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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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Leffingwell backs budget cuts in all but public safety agencies
For the second year in a row, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell called for across-the-board cuts for all City of Austin General Fund departments, excepting the city’s three public safety agencies. Leffingwell told In Fact Daily during a break in Monday’s budget discussion that he would use such cuts to “bring our property tax rate down to last year’s, which is the 50.29 (cents per $100 of valuation) – so there would not be a property tax rate increase.”
As he has been with his colleagues, Leffingwell was careful to point out that the lower rate would still be “a tax increase according to state law – but at least it’s not a rate increase.”
This year, Leffingwell’s pitch came as his colleagues debate the nature of several hundred vacancies scattered throughout the city’s departments. Seventeen of those departments requested additional employees above the vacant positions. Council Member Mike Martinez has been leading a charge to reconcile the open positions, the new requests, and the millions in unmet needs listed by city departments each year.
Leffingwell made his pitch at the start of Council’s second budget work session Monday. There, he also opened the door to his support of vacancy savings.
When Martinez pointed out that vacancy savings represents the most readily available option for budget cutting, Leffingwell agreed. “I definitely think vacancy savings should be on the table,” he said. “I work on the assumption that that has been considered.”
Meanwhile, Council members continued to deliberate over the budget in department-by-department fashion. In addition to the now-ever-present vacancy hammer wielded most notably by Martinez and Council Member Laura Morrison, Council members raised questions about true-cost recovery and parks fees.
Martinez again raised the possibility of using a five percent difference in actual sales tax revenue increase figures and the lower projected figure to fund city programs. This time, however, he suggested using the numbers to change the structure of the city’s budget by using it to fund one-time expenses. Such an action would extract a host of programs from annual budgeting.
“What I’m finding as I’m going through this budget is that there are one-time expenditures in the structure of the General Fund that I think are substantial,”
Leffingwell in particular has expressed concern about the idea of making structural changes to a city budget in such a manner. He has argued that the funds for such changes would not necessarily be available in subsequent years, and that this would present problems going forward.
As Council members continued to look under the cushions of our grand civic couch, they found themselves face-to-face with the management of the city’s perpetually underfunded Parks and Recreation Department. Prompted by questions over budget priorities, Director Sara Hensley told Council members that the city’s budget would never be able to fully fund her department.
She received wide support for the idea of public-private partnerships as a fiscal savior for her department. “I agree with you 100 percent, Sarah, that we’ve got to be thinking about new ways to fund our Parks system, otherwise we’re not going to be able to do a good job with it – and I think that especially relates to reexamination of various fees, but more importantly, looking at opportunities for partnerships; frankly, outsourcing,” offered Leffingwell.
A group of parks advocates recently called for $4.5 million in additional funding for the Parks department in FY2014. Morrison, half-joking, noted that Hensley would likely not be against the idea. Hensley responded that she wasn’t but that “the thing that means the most to us is that there is an awareness.”
“If we don’t get one dime from this effort, the fact that they have worked together to come together as a coalition to talk about parks and how important they are…I think it will build awareness through the business community, I think it will have more opportunities through public-private partnerships, and I think, even though we may not get a dollar in the General Fund, I think there will be other benefits from this,” she continued.
Assistant Parks Director Cora Wright told Council members that she and her team were continuing to reevaluate the fees that they charge for parks facilities rentals. That question is of course wrapped into larger ones over the costs and benefits of
Council members will continue their budget discussions at a Wednesday afternoon work session.
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