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Budget proposal catches Council off guard

Thursday, August 13, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

With a city budget of $3.5 billion, there are a lot of line items that don’t get individual attention during Austin City Council’s budget talks. But on Monday, there was one Parks and Recreation Department allocation request that was curious enough to prompt questions from a number of Council members.

The Parks and Recreation Department is seeking $95,000 to pay the salary of the executive director for the Barton Springs Conservancy Zilker Botanical Garden Conservancy, which received its nonprofit status in January. Council Member Delia Garza raised the first question: Was the department asking to fund a position in a nonprofit?

“Yes and no,” explained Parks and Recreation Department Assistant Director Kimberly McNeeley. While they would be funding the position, she said that the executive director would be in charge of fundraising that “could ultimately help fund the Zilker Botanical Garden, outside of the general fund of the Parks and Recreation Department.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said she might ultimately support the proposal, and certainly respected the work of the conservancy and efforts to help the garden thrive. However, she had questions about the process, and how the position ended up in the proposed budget.

“It does seem to me pretty unusual that we would have a line item on $95,000 without a Council resolution to pursue this and, frankly, no Council discussion that I recall about this proposal,” said Tovo. “It may indeed be a great investment, and I appreciate the community members that have been thinking creatively about it, … (but) this is a little different.”

McNeeley clarified that the conservancy had lobbied for the money, and while it “wasn’t one that (the parks department) put on the top of our list, … it was decided that could be a very excellent potential to fund something of that nature.”

Assistant City Manager Bert Lumbreras later explained that the request for funding had gone to the city manager, who had recommended it to Council. Lumbreras said that the position would involve fundraising, and that fundraising would pay for the position itself as well as, eventually, “the whole staff of the garden.”

The larger idea, explained Lumbreras, was to transfer a city operation that “requires and has a need for a lot of investment” to a nonprofit over a period of time. The details of that arrangement, and a timeline, have yet to be established.

McNeeley said that staff envisions current city positions within the garden moving to the conservancy over the course of a few years. She explained that as the executive director was able to raise money, the conservancy would “be able to assume a certain portion of the operations,” with the transition taking place over several years.

“Maybe in five years they would take over a certain amount of the gardening. Maybe in 10 years, it’s a complete transition,” said McNeeley.

Then, she explained, the Parks Department could reallocate the positions formerly assigned to the gardens to other areas of the park system, which could help reduce the burden on its budget. McNeeley said that there had been many discussions about the plan, but no official agreement yet.

Jennifer Orr, who is the chair of the conservancy, spoke with the Monitor on Tuesday night. She explained that the botanical garden is in desperate need of attention, and that beyond the cost of just maintaining the parks, there are things like Americans With Disabilities standards and future improvements that aren’t currently within reach. She hopes the conservancy will be able to help with those things, but explained that they won’t be able to do that without an executive director, who they need to “lead the charge.”

As for the process, Orr said they had met with each Council office to talk about the conservancy and its goals, and they seemed supportive. But she understood that public-private partnerships are still relatively new to Austin, and there may be some details to be worked out.

Currently, the city does have public-private agreements with non-profits like the Asian American Resource Center, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, Barton Springs Conservancy and the Waller Creek Conservancy.

Mayor Steve Adler said he had not spoken to the Parks Department, city manager or community advocates about the plan, and wanted to learn more about it. However, he said that the concept of having a position that would ultimately save money for the city is one that he liked.

“I think there is a way for us to leverage money that is not city money to do some of the things that people ultimately ask the city to do,” said Adler. “There’s not enough money in the city budget to be able to fund all the things that we need to have done in this city. I think that’s going to require us as a city to think a little more creatively about how we tap into other funding streams in order to get things done.”

In 2012, a proposal to find a private operator for the garden was dropped due to public opposition.

Photo by Anne Swobodoa made available through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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