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Council makes small increases to social services

Wednesday, September 14, 2016 by Jack Craver

City Council approved a flurry of changes to the city budget Tuesday afternoon in an attempt to boost funding for social services.

Mayor Steve Adler moved to target some of the $2.1 million in funding that Council had approved Monday for quality of life initiatives aimed at African-American, Asian-American and Latino populations toward three specific programs. He moved to specify that $300,000 of that be used to boost the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), another $300,000 be used to increase enrollment in Affordable Care Act health plans and $250,000 go toward translation services.

That motion was quickly adopted in a vote of 9-1, with only Council Member Don Zimmerman in dissent and Council Member Ellen Troxclair absent.

“These expenditures are not core services; they should be refunded to taxpayers,” said Zimmerman.

An attempt by Council Member Sheri Gallo to increase the homestead exemption for seniors and the disabled from the current $80,000 to $91,000 was easily beat back, with only Zimmerman and Council Member Ann Kitchen supporting her motion.

Gallo then moved to increase the exemption to $85,000 – as originally proposed by staff – but was outmaneuvered by Council Member Greg Casar, who offered a substitute amendment to peg the exemption at $82,500, at a cost to the city treasury of only $300,000, rather than $700,000. The amendment passed unanimously, in a vote of 9-0-1, with only Council Member Houston abstaining.

Council Member Delia Garza used money freed up by the reduced senior homestead exemption to propose adding $300,000 for health and human services contracts with nonprofit organizations.

“This is a huge, huge compromise to what should have been added,” she noted, before the measure passed, with support from everybody on the dais except Zimmerman, in a vote of 9-1.

Garza similarly moved to add $200,000 to an initiative aimed at increasing access to healthy foods in underserved areas of the city. Garza had previously bemoaned the lack of funding for such initiatives in the staff proposal, citing the prevalence of “food deserts” in Del Valle, which her district includes. Zimmerman was yet again the only nay vote on that measure, which passed in a vote of 9-1.

Council also quickly approved, in two votes of 9-1, a move by Council Member Leslie Pool to add $175,000 to the Childcare Continuity service and a motion by Casar to restore $50,000 to the Downtown Austin Community Court for rehabilitative services. Each motion was opposed only by Zimmerman.

Council repeatedly turned back a number of proposed cuts. Nobody bothered arguing against Zimmerman’s proposal to cut $100,000 destined for bike infrastructure, but it was soundly defeated in a vote of 7-3, with only Council Members Sheri Gallo and Ora Houston joining Zimmerman to nix the funds.

Zimmerman also passionately urged his colleagues to undo $118,000 in funding for the Austin Technology Incubator. The organization is housed at the University of Texas but does not receive any funding from the university; Zimmerman nevertheless cited UT’s tremendous wealth in urging his colleagues to cut funding from the program.

“This is just getting embarrassing,” he said. “Please, would you please give us our $118,000 back?”

His argument fell on deaf ears. Only Houston joined him on that vote, which failed 2-8.

One proposed cut that garnered more support but similarly failed was floated by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who called for cutting $70,000 that the Economic Development Department gives to the Austin Technology Council. That money goes toward mentoring children in schools with high degrees of poverty and teaching technological skills that will hopefully translate into job opportunities.

Department Director Kevin Johns described the ATC program as playing a potentially game-changing role in the city’s efforts against poverty. Citing a recent analysis by an economist, Johns claimed that the city would benefit from $37 million in additional annual revenue in the future as a result of the program’s ability to lift kids out of poverty.

Tovo said that she “absolutely” liked the idea of dramatically reducing poverty but that she was skeptical of the program’s metrics and noted that it hadn’t been vetted on its ability to produce its purported results. Tutoring of children, she said, was not traditionally the role envisioned by city funding for the technology council.

Houston also expressed general skepticism toward the program, saying that although she understood that “tech is the new sliced bread, I have to focus on the kids who are not going to be able to do that.”

The measure to kill the $70,000 in funding failed narrowly in a 5-5 vote, with Tovo, Houston, Zimmerman, Kitchen and Pool in support and Adler, Gallo, Casar, Garza and Pio Renteria in opposition.

Council did manage to extract savings on a number of small items. It saved $35,000 by delaying the hiring of two staff positions in the city clerk’s office, funding one of them for six months and the other for only nine months next year. It also voted to reduce funding for a third-party development review process from $450,000 to $215,000.

This story has been corrected. The $2.1 million in quality of life initiatives was approved Monday, though how that money will be spent was more specifically determined on Tuesday. The second paragraph of this article originally read, “The most significant change was proposed by Mayor Steve Adler, who moved to increase spending for quality of life initiatives aimed at African-American, Asian-American and Latino populations by $2.1 million. His motion included a specification that $300,000 of that be used to boost the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), another $300,000 be used to increase enrollment in Affordable Care Act health plans and $250,000 go toward on translation services.”

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