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City budget talks turn to city schools

Thursday, September 4, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though it was the last budget work session for City Council, there was plenty left to talk about on Wednesday.

After the public hearing had been closed, Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo presented Council with the most recent budget figures.

Notably, since the adoption of the tax rate, the city has about $6.8 million more to spend without violating its own policies. About $1.1 million of that is due to increased values in home appraisals.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell pointed out that if the city used all of the available money for a property tax rate reduction, it would still be about 1 1/3 cents over the effective tax rate. Van Eenoo advised against this course of action. He explained that, as a rule, surplus funds should be used for one-time purposes, and tax-rate decreases were not a one-time thing.

“There’s been a strong groundswell for property tax reduction in several different forms, homestead exemption, and so forth,” said Leffingwell. “We’ve seen Travis County set the bar. They actually had an effective property tax rate reduction this year… Even if we used all of the extra money, we would still be above the effective rate by 1.33 cents.”

“I think it’s a viable consideration,” Leffingwell continued. “You may not like it as a financial policy, but I think the rights of the taxpayer kind of outweigh that recommendation.”

Council has already set the tax rate. Though it could reduce that rate, it cannot exceed that rate.

The meeting was also the last chance for members to discuss the budget with the public before they begin the budget adoption process on Sept. 8.

As expected, there were plenty of Austinites on hand to request more funding for some programs and less funding for other programs, as well as express concerns about the next year’s city budget. Though Council members tackled topics from every corner of the $3.5 billion budget, they did pay particular attention to the Austin Independent School District and what role the city might play in funding programs that had been cut.

AISD  Trustee Gina Hinojosa made a public plea for city funding for school programs, which have been faced with steep cuts from the state over the past several years. Hinojosa said those cuts have left the school district with a $20 million structural deficit. She asked Council members for help and had whittled her request down to $5.5 million.

Hinojosa explained that, because of Robin Hood financing models that require AISD to contribute a portion of its money to less wealthy school districts, money that comes from the city has less of an impact on taxpayers. Essentially, AISD has to raise twice as much through taxes, because of the amount it is required to give away.

Hinojosa asked Council to help fund family resource centers, Communities in Schools, a regional radio system, afterschool programming and costs to support 72 full-time parent support specialists.

Though Hinojosa declined the opportunity to rank the programs, she did single out the $2.5 million for parent support specialists as the most important.

Council members promised to continue the discussion about school funds at their next meeting, but Leffingwell said he was “trepidatious” about taking on AISD’s expenses.

“If you are a taxpayer, it all comes out of your pocket,” said Leffingwell. “It looks to me like we are shifting that expense out of AISD and onto the city of Austin’s budget. So that makes us look bad. At the same time, it doesn’t help the taxpayers at all.”

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said it did help taxpayers in the sense that AISD was subject to a complicated recapture provision that redirected about 60 percent of its tax dollars out of Austin.

Hinojosa thanked Council Member Mike Martinez for working on funding afterschool programs currently funded by federal grants that will soon expire. The cost of these programs is $1.3 million.

The $5.5 million did not account for the potential loss of the Prime Time afterschool program, a prospect that Hinojosa called “very scary.” That program topped the list of Austin Interfaith budget priorities for the next year. The group called for an additional $2.2 million for the Prime Time program. Austin Interfaith started the program in the 1990s, and cuts in state and federal funding have led to a need for increased funding at the local level.

Austin Interfaith also hoped to increase the budgets of several city departments. It asked Council to increase the current Parks and Recreation Department budget by $30 million for park upgrades and mentoring programs, $4 million for Library Department bilingual literacy outreach and children’s librarian staff, $10 million for Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department programs for improved, safe affordable housing in Austin, and $4 million for Austin Energy low-income weatherization programs.

When combined with $78 million for proposed Onion Creek buyouts, all told, the group was prioritizing $129.875 million of the city’s budget.

It was a day when everyone was, as one person put it, “fighting over crumbs.” There were plenty of crumbs to discuss. Council also considered expanded aquatics programs, funding for sidewalk infrastructure, money to make city parks accessible, homestead exemptions, water utility fees and the Highland Neighborhood Park, among other things.

In all, the funding initiatives from Council members so far totals just under $110 million. The two most recent of the 30 items were $25,000 for an east side jazz festival and $1.2 million for a flood early warning system.

Council members will continue their discussion on Sept. 8, when they may adopt the budget or continue the discussion in meetings on Sept. 9 and 10, if necessary.

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