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Tough choices ahead on human services spending

Thursday, May 19, 2016 by Jo Clifton

After hearing from the Health and Human Services Department on Wednesday about the community’s many needs, several City Council members had questions, but only Council Member Delia Garza said she would like to add to the upcoming budget the $8.3 million it would take to fully fund social services resolutions already passed by Council. Garza noted that she probably did not have the five votes from her colleagues it would take to do that.

Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo started the discussion on the Health and Human Services budget by telling Council that staff was fully aware of Council’s commitment to providing services to the neediest in the community. Van Eenoo has already pointed out that Council would probably reach the rollback rate on property taxes if it added the entire $8.3 million.

The most recent Council resolution about increasing funding for the department and for social services contracts would cost an additional $22.3 million, spread over a two- to four-year period, if fully funded. So it’s clear that some of this won’t be happening. About half of that total number is for the department and the other half is for social services contractors, Van Eenoo said.

Garza said she wanted to get as close as possible to fully funding that resolution “because, as I’ve said before, our other departments have seen significant increases in their budgets while our health and human services have not seen significant increases.” She noted that resolutions she has sponsored have built on the work of previous Councils.

Garza went on to explain that while she did not grow up in a rich family, they never went hungry. But when she went to work for the Texas attorney general’s office in the child support enforcement division, she discovered severe poverty, including children who would not receive food over the weekend and only got to eat at school.

No one argued with Garza. However, Council’s earlier discussion about whether to add $1 to the cost of Austinites’ utility bills in order to fund curbside composting for the Zero Waste Master Plan was notably more spirited.

Shannon Jones, director of HHS, discussed the community’s most pressing problems, including homelessness, teen pregnancy and an epidemic of chronic disease among people of color in Austin. According to Jones, chronic disease conditions account for 75 percent of all Travis County deaths. Those afflictions include diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, the downtown homeless shelter known as the ARCH, was built for 100 beds but is currently sheltering 227 people each night, Jones said.

The number of homeless in Austin dropped for several years but increased by 17 percent in the most recent count, which took place in January. Raul Alvarez, executive director of the Community Advancement Network, told the Austin Monitor that this latest tally found 2,138 homeless people in Austin.

Although Austin offers a variety of services to the medically indigent population, including free diabetes education classes, free community exercise programs and a quality of life mobile van performing chronic disease screenings, these do not reach the majority of the population in need.

According to Jones, one mobile van with one nurse can provide outreach to 3,427 individuals throughout Travis County in the year. He told Council that grant-funding losses have reduced the department’s capacity to provide comprehensive programming to promote healthy behaviors.

In addition to dealing with chronic diseases, teen pregnancy and homelessness, the department must prepare for public health emergencies, such as those created by natural disasters and infectious diseases like the Zika virus. But federal and state budget cuts continue to threaten the department’s ability to deal with such threats, Jones said. He noted that since 2004, the department has lost more than 14 full-time employees.

Council Member Greg Casar was not present for the budget briefings of either HHS or the utility bill increase, and Council Member Don Zimmerman left the meeting before the HHS presentation.

<em>Photo by <a href=”″ target=”_blank”>Dustin Ground</a> made available by a <a href=”” target=”_blank”>Creative Commons license</a></em>

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