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Morrison, Spelman see progress on budget

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Council Members Bill Spelman and Laura Morrison told the Monitor Tuesday that they’ve seen serious progress in the process of developing the City’s annual budget. Their comments were heard Wednesday on the weekly Austin Monitor Radio news show on KOOP 91.7 FM.

“My first budget, I went down to the budget hearing. I was basically handed a script. We read through the script and we were done in 15 minutes,” Morrison said. “Compare that to what we do now: It has completely changed.”

Morrison noted that staff now goes “into the community” and also to the city’s advisory commissions for input. She added that Council members also have work sessions, and more input into shaping the budget.

Spelman agreed. “We’re starting a lot earlier than we used to, also,” he said. “It used to be that the first time we every saw the budget was in July, and then we would have to – in a flurry – understand what the heck was in the budget from scratch, hold a couple of hearings, and then we’d have to make decisions about things in August and September.”

He pointed to a series of reports that Council members get beginning in March and April that he called an “early warning system.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Spelman and Morrison also shared their impressions of this year’s budget. Morrison started with an answer about how Council considers the economy of the City when the make their budgetary decisions.

“I think it works both ways, (including) how is the local economy going to impact what we do,” she said. “For instance, we have a request from OneVoice, which is a coalition of social service providers, who make a very compelling argument that the number of people in need in this community is growing, the gap is growing, and our social service funding is not growing. So we’re not keeping up with demand, like we tend to with our simple-minded measure for how many police officers we need.”

Morrison’s remarks led directly to Spelman, a frequent critic of the ratio used by the Austin Police Department to plan its staffing needs (roughly 2 officers per every 1,000 population). He noted that, in what marks something of a shift in Police budgetary arguments, the department this year began moving toward what is generally referred to as a business case to justify staffing needs.

“This is the first year – at least since I got on the Council (again) in 2009 –  where the Police Department has tried to justify an increase in the Police Department not on the basis of that 2.0 per 1,000 calculation, which I think is a really good thing,” he said. “They’re trying to justify it on the basis of workload, what they want their officers to do, what kind of benefits the citizens are going to get from having more officers.”

He continued: “I’m not sold yet on their number, but I’m sold very much on the justification; they’re trying to justify in the right kind of way.”

When prompted, Spelman put Police budgeting -and a business case-derived argument – in national context. “The central point behind APD’s business case is that the amount of uncommitted time is somewhere in the teens,” Spelman continued. “If what we really want to do is have police officers get out of their cars, walk around, knock on doors, go to meetings, talk to people, get a feel for the community, become part of the community rather than an army of occupation, they need to do all that.”

Spelman added that “the weak spot” in APD’s case is that it is unclear whether more officers was a corollary to more time.

In terms of costs to the taxpayer, Morrison dove into the calculations the city uses to determine what it will charge in property tax. She noted that “because there was such an increase in appraised property values this year,” the city’s rollback rate – the rate at which taxpayers could challenge the tax via petition and potentially the ballot – is “actually less than our current rate.”

“The proposal that city staff brought to us pretty much had to be a cut to bring us down” under the rollback rate, Morrison added.

When asked what that fact might say to taxpayers, Morrison responded candidly: “That the pain that they are feeling from their increased appraisals and tax bills is real.”

In the end, Council members dropped the property tax rate just a hair more than was proposed by staff. That figure results in roughly $13 million less than the city might otherwise bring in.

Austin Monitor Radio airs each Wednesday on at 2 p.m. KOOP, 91.7 FM. To listen to a complete version of this week’s discussion, click here.



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