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Spelman remembers the high points

Tuesday, December 23, 2014 by Jo Clifton

After three terms on the Austin City Council, first from 1997 to 2000 and then from 2009 to present, Council Member Bill Spelman is retiring from his nonpaying city gig. Professor Spelman, who also teaches courses in applied math and statistics, urban policy and public management at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, will be keeping that job. Employees of state agencies and universities are allowed only one government-funded paycheck, so his public service at the city has not added to his income.

Spelman also served for eight years as executive director of the Texas Institute for Public Problem Solving, which trained 13,000 police officers throughout Texas in the practice of community policing. During his time on the Council, however, he often found himself at odds with the police, arguing frequently that the public safety budget was eating up too much of citizens’ money. In particular, he has opposed the 2.0 officers per thousand people metric that the department has used for years to justify bigger budgets. He never seemed to win that argument.

However, Spelman’s aide, Ashley Fisher, noted that 2014 was the first year that APD did not use 2.0 as a metric, but presented a business case for its budget additions, like every other department, for why it needed more money. “He claimed victory because they didn’t just say 2.0 and we’re done,” Fisher said.

When asked to point out a favorite or important thing he had worked on, Spelman referred to a little-noticed budget requirement called the budget affordability measure, which he invented earlier this year. Even though it has not gotten much attention, he predicted that “it will turn out in the long run to be really important.”

Spelman explained how it works: “We have a performance measure that the budget office will calculate at the beginning of every budget cycle, which states that spending on the general fund ought to go up to this point but no higher. It’s not a cap. Otherwise, we will be taking a larger percentage of people’s income out of their pockets than we were last year.”

“It’s not a spending cap, it’s just a benchmark,” he said. “If you want to go over the benchmark, you can, but if you find yourself going over the benchmark 15 years in a row, as we did between 1999 and last year, then maybe you are doing something wrong. So, this is about how much the citizens of Austin can afford.”

Spelman continued: “So this is the first year where we actually had that available. I think the next budget cycle, a bunch of people will be saying how much should we be spending, let’s find a way of staying under that amount, rather than just cranking up the property tax amount.” He said he worked with Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo and economist Jon Hockenyos on figuring out how to create the benchmark, using data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

“It is the right way to do the benchmark … a way not to take more out of people’s pockets every year, which has been our practice for the past 15 years … so if incomes go up 5 percent, OK, our spending can go up 5 percent,” Spelman concluded.

Asked what personal advice he would give to members of the new 10-1 Council, Spelman said, “Remember that the City Council meeting is an athletic event. You start at 10 in the morning and go until 10 at night or later. That is going to be physically draining. So you need to be sure to eat well, get a good night’s sleep. All that good stuff that you do before a marathon, you do that before a City Council meeting. The few times that I’ve been unable or unwilling to do that before a City Council meeting, I have seriously paid the price for it. It’s an athletic event — treat it like an athletic event.”

He doesn’t assume that the new Council will necessarily follow the old Council’s patterns. “We used to meet almost every week, and meetings were roughly half as long — at least there were half as many agenda items. A new administration could reasonably decide to meet every week, rather than every two weeks. I think it would be a good move. The work sessions help a lot.”

And Spelman remembered one more piece of advice: “In 1997, some guy I never met sent me a postcard. It said, ‘Never forget that you’re a City Council member for (the whole population), whatever the number was, and you will only see a tiny fraction of those people at City Council meetings,’ or hear from them through emails or by phone calls. ‘You’re not going to hear from 95 percent of the people. But you’ve got to represent the other 95 percent of the people, not just the people that are in your face.’

“It’s really obvious; I knew that. But you might tend to forget that when you’re in this building for very long. I thought, ‘I better remember this.’ I put it up on my bulletin board and I would look at it every so often and I would think, yeah, I can see why he wrote this. It’s really easy to forget that. It’s often a stretch to know what the 840,000 people need as opposed to the 200 or so who show up all the time.”

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