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Spelman pleads with Council to hold the line on city spending

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 by Michael Kanin

As Council members entered the final three days of deliberations over the city’s FY2014 budget, Council Member Bill Spelman emerged as an unlikely ally to Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s hawkish budget position.


As part of Monday’s budget discussion, Spelman presented a PowerPoint he shared with In Fact Daily last week (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 4). There, he argued that city spending has outpaced the capacity of Austin’s residents to support it. Though he pinned much of it on the Austin Police Department – while noting that the inequity was not part of any wider plot – Spelman made a more general statement about spending: That he wouldn’t support any budget expenditure increases.


Spelman also called on his colleagues to enact a cap on annual budget increases that would be tied to the incremental rise of resident incomes. “I am concerned that we are systematically doing two things,” he said. “One is that our general fund is becoming systematically more lopsided towards public safety and second that it is becoming bigger and bigger as our proportion of our ability to pay: People who pay that bill have housing needs, transportation needs, food, clothing, entertainment – all that stuff is going up. If the general fund is also taking more and more money out of their budget, that makes the city a little bit less affordable.”


His presentation did little to sway the actions of his colleagues. Over nine hours of debate, Council members produced a document with a host of new programs, funded via millions in budgetary savings fueled by projected sales tax increases and other found revenue and sliced programs. Though they will have to wait for Parks Director Sara Hensley to produce a phased schedule for $4.75 million in new parks money, and then vote on whatever new calculations arise from that effort, the outline of the city’s FY2014 budget is fairly clear.


The document increases the city’s sales tax growth estimate to 5 percent for the remaining two months of FY2013 and increases the FY2014 figure from 3 to 4 percent. Council members also increased city vacancy savings – a major issue heading into final budget action – by 1 percent, excluding Austin’s public safety departments.


Other revenue saved in this version of the budget will come from a reversal of a staff proposal to reallocate 311 Call Center funding, the elimination of proposed positions in the city’s Planning and Development Review and Code Compliance departments, and the end of dedicated police patrols on the three trails opened for 24-hour access as part of a pilot approved by Council in June.


Austin Resource Recovery would pick up the full $500,000 cost shifted out of the general fund for the 311 Call Center. There is no estimated rate impact associated with that reallocation.


Council Member Mike Martinez was direct about his call to reduce Code Compliance’s employee request. “When I see some of the instances that we all heard of over the last two weeks, where a Code Compliance officer is citing a business and then threatening $2,000 in fines per day for hanging flags in front of their business – and then doing the same thing to three schools within our ISD because of…welcome back to school signs that were hung on the fence…maybe there is something internally that needs to be done in relation to training our existing staff better as opposed to just adding more staff that maybe won’t have a good understanding of the code,” he said.


Martinez and his colleagues cut nine of the department’s requested 18 new employees.


Council members did not return the funding of the city’s Economic Development Department (formerly the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office) to Austin Energy. That move could have presented them with a structural problem in the eyes of the Texas Public Utility Commission. However, they did eliminate a $333,334 payment from the general fund into economic development program, voting to take the money from Austin Energy instead.


Nor did they nix fee waivers awarded to South by Southwest and other major city events. “South by Southwest is working on a holistic safety plan for the city, as opposed to just South by Southwest events,” summed Council Member Laura Morrison. “Thus the fee waivers are, in some ways, to help compensate for the fact that the work is beyond South by Southwest work.”


Attorney Michael Whellan, who represents SXSW, helped the Council understand how those fee waivers benefit the city. So, despite calls from the American-Statesman for elimination of those waivers, the idea never got off the ground.


Spelman’s conclusions about APD spending were backed with a series of statistics that he used to illustrate the decline of calls for service versus a rise in police funding. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo disputed those figures.


Acevedo pointed to what he cast as a sharp rise in the highest priority service calls – those received while a crime is already in progress. Spelman’s office noted Monday that when combined with a drop in service calls at the next priority level down – calls received within five minutes of a crime happening – there is actually a decline in that figure.

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