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Budget battle day two: Winners and losers

Wednesday, September 14, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Two battles that played out at Tuesday’s budget session demonstrated that decisions City Council has made throughout the year have left it with few options for the Fiscal Year 2016-2017 budget. At one point, Council even voted to reduce the budget by just $5,000. The funds were intended to go toward tourism. The cut, proposed by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, passed unanimously in a vote of 10-0, with Council Member Ellen Troxclair absent.

With an overall budget of $3.7 billion, Council members started Tuesday with a budget deficit of just $167,000, but they decided to make some cuts before they could start to provide additional funds for Health and Human Services Department contracts, for example.

Council Member Greg Casar made a motion to reduce the budget of the Development Services Department by eliminating $225,000 of a $450,000 contract with an outside company to do reviews of development plans. Speeding up these reviews was one of the major recommendations of the Zucker report, a scathing analysis of the city’s development review processes.

Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Sheri Gallo argued against the proposal, with both arguing that improving the city’s building review process is a key part of advancing affordability.

Council Member Pio Renteria said, “We’ve been getting all of these calls about the (development) delays. We’ve been beating up on this department.” He noted that it took him two years to build a garage apartment on his property. “The delay really affected us. When they asked me if I would build in Austin” again, he added, “I said no.”

The vote failed 5-5.

After that vote, department Director Rodney Gonzales told the Austin Monitor that his department is working hard to perform reviews on time. “There have been a lot of delays that have been talked about on the Council dais. … Our response, at the request of Council, is to improve the delivery of services.”

“Of course, as Mr. Zucker pointed out, we need the resources to match the volume of activity,” he continued, including increases in commercial and residential projects. “These are projects that add more housing stock to the Austin community, and we can’t be delayed in (bringing) that new housing to Austin,” he said. In addition, other Austin residents are trying to go through the department’s processes in order to remodel their homes.

Gonzales concluded that his department really needs the resources to meet the on-time performance that Council has requested.

Council Member Leslie Pool joined Adler, Gallo, and Council Members Ora Houston, Don Zimmerman and Pio Renteria in rejecting the cut, but Pool later told the Monitor that there was some confusion on the dais when she voted and that she had not intended to vote no.
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After lunch, Tovo made a motion to cut $235,000 of the $450,000 contract, reducing the amount by an extra $10,000. This time, Pool voted in favor, so the item passed 6 to 4.

Tovo told the Monitor she was hoping the cut would assist her in her quest to add $300,000 to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP. She said she was sure that the Development Services Department would use its resources wisely, but she thought that the need to help those who are food insecure was greater.

Fleet Services Officer Gerry Calk was more successful in defending funding for his department, which maintains and repairs all of the city’s vehicles, including police cars and fire engines. Council Member Ann Kitchen tried to cut six positions from the department.

Calk explained that when a vehicle is brought in for repair, one of three things may happen. If an employee is available to repair the vehicle, it will be done on time. If not, the vehicle will sit and wait until someone is available, or it will be sent out to a third-party for repair. The third-party option always costs more, Calk explained.

City Manager Marc Ott also weighed in. He noted that most city departments use vehicles, and to the extent that they cannot use a vehicle that they need, those department’s employees are less productive. A reduction in cost means a reduction in service to a growing fleet, which has operational implications for the rest of the organization, he said.

Council voted 5-5 to reject the cut in fleet services, with Gallo, Kitchen, Zimmerman, Houston and Council Member Delia Garza voting for the cut.

Photo by Images Money made available through a Creative Commons license.

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