Council approves $3.7 billion budget
After weeks of back-and-forth with city staff and three days of wrangling for dollars and cents on the dais, City Council approved a $3.7 billion budget Wednesday evening for the upcoming Fiscal Year 2016-2017.
Austin homeowners will pay 44.18 cents per $100 of property value. That amount represents a decrease of 1.71 cents from last year, but in light of rapidly rising home values, it is not a large enough decrease to save the average homeowner money. A non-senior Austinite with a $256,442 home will see a monthly tax increase of $3.81. When fees are added, the increase will be $7.21 a month.
“This is a very strong budget,” said Mayor Steve Adler before voting on the measure. “It’s balanced, and I think we’ve served the citizens well.”
Adler touted the budget as preserving or enhancing a number of critical city services without putting too much of a burden on property taxpayers, who he noted will benefit from a small increase in the homestead exemption that Council approved earlier this year.
In the new budget, Adler explained, Austin will add 52 emergency service workers, 12 police officers, 21 civilian police staff and 38 development service employees intended to speed up Austin’s notoriously arduous permitting and building inspection process.
All city employees will receive a 2 percent pay increase.
Adler also highlighted $2.8 million in funding for the new Central Library, $600,000 to combat homelessness and $4.2 million to implement an organics collection program.
Most of Adler’s colleagues on the dais echoed his sentiment, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said it had been a challenge to choose what to fund and what to cut in recent days, but that in the end, “Many lives in this community are going to be impacted positively by this budget.”
Council Member Greg Casar similarly said some of the new initiatives funded by the budget would allow the city to “help a lot of people,” including, he added, “many who haven’t even been born yet.”
Council Member Ann Kitchen applauded her colleagues for pushing the senior homestead exemption up, if only a tiny bit, from $80,000 to $82,500, but noted that she would like to see that figure climb in the future.
Council Member Pio Renteria took time to voice his concern about national and local attitudes about police. The city has one of the best police forces in the country, he said, and it saddens him to see people “bad mouth” cops, whom he described as part of “one big family” of city employees.
He added, “If you can’t say anything nice about city employees, just keep it to yourself.”
Renteria also pushed back on Kitchen’s pleas for a greater senior homestead exemption, pointing out that not all seniors are homeowners. He argued that a larger tax exemption would have cut some of the social services that benefit seniors (and others) who rent.
Council Member Delia Garza, who had repeatedly protested the lack of funding for health and human services throughout the budget process, said that she did not believe Council “did all that we could” on that front, but she suggested that she could not realistically expect to get all that she wanted out of such a complex process.
“It’s really easy for me to vote no on this budget and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t raise your taxes,’” she said.
Council Member Sheri Gallo, who is running for re-election this fall, largely supported most of the spending measures proposed by her more liberal colleagues throughout the process. However, Gallo offered a motion Wednesday afternoon to undo a number of fee increases included in the budget for services such as water and garbage collection.
Adler not only signaled opposition to the measure, which he said would create holes worth millions of dollars in the budget, but he moved to table it so that Council would not be forced to vote on a “misleading” proposal. He didn’t want Council members to appear to have voted against reducing fees, he explained, when Gallo had not proposed any program cuts elsewhere in the budget to make up for the reduced revenue. Kitchen similarly called Gallo’s move “not responsible.”
Gallo, however, said she wanted every Council member to be on record voting for or against lower utility bills.
“I think the public needs to understand where each of us are on that,” she said, before Adler’s motion to kill her proposal passed easily, 8-2, with only Council Member Don Zimmerman joining Gallo in opposition.
The budget ultimately passed 8-2, with only Gallo and Zimmerman against. Gallo summed up her thoughts on the budget by applauding the “passion” of her colleagues and the work of city staff, but she said she simply could not support the tax increases. Meanwhile, Zimmerman consistently derided the budget and city government with characteristic bombast.
Indeed, after the budget vote, Gallo asked her colleagues to stand and give a round of applause to city staff. Only Zimmerman remained seated.
Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who gave birth last week, was absent but released a statement voicing opposition to the increased spending and taxes.
Council Member Ora Houston voted for the budget but abstained from two later votes that authorized the tax increase. She later told the Austin Monitor that she was concerned about the effect of tax increases on her East Austin constituents, particularly seniors.
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