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Spelman proposes fund for Council projects outside budget

Monday, September 9, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Items brought by Austin City Council members over the past year that depend on funding not already carved out in the FY2013 budget amount to well over $14 million in additional costs for that budget year. The figure includes $10 million in surplus money set aside for affordable housing earlier this year in the wake of the failure of last year’s housing bonds.


In addition to FY2013 costs, those items – ranging from just over $1 million for wildfire mitigation staff to $76,500 for funding for Meals on Wheels and More – will also impact the FY2014 budget year to the tune of a bit more than $5.67 million.


Those totals do not include more than $1.1 million in programs authorized by Council members, but not funded in the FY2014 budget. Those efforts include $280,000 for potential participation in the challenge to Texas’ Voter ID law and $200,000 that would go toward various aspects of a local food policy program.


Those figures were made available in just one day – a fact that may belie both a serious issue, and staff’s readiness to bring it to the attention of Council members – after Council Member Bill Spelman requested them on Sept. 5. In August, Spelman told In Fact Daily that he may push for the creation of a separate city fund from which Council members could draw dollars to pay for items they bring for approval.


At the time, he told In Fact Daily that such a fund would make for “a more honest budget.”


“There is folklore in the city that the reason that it makes sense for department heads to pad their budgets, at least in small ways, because they don’t know what is going to happen over the course of the year,” Spelman said. “The problem is, if every department head is working with the same mindset we’ve got a little bit of padding all over the budget.”


The new items from Council fund, Spelman argued, would provide a finite box for funding such actions. In so doing, staff and Council members would both have a better notion of what could and could not be funded over and above what is included in an annual budget. (See In Fact Daily, August 15.)


Spelman’s question comes as Council members ready for final action on the city’s FY2014 budget. This year’s process has been notably contentious, with multiple Council members, including Spelman, Mike Martinez, Laura Morrison, Kathie Tovo, and Chris Riley pushing hard on staff over a range of issues.


Meanwhile, Mayor Lee Leffingwell told members of the media last week that he would not vote for any iteration of the budget that does not allow staff to leave Austin’s property tax rate at the nominal figure – the same rate approved by Council last year.


Monday marks the start of either a one, two or three-day slog through the budget. Some Council watchers are predicting a final vote on Tuesday.

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