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How do Austinites want the city to spend their money?

Thursday, July 28, 2016 by Jack Craver

As Austin grows, so does its government.

City staff unveiled a proposed budget Wednesday that would increase general fund spending by $56 million, or 6.1 percent, for a total of $969.2 million.

The increased spending is made possible not because of a tax hike necessarily, but because the ever-rising value of Austin homes is generating more revenue from property taxes. The proposed property tax rate of 44.11 cents per $100 of property valuation will actually be 1.78 cents lower than the previous year. Under state law, however, that amount is the highest that the city can charge without getting approval from voters.

By far the greatest funding increase is $13.8 million for police and $10.6 million for the fire department, but those figures amount to percentage increases of only 3.7 percent and 6.7 percent, respectively, because those departments are the two biggest spenders already.

The largest percentage increases come for development services at 16.7 percent, or $5.5 million, and libraries at 14.7 percent, or $6.1 million. The $1.2 million increase for Animal Services and the $600,000 increase for Neighborhood Housing and Community Development amount to percentage increases of 12.1 percent and 11.6 percent, respectively.

Staff has proposed a 7.1 percent increase ($5.4 million) for the Parks and Recreation Department and a 7.2 percent increase ($4.4 million) for Health and Human Services.

In the months preceding the budget proposal, the city finance department tried to figure out whether taxpayers were happy with how their money was being spent. Between April 15 and July 15, 1,626 Austinites filled out the online “budget simulator,” a tool on the city’s website that allows users to indicate which city services they would like to see funded more, as well as which ones they believe should be funded less.

Although the pool of respondents was not randomly selected as it would be for a scientific poll, the city tried mightily to get a sample that was representative of the city, said Ed Van Eenoo, Austin’s deputy chief financial officer. In addition to urging participation through social media and legacy media, city staff attended 28 community events and five City Council town hall meetings.

“We were out in the community targeting populations that we have not had good responses from in the past,” said Van Eenoo, specifying low-income and minority communities.

For a given city service, users could choose to maintain the current spending level or raise or cut it by 5 or 10 percent. For each increase or cut users proposed, the budget simulator showed the effect that change would have on their tax bill.

There was no service that an outright majority of respondents believed should be cut or boosted, but the one that came the closest was mental and behavioral health programs. Just under 50 percent said they would like to see more funding for such programs. In contrast, less than 10 percent said they wanted to see a reduction.

Council Member Don Zimmerman didn’t mind being in the minority on that issue.

“I’m confused as to why the city is or even could be in the mental health business,” he said during a Council budget work session Wednesday. Unlike traffic congestion, he said, mental health issues are not a problem the city may be able to fix.

Shannon Jones, director of the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, responded diplomatically that treating mental health problems and substance abuse played an important role in improving quality of life in the city, including for those not in need of treatment. Council Member Delia Garza, a former firefighter, added that “the return on investment is huge” for treatment efforts. Those who go untreated, she said, end up costing the city more in police and medical services.

The other services that more than 40 percent of respondents said they wanted to see more funding for were street and bridge maintenance and repair; right-of-way maintenance and sidewalk repair; park grounds and facilities planning; and bicycle infrastructure and engineering.

There appeared to be even less consensus on where the cuts should take place, but more than 35 percent of respondents said they would like less money to go to business recruitment or development and cemeteries. Around 30 percent also signaled support for cuts to commercial stabilization and redevelopment programs. Finally, roughly a quarter said they would cut back on athletic and recreation programs, and the same percentage said they’d cut bike infrastructure.

Van Eenoo noted that bicycling was clearly the most polarizing subject, with a large group of people wanting greater investment and a large (but smaller) group urging for less.

The divide over city planning and transportation – displayed regularly on the Council dais – has clear ties to geography. When the results of the budget simulation were broken down by Council district, they showed that support for bicycling came from the five districts that include parts of the urban core. Biking was the most popular choice for funding increases among residents of Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo’s District 9, which includes much of downtown, while it was the second-most popular choice for cuts among residents of Zimmerman’s largely suburban District 6 in Northwest Austin as well as among those in Garza’s District 2 in the Southeast.

Interestingly, many of the core functions of city government, notably public safety, did not elicit many calls for either increases or cuts. Van Eenoo said that is to be expected. A separate community survey the city conducted earlier this year showed that public safety is “hands down” people’s top priority, he said, but most seem to believe that the current funding is just about right.

Photo by Jeff Belmonte made available through a Creative Commons license. The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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