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Council gauges interest on proposed budget items

Wednesday, September 2, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

City Council inched closer to adopting the city’s Fiscal Year 2015-16 budget at a work session on Tuesday when it took a “straw poll” – in the words of Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo – of the concept menu items that members have put forward.

Though the votes were taken quickly and ultimately have no impact on the final budget, they provide some insight into the items that appear to have a majority of Council support – or at least interest in further discussion.

Prior to taking the poll, Mayor Steve Adler responded to city staff concerns raised in a Monday memo from City Manager Marc Ott about staff feeling “under attack” as Council discusses potential measures such as cutting back proposed wage increases.

“Our staff is much loved and appreciated and respected by the people on this dais,” Adler said, adding that Council asking budget questions or placing items on the concept menu does not necessarily indicate a will to move forward with them. “I wish there was a way for us to ask questions without scaring people … but there’s not.”

Overall, items that would allocate funding to providing additional services received more support than items that would cut the budget or increase revenue, although there were some such items that did receive clear support. Many items do not yet have projected financial impacts.

With about $5.9 million in recurring unallocated funds on hand in the current budget proposal – plus $867,000 in available one-time funds – Council will likely have to make some cuts to move forward with some of the service goals it supports if it does not want to increase the proposed property tax rate of 45.98 cents per $100 of valuation.

The largest service increases that received a majority vote were Council Member Ora Houston’s $7 million proposal to purchase and use body cameras for Austin Police Department officers and a $6.7 million proposal to increase existing social services contracts and increase the Health and Human Services program operating budget.

On the other hand, the single largest budget cut that received a majority vote was a $4.7 million proposal from Adler to debt-fund certain nonrecurring capital items in the Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund, General Fund and other operating funds.

None of the proposals to decrease the proposed 3 percent, across-the-board city employee wage increase received a majority of Council support. One such proposal would temper wage increases for employees at the higher end of the wage spectrum, while another would implement a phased-in wage increase over the course of the next fiscal year.

Council held off votes on proposals from Council Members Ellen Troxclair and Ann Kitchen to limit the proposed 85 police officer increase to levels of 53 and 41, respectively.

The greatest revenue generator to receive a majority vote was a $1.4 million proposal from Tovo to increase the development services fee to 100 percent of the cost for providing services.

Other noteworthy increases to receive a majority of support were a $1.7 million proposal to establish a $13.03 per hour living wage for temporary employees and a $1.7 million proposal from Council Member Delia Garza to convert Emergency Medical Services ambulance providers from a 48- to a 42-hour workweek.

The official budget adoption process begins on Tuesday, and per the City Charter, Council will have until midnight on Thursday to adopt the budget.

In spite of the poll, what’s in store for next week’s budget meetings appears to remain up in the air. Adler told Council members that he was still mulling over how the last three budget meetings would be handled next week.

“I don’t see us following the concept menu next week. I think it’s been a useful tool to help us work through areas, but some process is needed,” said Adler, who added that he wasn’t sure that it was appropriate to handle things the way Council had in the past, but also didn’t think that it was a good idea to continue the tactics employed in the past two budget sessions.

The news was met with some confusion. Garza asked that Adler post the process on the City Council Message Board once he had decided on it. “If we could know what that process is beforehand, that would be helpful,” said Garza.

At the close of the meeting, Council Member Leslie Pool made a last-ditch effort to knock some of the less-popular items off of the concept menu.

“There are clearly some items on here that a significant minority of Council members support,” Pool said. “I would just like to say we’ve had ample opportunity to have the conversation and discussion already on a number of these. I would hope that we could move beyond that, so that we don’t have to revisit the same conversations again. … If there is insufficient support on the dais to move forward with an idea or a concept, then maybe we can not entertain it any further.”

Council did not act on Pool’s suggestion, but Council Member Don Zimmerman did agree with her.

“Of course there is a lot more support for adding millions of dollars of spending, rather than reducing spending,” said Zimmerman.

He asked for an idea of where spending stood after the morning of straw polls.

“It’s hard to know,” said Adler. “But based on the kinds of things that I’ve seen and heard, I still believe that this Council will end up in a place that has us reducing both taxes and the tax rate.”

Council Member Ellen Troxclair was not present for the poll.

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