has been pushing for 3 percent raises for city civilian staff. Budget officials have indicated that, barring other cuts, Austin can afford only a 1.5 percent pay increase.


According to union representatives, the three percent raise would amount to roughly $2 million in added costs.


Union officials have also publicly questioned what they characterize as a bloat in city management (See In Fact Daily, Aug. 26). In both formal written budget questions and from the dais during budget work sessions, Council members have appeared to echo that concern by going through some departmental requests – such as Code Compliance – with fine-grain attention to detail.


Concerns over what started as 934 vacant city positions – but has, after attention was brought to the issue, since dwindled – and a seeming disconnect between that figure and a further budget request for more than 300 new employees have also been raised.


Council is set to hold a public budget hearing as part of today’s agenda. Final budget decisions will be delivered in mid-September.

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