Thursday, September 10, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Zimmerman plan to “rebalance” transportation spending splits Council

City Council Member Don Zimmerman would like to see a change in Austin’s transportation infrastructure spending.

His proposal, which would mandate at least $2 million per district for mobility Capital Improvement Projects, won varying levels of support from Council Members Ora Houston, Ellen Troxclair, Sheri Gallo and Ann Kitchen on Wednesday.

However, it remains unclear whether it should be part of the budget adoption process or part of a separate policy discussion. Today, Council members may make a decision about whether to move forward with the redistribution, which sparked a larger discussion about city policy and ward politics and provoked concern from city management.

Earlier in the budget process, Zimmerman requested “detailed project descriptions for the Public Works and Austin Transportation Departments spending plan and new appropriations for FY 2016 by district.” He displayed the condensed results to that question in a chart that showed that, of the $39 million or so identified in the answer, the spending in most Council districts was between $1 million and $3 million. The downtown District 9 and northwest District 6 were outliers, with $19.1 million being spent in District 9, and just $84,262 being spent in Zimmerman’s District 6.

Kitchen said she would support the initiative, which she added was “a modest ask” that would re-allocate only $3 million out of $39 million or so, leaving half to be spent untethered. She also made the point that she didn’t feel that the redistribution was asking the city’s Transportation Department to give preference to less urgent projects, given the fact that there are a lot of high needs in the city.

“I don’t see Council Member Zimmerman’s ask as any different than what others have asked when they have asked for things in their district,” said Kitchen.

“I don’t think it moves us toward a ward system, because it’s not saying that it has to be an equal amount for all of the districts,” Kitchen continued. “I think this is similar to conversations we’ve had in other areas – in Health and Human Services, in parks, and in the other areas we’ve been looking at. … I’m not going to vote for this because I want to equalize funding, I’m going to vote for this because I’m recognizing what I think are some, perhaps, obvious inequities across the district.”

Houston also indicated support for the plan. She said that while her own district, District 1, needed roads and sidewalks, the $85,000 that went into District 6 infrastructure last year was “so out of scale with the funding” for the rest of the districts that she would be willing to give up some of her own funding and give it to District 6.

This sentiment was not universally held on the dais, however.

Mayor Steve Adler said he would vote against the idea because it was bad policy that could lead to worse policy down the road. “I don’t think dividing money by district is the right way to serve the interests of the city,” he said.

Other Council members also indicated that they had no desire to support a major shift that seemed half-baked. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Members Leslie Pool and Greg Casar all listed their own reasons for not supporting the change, and said the proposition seemed like a bigger policy discussion that should take place in another venue with more information on hand.

City staff appeared to agree with that thought. Chief Financial Officer Elaine Hart, Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo and Interim City Attorney Anne Morgan all took their turn explaining why the redistribution was not a budget decision, because the money in the budget was not being changed. Rather, Council was considering changing the way money was spent, which was usually done at an administrative level. Morgan explained, “This is not exactly the place to do that.”

Hart explained that they would just need Council direction to make a change like the one suggested, and they could do that administratively, without a budget change.

City Manager Marc Ott advised against the concept item in general.

“I must say, I don’t think this is a wise course of action,” said Ott.

“There is a fairly sophisticated science and analysis associated with achieving a goal that says we want 80 percent of our streets to be in fair condition,” he continued. “When we move from that more deliberative approach to how we are utilizing resources, trying to optimize our resources … a simple division of these kinds of resources across Council districts doesn’t lend itself to accomplishing what I just characterized.”

Newport Whitepit Lane pothole” by Editor5807Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

city budget: The city’s plan for expenditures based on income.

Public Works Department: This city department oversees major capital improvement projects; maintains the city's trails, roadways, and bridges; and promotes safe travel on city thoroughfares.

Transportation Department: This city department is responsible for municipal transportation planning including roadways and bikeways.

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