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Council bickers over proposed budget cuts

Friday, September 9, 2016 by Jack Craver

The only thing clear from City Council’s most recent discussion about the budget is that there remains plenty of disagreement among the 11 members over where to cut.

Mayor Steve Adler kicked off Thursday’s budget work session with a list of programs he suggested adding to the budget that was proposed by city management earlier this year. The $13.3 million in proposed spending increases – including over $6 million of funding boosts to health and human service initiatives – were accompanied by a list of proposed program cuts worth an equal amount.

Few of the proposals cost much in the context of the city budget, but some of them nevertheless elicited strong pushback from Council members.

Council members Sheri Gallo and Ann Kitchen both said they would not be able to support the mayor’s proposal to save the city $800,000 by not increasing the homestead exemption for senior citizens.

Gallo even suggested that, rather than raising the exemption from $80,000 to $85,000, as recommended by staff, the city should push the exemption all the way up to $91,000, arguing that only with that increase would Austin seniors be protected from higher taxes due to a rising property tax rate and rising property valuations.

“I just think it’s really important to do if we want our seniors to be able to stay in place,” she said.

When pressed by Adler on what she would cut to make up for the lost revenue, Gallo pointed to $3 million he had proposed for quality of life initiatives, including the Spirit of East Austin initiative that is aimed at economic development on the historically marginalized east side of town. Gallo argued that tax relief for seniors was an important “quality of life” issue as well.

Adler’s proposal to delay full implementation of the police body camera program approved by Council earlier this year also met resistance from Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council members Greg Casar and Ora Houston.

“I just need to say that we’re going to have to get body cameras,” said Houston, describing it as a commitment citizens expect their government to keep.

A number of Council members – Casar, Kitchen and Delia Garza – also said they would be reluctant to support the mayor’s proposal to reduce the number of new paramedic positions included in the staff budget recommendation. The addition of those 52 new employees is intended to enable the reduction of the workweek to 42 hours for emergency medical service workers.

At one point during the discussion, Houston asked whether a Council member who is able to identify a potential budget cut would, if that cut were accepted, “automatically” get to decide what other program would then receive the funds freed up by the cut. The suggestion was embraced by Garza, who said that those whose staff “are going out, asking the tough questions” should be rewarded.

“I would argue pretty strenuously no,” responded Adler. “Whether we spend money should be based on the merit” of the program citywide, he said.

Garza then argued that the list of proposed cuts and spending increases in front of them came from only one Council office – the mayor’s. Kitchen similarly complained that many of the suggestions she had made on the budget concept menu weren’t included on the mayor’s list.

Adler responded that the list consisted merely of his suggestions and that Council members were free to offer their own.

“There’s nothing on here we can’t change,” he said.

Garza also suggested that it should be up to the Austin Police Department, not Council, to find the funding necessary to deal with the current backlog of sexual assault kits as well as staffing for a forensics lab. Adler accounted for adding $500,000 to deal with the current backlog and $1.4 million to hire forensics employees in his proposed increases.

“I don’t know why we can’t say, ‘APD, go find that money,’” she said. “It just seems weird that we have to go find the money.”

Council members will convene again to discuss the budget on Friday at 1 p.m.

Photo by Dave Dugdale made available through a Creative Commons license.

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