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Budget stresses show in child care discussion

Wednesday, June 7, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo faced strong resistance at Tuesday’s work session to her resolution directing the city manager to find funding to continue a child care services program for homeless families.

Tovo and her cosponsors, City Council members Delia Garza, Leslie Pool and Pio Renteria, noted in their draft resolution that the city provided $160,000 as a one-time grant during this year’s budget to provide child care for 74 children from emergency shelters operated by the Salvation Army, Foundation for the Homeless and SAFE Alliance. But that money will run out at the end of September.

No one disputed the worthiness of the program, but Mayor Steve Adler and Council members Jimmy Flannigan, Alison Alter and Ellen Troxclair questioned whether now was an appropriate time to bring forward the resolution.

Prior to the current fiscal year, the Passages Program was funded by federal dollars. The program provides “full-time case management to assist families with housing, employment, job training, education, childcare, counseling, legal issues, and many other needs,” according to the resolution. However, new federal guidelines last year eliminated child care assistance for those families.

The resolution on Thursday’s agenda would direct the interim city manager to identify funding for another year of child care for those families.

Troxclair, the lone conservative on Council, told Tovo that she should “identify where you think the funding should come from.”

Tovo responded that she would do so and that she has in the past identified millions of dollars in the budget that could be reallocated.

“I certainly intend to approach our budget process the same way,” said Tovo. “This is intended to signal a priority level for our staff who are currently preparing the proposed Health and Human Services budget for our consideration.”

Flannigan said, “There are still ongoing questions about what type of budget we are going to be faced with in the future based on what’s happening up the street (referring to the state Capitol) and so I’m hesitant to approve budget direction to the city manager without understanding the full context – which is a conversation I was hoping we were getting to sooner rather than later – about how our budget deliberations would move forward and to hear from the colleagues” who have done it twice already before.

On Tuesday afternoon, after the work session, Gov. Greg Abbott called a special session of the Texas Legislature to begin July 18. Among the items on the governor’s list are “property tax reform” and “caps on state and local spending.” These are just two of several items the city can be expected to oppose during the special session.

Flannigan concluded, “I’m not going to support (the resolution) even though I support the program because the moment for conversations about how we budget is not today. Those conversations will just have to come later.”

Adler also seemed reluctant to support the resolution, although he said he does support the program. He said he was concerned about creating an expectation among a stakeholder group that the city would provide the funding again.

One of the problems, Adler said, is that once Council starts passing resolutions like Tovo’s, other people will want to have resolutions passed in favor of their preferred project, even though the city may not be able to fund many of those programs. And in some instances Council members have wondered why something didn’t appear in the budget when it was the subject of a resolution.

Renteria pointed out that sometimes those who pass resolutions end up being “very disappointed.” For example, Garza, who was absent from Tuesday’s meeting because of her service on the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors, passed a resolution to add a considerable amount of funding to Health and Human Services last year. “And it didn’t get funded. We just didn’t have that money,” he said.

Assistant City Manager Bert Lumbreras told Council “it does become a bit challenging for staff in terms of being able to know how to address these resolutions, because the mayor is correct, and that was the exact point that I wanted to make.

“We’ve had very substantive discussions with Council about when a resolution is approved ahead of the budget process and then staff is put in a spot of trying to determine which one do you select out of all those resolutions. All of them are very worthy and … much-needed. But just like this one and many others that we have, we have a hard time knowing which we should recommend.”

Lumbreras also pointed out that the city manager has directed the departments to go through a 1 percent reduction process, making the budget process more difficult than it was a year ago.

At the end of the discussion, Interim Assistant City Manager Sara Hensley told Council that staff would put together a list of Health and Human Services programs that may be in jeopardy of losing federal grant funding, including a direct grant to the health department. With that list, she said, Council will be able to make better budget decisions. Hensley told the Austin Monitor she expects that list to be completed in about two weeks.

Though we originally reported that Council Member Delia Garza was absent due to her service on the Capital Metro Board, she was actually in Washington D.C., representing the city of Austin in the 2017-2018 class of the Equitable Economic Development Fellowship. Photo by John Flynn.

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