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Council members want more social services spending in budget

Thursday, August 4, 2016 by Jack Craver

A number of City Council members voiced surprise and disappointment at the 2017 budget proposed by city staff, saying it fell woefully short of the commitment to health and human services called for in previous Council resolutions.

Council Member Delia Garza was particularly flummoxed by the $99.2 million Health and Human Services budget submitted by the city manager, saying that it disregarded priorities articulated by Council in the past, including a resolution approved by the previous Council in 2014 that tied social services spending to the consumer price index and another approved by the current Council in January that called for an annual 3 percent increase in spending for the department as well as contracts with nonprofit social service providers.

The proposed budget includes only $600,000 of the $7.3 million increase the resolution called for.

Studies that had shown Austin spending far less on social services than similar cities, as well as research that had shown it to be one of the most economically segregated cities in the country, had persuaded Garza and her colleagues to push for additional investment in services aimed at Austin’s poor, she said. She noted that the 2014 resolution was approved 5-2 and the January resolution passed 8-2.

“I’m just wondering why, with what I believe was so much support from the Council with regards to pushing increased funding, why we didn’t see that in this budget?” she asked.

City Manager Marc Ott later emphasized that staff had to take into account multiple Council resolutions when constructing the budget and that tight financial times meant that not all of Council’s stated priorities would get the requested funding. Of course, it is Council’s prerogative, he said, to amend the proposal however it sees fit.

“We weigh a lot of factors in crafting our recommendation,” he said. “With respect to Health and Human Services, we funded it at the level that we did, believing that was adequate and the best we could do, all other priorities across the budget being taken into account.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen said she hoped in the future that staff could let Council know ahead of time how it could fund priorities put forward in resolutions. Now, she said, Council’s only recourse is to dig through the budget on its own, looking for areas to cut in order to fund the increased social services spending.

“I feel as a Council member that when we pass those kinds of resolutions, we need some sort of path,” she said.

Jo Kathryn Quinn, executive director of Caritas, a nonprofit focused on poverty and homelessness, pointed out that her group was one of 85 that formed a coalition, One Voice Central Texas, to support increased city spending on social services. It is hard to understand, she said, how a policy with such a strong base of support was ignored in the budget.

Without the increased spending, Quinn said, some of the contracts the city currently has with social service groups would have to be cut, at least partially. “It’s a prospect of going backward,” she said.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo focused on a particular social services initiative that she was disappointed to see excluded from the proposed budget: a downtown public bathroom.

Tovo had hoped, she later told the Austin Monitor, that two temporary restrooms authorized in a June resolution would be on the ground and running by next month. The idea was for two temporary facilities to be set up in the downtown area as a pilot; after several months, the city would choose the spot that had performed the best as the site of a permanent facility, ideally a “Portland Loo,” a novel type of outdoor restroom that boasts a number of features, including graffiti-resistant walls, exterior sinks and accessibility for the disabled.

In an effort to cut costs, Tovo said she and city staff are considering relying on a cheaper technology for the temporary facilities, including something as modest as a portable toilet, or simply forgoing the pilot phase and moving directly to constructing the permanent restroom.

And, as will be the case in her attempts to find money for other social services priorities, Tovo said it’s just a matter of finding cuts elsewhere.

“We did find several million dollars of places to trim or shift funding last year, and we’re going to look very carefully at the budget this year,” she said.

Both Tovo and Garza opposed the increase in the homestead exemption that Council approved at the end of June, in part because of the impact the $3.8 million in lost revenue would have on social services.

Photo by Hobbles on a Budget made available through a Creative Commons license.

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