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Few speakers return for delayed budget hearings

Tuesday, September 2, 2014 by Tyler Whitson

Affordability and equity topped the list of concerns that citizens raised Friday during public hearings on the budget, tax rate and utility rates for Fiscal Year 2015.

The majority of citizens who had signed up to speak during the hearings were not present, likely because City Council had originally scheduled the hearings for Thursday’s regular meeting, but postponed them in a vote to recess until noon Friday. Council Member Kathie Tovo was not present at Friday’s meeting.

Zilker neighborhood resident David King voiced the broadest criticisms during the hearing on the entire budget, saying he is concerned about income inequity. “Middle income families — their income has been stagnant or fallen,” he said. “And yet at the same time, we have a budget that has increases.”

The current proposed 2015 budget estimates that the “typical” residential rate payer’s monthly bill will increase by $4.67 $2.72 for Austin Energy, $2.62 for Austin Water Utility and $1.85 for Austin Resource Recovery. It also includes a 75 cent clean community fee increase, a 45 cent transportation user fee increase and a 60 cent drainage utility fee increase.

During a hearing on the Watershed Protection Department’s proposed drainage fee increase, speaker George Oswald requested that Council not take action “until the customer equity issues that were the subject of a recent lawsuit are corrected.” He was referring to a judge’s June ruling that the fee is invalid because it is unfair to customers living in multifamily housing.  (See Austin Monitor, July 1.)

“I attended the trial in February and it is my opinion … that the city would be wasting time and money to appeal the court ruling,” Oswald said. “That effort would be better spent in correcting the utility rate structure equity issues.”

The proposed increase would raise the fee from $9.20 to $9.80. 

Though two citizens had signed up to speak during the hearing on the proposed maximum property tax rate, neither were present Friday. Council voted 5-0 to close the hearing, with Council Members Mike Martinez and Tovo off the dais.

The proposed rate is 48.09 cents per $100 valuation, which staff estimates as a monthly increase of $1.19 in the property tax bill for the estimated median-value home of $196,500.

King was the only speaker present for Council’s public hearing on Austin Energy’s proposed rate and fee changes.

“I’m asking you to please look seriously at these rate increases,” King said. “And, if you have to increase them, then let’s find a way to shield the low- and middle-income families who are suffering right now.”

Council also held public hearings on Austin Resource Recovery’s proposed rate and fee changes, Austin Water Utility’s proposed rate and fee changes and growth-related projects within the Drinking Water Protection Zone.

Citizens also raised concerns about the proposed rate for reclaimed water and the accessibility of public works projects to people with disabilities.

In addition, they requested that Council re-examine the availability of funding for energy efficiency programs, assistance to those affected by last year’s Halloween flood, programs to improve the overall quality of life for the city’s Hispanic population and support for the live music industry.

Council will hold one more set of budget and tax rate public hearings at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Town Lake Center Assembly Room. It will adopt the budget, utility rates and property tax during meetings that begin at 9:30 a.m. Sept. 8, 9 and 10 at the same location.

This story has been corrected to reflect the correct amount of the proposed Austin Energy rate increase.

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