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Reporter’s Notebook: Cash rules everything around us

Monday, September 12, 2016 by Austin Monitor

In for a penny… This week, City Council will OK the city’s budget. So, it’s understandable that the conversation last week was dominated by budget discussions – particularly given the $1.6 million or so that City Council is left looking for this week, and the many programs still left to fund. Although it took no action on the budget Friday, Council did spend several hours working on the topic, during which tough choices made for some (more) tough conversation. Several Council members pushed back against the idea of not providing for a reduced 42-hour work week for Emergency Medical Services staff, as promised. In a post on the City Council Message Board, Council Member Delia Garza reiterated concerns about that topic and suggested that staffing of the currently closed DNA lab come from the existing police budget. She also cautioned against cutting African-American, Asian and Latino “Quality of Life” funding and, of course, ever-underfunded social services. Garza writes, “We need to remember that the nonprofit social service agencies in Austin face many of the same cost drivers that the City does, and if we do not address those cost drivers, the volume of services they can provide will decrease. That is why this Council passed a resolution committing itself to giving a 3% annual increase to existing social service and workforce development contracts. … that means $800,000 for FY 17. Whatever else we do, we should not allow these services to become scarcer than they are now.” She also restated her questions about plowing on with a homestead exemption, saying, “I need to reemphasize that a big reason we’re facing these hard questions around keeping our promises is because of this year’s 2% increase in the homestead exemption. The increase carved $3.8 million from this year’s City budget, without making a meaningful change to affordability – a mere $2 a month for the average homeowner. Meanwhile, residents’ mortgages and rents are both rising more quickly than the City’s property taxes, and we are depriving ourselves of the means to fix that. The homestead exemption does nothing for the half of Austin that rents and undermines the City’s ability to meet urgent city needs. I hope our council seriously considers this predicament in future budget cycles.” While many Council members last week seemed similarly inclined, Mayor Steve Adler warned that the social services that they hoped to fund could also be jeopardized by a lack of economic growth. “I don’t want to get to a place where we are, in essence, eating our seed corn,” said Adler. “We have the money to spend on health and human services and on social services and on the wages that we have because of the tax revenue that the city generates, because of the development, the growth, we have in this city. … There is that balance.”

As for what all that means for us (probably)… A chart from budget staff showing increased taxes and fees over the past five years (embedded below) proves pretty interesting (for those who have read this far, natch). Overall, the cost of taxes and fees has risen from $278.31 in 2012 to a proposed $321.93 proposed for 2017. Of that, Austin Energy was the only bill to have actually dropped – due to a combination of the utility lowering its revenue requirements and the existence of a power supply adjustment that is the lowest it’s been in 13 years. The greatest growth, compounded, was found in the two most mysterious fees – a 10 percent increase for the city’s Clean Community Fee, and a 9.6 percent increase for the Transportation User Fee – those monthly fees are now $8.05 and $11.52, respectively.

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Great wide open house… As we reported last week, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority is in the middle of the final public input push before it puts the finishing touches on Connections 2025, the agency’s long-range plan, which promises to be a drastic overhaul of bus service as we know it in Austin. To hear senior planner Lawrence Deeter tell it, the feedback from the nine open houses will have significant impact on the decision-making as staff prepares the rough draft for ultimate approval by the board of directors. With so much on the line, one would expect a disciplined execution, if one were not necessarily familiar with the tractor beam of irony that is government. On Thursday, Capital Metro took to heart the “open” part of open house when the effort scheduled at City Hall had to be held on the outside plaza on Cesar Chavez Street. Said one staff member, a scheduling snafu left the team of seven or so agency reps and their foldout table chasing the shade of the live oaks beneath the roving September sun. Saturday’s effort came with its own minor trouble at South Austin’s Faith United Methodist Church, where one diligent attendee reported that Deeter and his team were locked outside for half an hour. There are four more open houses scheduled this week, but you can avoid any potential pratfalls by submitting your thoughts about the Connections 2025 draft via the safety of email.

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Elizabeth Pagano and Caleb Pritchard. It has been corrected to accurately reflect the reason Austin Energy’s bills have declined.

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