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Council questions management’s funding process

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 by Michael Kanin

The question of funding for Austin’s African-American Cultural Heritage District got wrapped up in an ongoing City Council and management discussion over how mid-year funding for various projects should be vetted. The conversation took place at Tuesday’s work session


Though Council members left the conversation – which now stretches back over at least two consecutive budget cycles – generally unresolved, they also appeared concerned over the process by which City Manager Marc Ott brought the item forward.


“What I’m hearing – or, at least, what I’m sensing – is the lack of transparency in terms of how the process bubbles a priority to the top,” said Martinez. “We probably…have multiple resolutions that we adopted over the last year or so that were unfunded and we asked the city manager to please help us try to identify funding and take a strong look at this particular issue. I don’t even know how many are out there.”


Martinez then called for a comprehensive look at those items. “I think what we need to do is revisit that issue, and make sure that every one of them are on the table when opportunities like this arise.”


Later, Council Member Kathie Tovo echoed that thought.


For his part, Deputy City Manager Michael McDonald tried to assure Council members that the funding for the project — $287,000 all told, though $50,000 was appropriated as part of last year’s mid-year budget adjustment – was part of what management considered a Council priority. “It was very clear from Council during the mid-year that you wanted to fund the $50,000 and then you wanted us to pursue the funding for the $237,000 because the district moved forward with the idea that they would in fact receive that.”


Ott called for a more formal process to determine Council spending priorities. “If we had some other kind of structure for the evaluation of these kinds of things…perhaps through Council’s committee structure, for these kinds of requests, we’d get a full vetting, some of (the requests) would survive that process and some of them wouldn’t. And I think that would give greater balance and a sense of equity in terms of how we allocate what are always limited resources in a strained fiscal environment.”


At issue is the process by which Council and management make decisions about what items represent city priorities. Though it is well within Council members’ collective purview to set those priorities, Ott noted that department heads also have some discretion over certain expenditures.


In this case, the balance of the funding for the African American Cultural Heritage District would come from the city’s Economic Development Department. City staff told Council members that, thanks to savings achieved via elimination of some office relocations thought to be necessary for the ongoing renovation of City Hall, the department had not expended roughly $400,000.


Staff planned to fund the Heritage District with that surplus.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell worried that the action would precipitate others. “What bothers me (is that) it really does open the door for almost anything (in terms of spending),” he said.


Indeed, Council Member Chris Riley wondered whether Economic Development funds could be used to fund the South Shore Regional Plan, an item Riley has pushed for during recent Council mid-year FY2014 budget discussions. Ott suggested that the South Shore planning effort would qualify to use funds from the Economic Development Department.


As part of that discussion, Ott suggested that, to move the process forward with regard to South Shore planning, Riley should bring an item from Council. Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole responded: “We’ve already brought items from Council.”


Council Member Laura Morrison, too, joined that chorus. “I just want to remind folks that we’ve also passed two resolutions, one to support the Austin Technology Council through Economic Development, and another to support the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber to a greater degree so they can expand and, frankly, after the discussions we’ve been having, I sat down with both of them and said I just don’t think that funding you all mid-stream fits within the context of what the Council is doing,” she said. “But, apparently, it does – so if we’re going to talk about spending additional funds in Economic Development, I think we have to bring all of those and have a discussion about setting our priorities.”


Cole noted the specific policy concerns brought forward by her colleagues. She then called the Heritage District’s Lisa Byrd up to frame the issue to them.


“I know how supportive you have been of our efforts, and that support has allowed us to provide programming for the city that really is a game-changer in East Austin,” she said.


Byrd then turned to the reality of the district’s situation. “We received the $50,000 and we are very appreciative… (However) it is crucial to our continued programming to receive this $200,000.”


That allowed Cole to argue that the funding was an emergency, and therefore subject to the emergency provision carved out by Council members as part of a new mid-year spending policy adopted in advance of this year’s budget process.

Council is set to vote on the funding Thursday.

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