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Council lowers tax rate slightly for 2014 budget

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members Tuesday approved a $3.3 billion FY2014 budget for the city and its various enterprise and public safety arms. The document features a 50.27 cents per $100 of valuation tax rate, just a hair under the 50.29 cents nominal figure – the number Council members approved for property taxes in FY2013.


Though the rate is below what Council members could have approved, it is still greater than the city’s projected effective rate of 48.34 cents, the amount that would bring in the same amount of revenue as last year.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who pushed hard for at least the nominal rate, offered a begrudging endorsement of the document from the dais. “I’m very proud of Council members for coming together and addressing this budget in a way that enables us to not only not increase the tax rate – which is where we were about 26 hours ago – but we actually reduced the tax rate, granted only by two-hundredths of a penny, but it’s a significant milestone,” he said. “That being said, I don’t like everything that’s in the budget – I doubt if any one of us likes everything in the budget.”


Leffingwell noted that in his nine years as a Council member he’d “never seen this level of scrutiny put to a budget.”


Council Member Mike Martinez was more enthusiastic. “We were so far off on Aug. 1 this year – when the budget was presented – in terms of where each side (was),” he said. “It was a lot of hard work by all of those individuals.”


By the time Council members arrived Tuesday morning for what was technically a continuation of Monday’s meeting, much of the hard budget work had been completed. This year’s budget season had been tough, with Council members pressing staff over the city’s seemingly high vacancy rates, budget errata, as well as perennial discussions over affordability and how many Austin Police Officers it takes to patrol the city.


On Tuesday, Council members found room for a host of budget additions, including increased funding for solar rebates, new librarians, and legal advice about the city’s potential participation in a lawsuit over Texas’ new Voter ID Law. They also markedly – and pointedly — reduced an increase in Code Compliance staff, eliminated two proposed Planning and Development Review positions, declined to add 1.5 new full-time equivalents to City Auditor Ken Mory’s office – all while reducing the tax rate to the nominal amount. (We left out the decimal point earlier. Mory was seeking just 1.5, not 15 new employees.)


Tuesday found Martinez again – as he did twice Monday – pushing for the funding of two new Austin Fire Department lieutenant positions dedicated to wildland fire efforts.


The push followed an attempt from Leffingwell to use what had been a roughly $300,000 surplus to lower the city’s property tax rate. Leffingwell got support from Council Member Bill Spelman, but after no one else got behind the idea, it failed on a 2-5 vote.


After Martinez successfully moved for the elimination of two more positions to the tune of $90,000 applied to tax savings, Morrison moved to cut the Economic Development Department’s budget by $250,000 – savings she earmarked for a property tax cut. Had she been successful, the combination of Martinez and Morrison’s cuts would have roughly equaled that pitched by Leffingwell at the start of proceedings.


However, Morrison was not successful. Economic Development Director Kevin Johns offered a broad defense of his program and what it brings to Austin.


After suggestions about the value of the program from Martinez, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, and Leffingwell – signals that her colleagues would not approve the $250,000 cut – Morrison withdrew her motion.


Parks Director Sara Hensley presented Council members with her department’s plan for phasing $4.75 million in new money for trails, parks maintenance, pools, and urban forestry. Council members then committed the city to spending just over $884,000 on trails, $869,000 on maintenance, $851,000 on pools, and $1 million on urban forestry for the FY2014 budget.


Morrison called this “real movement,” and noted that she is “real pleased.” “Even though we couldn’t fully fund all of the requests, I think everybody understands that they are very valid points, and to keep them in mind as phase two next year, to get those requests (filled), I think will be real important,” she continued.


Parks advocates that originally brought the $4.75 million package to Council noted via email that “while this is not the full ask, it’s certainly a major step in the right direction.” 


Both the tax rate and the budget items were approved by unanimous votes. After hawkish positioning from Leffingwell and Spelman Monday, each voted for the FY2014 budget. After the meeting Spelman told In Fact Daily that he plans to pursue a budget growth cap idea that he pitched Monday; a measure that would tie the growth of the city’s entire budget to the growth of local income.


“We’re still spending too much,” he said. “I’m very happy with the reduction in the property tax rate. It means that the property tax bill has gone up by 3.9 percent, which is pretty close to the total income increase among Austin residents – so that’s pretty close to where we need to be.”


However, Spelman also pointed to the fact that he and his colleagues “shifted expenses in the general fund to other funds, which means they are going to have to be made up somewhere else.” For Spelman, that means that he and his colleagues “did not reduce spending as much as we should have.”


“I look forward to working with the budget office and the rest of the departments in making sure that we have a budget next year that does not increase spending any faster than the public’s ability to pay for it,” he concluded.


Council Member Kathie Tovo told In Fact Daily that she felt that she and her colleagues approached the FY2014 with a keen eye. “We looked carefully at it. I think we made some important cuts that allowed us to really recognize some really key community priorities, from starting some senior meals programs, to rec centers, to make sure that all of our libraries have adequate staffing,” she said. “I feel good that we really recognized some basic needs that are really critical in our community.”


The FY2014 budget includes 47 new police officers, 26 new employees to help with development review – despite concerns from Martinez over Code Compliance – and 61 total new parks and recreations staff.


With the budget approved, Council members find themselves with an off day Wednesday.

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