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Council declines to spend FY2013 surplus, debates budget process

Wednesday, March 19, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members Tuesday continued to wrestle with whether to spend any of the $14.2 million FY2013 budget surplus. In the end, they did not spend any of it and along the way Council Members Laura Morrison and Bill Spelman continued to express broader concerns about the city’s budget process.


“How do we get Council priorities into the guts of the proposed budget?” Morrison asked.


The immediate issue is a series of proposed budget amendments brought forward chiefly by Council Members Kathie Tovo, Mike Martinez and Chris Riley. The items, pitches for a new commercial-grade kitchen for the Asian-American Resource Center, funding for the city’s South Shore Small Area Plan, and additional money for a partnership with the Austin Technology Council, had all been aired and challenged at previous meetings.


In addition to those items, Riley also brought forward a redefinition of Council’s mid-year budget policies, one that would offer more specific restrictions about how Council members and staff could go about mid-year spending adjustments.


Tuesday’s action saw Martinez withdraw the item he sponsored, more funding for the Austin Technology Council, after he noted little in the way of discussion about the idea. Riley subsequently withdrew his proposals for the South Shore plan and the rules changes; the latter item will be back for more discussion the week of Council’s April 10 meeting.


Tovo’s push for a new kitchen at the Asian-American Resource Center thus became the only budget amendment item to draw serious discussion.


That back and forth included some confusion over whether the item could be classified as a budget amendment—and, more to the point, whether the $600,000 the city would have to spend for work on the kitchen would delay or otherwise affect other Parks Department projects.


Staff’s most recent proposal for work on the kitchen would use money derived from more than $70 million in voter-approved 2012 parks bonds.


However, just as Mayor Lee Leffingwell was counting the votes on what was shaping up to be a vote to move ahead with the project, City Manager Marc Ott whispered a clarification to Spelman. Spelman, hesitated to announce his vote, and then asked Ott to share with Council members what he’d just told Spelman.


Ott prompted Parks Project Coordinator Marty Stump to acknowledge that money for the kitchen would be an additional appropriation.


“It’s an appropriation of $600,000 this year that would have otherwise been appropriated next year or (in) some subsequent year,” Spelman continued. “We’re adding on to the list – and that really does qualify as a budget amendment.”


That appeared to turn Riley against the notion. The vote failed 3-4 vote, with Spelman, Riley, and Mayor Pro Tem Cole joining Leffingwell against the measure.


After the count was finally recorded, Morrison pushed staff to bring the kitchen item back. “Please consider bringing (this) forward as a request for Council action an item that would allow us to use this year’s capital appropriation for the kitchen,” she offered.


But Leffingwell said he was against that idea so it’s not clear whether that will happen.


Budget-making has long been a target of Spelman’s. On several occasions, he’s attempted to overhaul the process in a way that would move the calendar forward, and thus offer more Council input on the matter. Though his colleagues have embraced some of his ideas, he told the Monitor on Tuesday afternoon that the situation persists.


“This has been an ongoing discussion since I got here in 2009,” Spelman said. “By the time the budget is in print—that’s usually the end of July or the beginning of August, it’s done. There is a very small amount of tinkering that we can do around the edges, but the fundamental outlines of the budget have been set and will not be changed.


“If we wanted to have – and I think we do, it’s our job to have a bigger role in the shaping of that budget – it has to happen earlier, that has to happen, for example, in March or April, when the major decisions are made as to who is going to get more and what they are going to be able to get more for, and who is going to get less,” he continued.


Spelman also criticized the advent of video budget presentations, and the effect that had on the budget process. “The original idea behind having the Council work sessions in April was to provide some guidance…as to what we wanted to see in terms of that broad general shape,” he said. “We’re not having those discussions any more, now we are getting talked to on video rather than having an opportunity to discuss it.”


He summed: “I think we need to create a ceremony where we can actually talk about what we are responding to in the videos, what we are hearing from the department heads as to where they are going to go, and to create a space for ourselves to help shape that budget from the very beginning.”


After the morning work session, Morrison noted her concerns. “The fact is we don’t have a mechanism for getting our priorities into the DNA, if you will, of the budget,” she said.

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