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Last-minute horse trading underway as Council nears final budget

Wednesday, September 4, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members are lining up for an epic bartering session over the city’s FY2014 budget. At the final work session before three Council meetings set to approve the budget and the FY2014 tax rate next week, Council members each took turns laying out a selection of budget adjustment suggestions that would affect both city revenues and expenditures.


It all came against the backdrop of a promise delivered by Mayor Lee Leffingwell during a Wednesday lunch for select members of the local media. “I think our strong economy justifies keeping the tax rate constant for taxpayers,” he said. “I am not going to support an increase over the nominal rate this year.”


The nominal property tax rate would result in collection of increased tax revenue because property values have increased.


After the budget work session Leffingwell told In Fact Daily that he remained optimistic that he and his colleagues could hold taxes at the nominal rate. However, he added that he “wouldn’t bet a lot of money on it.”


“I heard a lot of proposals and nearly every one of them involves spending more money, not less,” Leffingwell continued.


Meanwhile, Council Member Bill Spelman suggested that what he has characterized as an uneven increase in police spending in relation to the growth of the department’s workload is a “a policy issue, not merely a management issue.” In a presentation he shared with In Fact Daily following the budget session, Spelman put the matter in the context of the growth of city spending and a general increase in public safety budgets.


Spelman begins by asking whether city spending as a whole is sustainable. “Is spending increasing faster than income?” he asks. “If so, we are making the city less affordable.”


According to Spelman’s figures, total resident income has increased substantially since 1970. Spelman adds that the city’s general fund spending has increased as well, but at a faster pace than the growth of resident income.


Spelman concludes that 95 percent of that increase is thanks to spending on the city’s three public safety entities – the Austin Police Department, the Austin Fire Department, and Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Service. Further, Spelman suggests that though Fire and EMS spending has tracked roughly with an increase in workload APD spending has not.


“Police are working hard, but spending per capita and spending per dollar are both way up, even though crime rates, non-index offense rates, and 911 call rates are flat or down,” he argues. “Police spending accounts for 60 percent of the total increase in (general fund) spending per dollar.”


Spelman offered a more APD-focused presentation that made similar arguments at an earlier budget work session. There, though he didn’t directly refute Spelman’s figures, Police Chief Art Acevedo noted that societal changes had contributed to shifts in the way police do their jobs. (See In Fact Daily, August 16.)


Spelman did not deliver his presentation Tuesday. He promised to post the document to his web site, and could still bring it up for discussion during the budget adoption process. “At one point or another every Council member needs to see this so we can discuss it,” he said.


Prevailing sentiment seems tilted toward at least one $1 million reduction in the police budget: Patrols associated with the ongoing pilot to leave three City of Austin trails open around the clock for bicycles. Though Leffingwell appeared concerned with a curtailment of those services, at least four other Council Members support the idea.


Acevedo told In Fact Daily, “There is no part of this city where we do not patrol, 24/7. The only exception was the parks and it was call driven, until this pilot program. You cannot open up a place to the public and then turn around and say you aren’t going to have patrols. The challenge for us is the parks police only has enough resources to be on until midnight.


He added that between midnight and 6am “officers are going from call to call to call. Just come out into this city and walk around and listen to the sirens all over the city,” he said.


According to Assistant Chief Brian Manley, the pilot project relies entirely on officers working overtime, making time and a half. Since June, when the pilot started, he said the officers have encountered “about 700 people, pedestrians, who were out there at night violating the curfew. A lot of it was transients.”


But as for the people that the pilot was set up to protect, Manley said, it relates to cyclists, “we have 10 a night…They’re tracking every bicycle they encounter for the pilot.”


Staff will study four different scenarios for city-wide pay raises. Under at least one, only employees who make less than $40,000 would receive a three percent increase. Everyone else would see something more like a 1.5 percent increase, plus a permanent addition—perhaps around $600– to their baseline pay.


The baseline distinction is an important one. Such an increase would compound in terms of such future benefits as retirement income, and any future pay increase.


During the pay raise discussion, Spelman asked Human Resources Director Mark Washington where the raises might put city employees on par with their peers. Washington noted that all city employees are now significantly underpaid as compared to the market.

AFSCME Business Manager Greg Powell told In Fact Daily that he was encouraged by the direction Council had given staff. “I feel quite confident about it now, in one form or another,” Powell said.

Budget staff and Council members will return Monday for either one, two or three days of meetings to finally approve the budget.

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