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Committee pushes for regular HHS budget increase

Monday, January 25, 2016 by Vicky Garza

City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee is asking City Manager Marc Ott to consider an annual increase of at least 3 percent for the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department’s budget.

The move comes after Council increased the department’s fiscal year 2015-2016 budget by more than $6.5 million in September. At the Jan. 13 meeting of the Health and Human Services Committee, Council Member Delia Garza said that this resolution reflects that work.

“My hope is that the increase at the 3 percent range will provide some stability for social service contracts and (the) health and human services … we provide our most vulnerable population,” said Garza, who also sponsored the resolution.

The proposal would amend a budget policy resolution adopted in 2014 that, among other things, set a policy goal for Council to consider “an annual increase to existing social service and workforce development contracts in an amount equal to, or greater than, increases in the Consumer Price Index.”

Since the Consumer Price Index varies annually, “3 percent is basically a compromise and really doesn’t get us close to the annual increases our social service contracts and HHS face every year,” said Garza, who called the department significantly underfunded.

However, Council Member Ellen Troxclair expressed her concern about the resolution, saying that she would prefer to take a hard look at the entire city budget every year because the city’s needs are growing across a lot of different categories, not just in health and human services.

“When we are committing to raise this budget every year by 3 percent regardless of outcomes, regardless of metrics, regardless of performance – I hope that the Council will see that it translates directly to making it less affordable to live in Austin,” said Troxclair. “We have to view these things in the context of the affordability crisis that we are facing in this city.”

Council Member Ora Houston said that she would support the resolution because she knows the department has been running on grants and a shoestring budget for the majority of the time it has been in operation. “I think that’s abysmal,” Houston said, calling this an opportunity to provide the department the stability it needs. She said she supports the resolution, especially after learning from Shannon Jones, director of the Health and Human Services Department, that the department is working on providing Council with measurable outcomes.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo – the only Council member who served on the past incarnation of the body – noted that the discussion originated in the prior City Council and has been an ongoing conversation over the last several years. “As our population has increased in Austin, our needs have gotten so much greater,” said Tovo, who supports the resolution, calling it an important measure.

Garza clarified that the resolution is “simply a policy goal” and does not bind Council to the annual increase.

However, for Garza, that didn’t seem to diminish the significance of the action. She noted that she believes the importance of the measure rests in what she described as a departmental budget slide and that – relative to other city departments – Health and Human Services hasn’t seen appropriate growth.

Photo by Jeffrey Smith made available through a Creative Commons license.

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