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Council seeks elusive low-hanging fruit in budget

Tuesday, September 13, 2016 by Jack Craver

City Council spent hours Monday discussing and debating ways to balance the budget by finding small cuts in each city department.

In the context of the city budget, some of the figures Council members are debating are minuscule. But even small cuts prompt debate on the dais, as well as pushback from department leaders.

City Manager Marc Ott gave Council a mixed response to a proposal that every department cut 10 percent of funding for food, memberships in professional organizations, travel to conferences, subscriptions to publications or services, and a variety of other expenses typically regarded as non-essential. The across-the-board cut would save the city $4.12 million.

“In some cases, 10 percent in one department may be too harsh and have severe consequences,” said Ott, noting that there may be other departments that could absorb a greater cut.

Another significant cut being explored would come from holding back on the full implementation of the 42-hour workweek for city paramedics. The city would save $1.6 million by hiring 52 new positions over three years, rather than two years, as proposed by the department.

Emergency Medical Services Chief Ernesto Rodriguez urged Council to fully implement the shorter workweek, describing it as a critical step toward reducing worker fatigue and boosting quality of service.

Currently paramedics work a 48-hour week, but they regularly work far more, he said. It would also send an important message to workers in a department that has been plagued by attrition, something that the EMS workers union has attributed to low morale and poor pay.

Much smaller cuts also took up plenty of discussion. The Development Services Department offers a telling example. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, while praising the work of department leaders and acknowledging that the new positions they had requested would likely be useful, suggested rejecting their proposed addition of a $115,000 “planning manager” position. Council had approved more than 50 new positions for the department over the past three years, she pointed out. In addition, she was concerned about the position being funded by the Urban Forest Replenishment Fund, which Tovo argued was set up to plant trees, not pay development services staff.

Tovo also proposed a number of other budget trimmings in the department that would amount to roughly $350,000 in savings.

Department Director Rodney Gonzales pushed back, highlighting the effect of Austin’s population boom on his staff’s workload. The department receives about 800 applications for residential development a month, up from 600 in 2010, he said. In addition, he pointed out, the department is funded from the building fees it collects. Last year the department spent over $4 million less than it generated in fee revenue.

Council Member Sheri Gallo also signaled opposition to Tovo’s proposal, invoking the Zucker Report, a consultant-authored report on city management released last year that decried the city’s development review process as cumbersome and overburdened. Speeding up the building review process is a key part of advancing affordability, she said.

“I want to be real careful about us cutting things that we’ve asked the department to do in response to the Zucker Report,” said Gallo.

A number of Council members also suggested cutting or eliminating funding that the city provides to the Austin Technology Council.

Both Tovo and Council Member Ora Houston said that Council had initially appropriated funds to the group several years ago as a one-time boost, not with the expectation that it would be an annual commitment.

“I didn’t know it was going to become an entitlement,” said Houston.

Council Member Don Zimmerman also chimed in, reminding his colleagues for the umpteenth time that he is the “only technical person” on the dais and that he had “made quite a bit of money through my technology work.” While he is enthusiastic about the mission of the organization, he said, he also believes staunchly that government has no business funding it.

“We need the Chamber of Commerce, we need the Austin Technology Council, and we need them to be independent from taxpayer funding,” he said.

Council did not take any votes related to the budget on Monday, but it will likely begin doing so at its Tuesday meeting.

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