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Monday, August 21, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Budget: Austin weighs in

For the past month or so, City Council has been working through the details of this year’s proposed budget. At their most recent meeting, Council members heard from Austinites in a 2 1/2-hour public hearing that focused on the shape Austinites would like to see this year’s city spending take.

On Thursday, Council held a public comment hearing on the proposed city budget. Council will hold a second public hearing on the budget at its Aug. 31 meeting, and it is scheduled to adopt a property tax rate on Sept. 11, though that deadline can be extended to Sept. 13 if necessary.

With Austin Police Department contract negotiations ongoing, and the fact that public safety constitutes such a large portion of the budget, it’s no surprise that it was a point of contention among speakers. Public safety constitutes about 67 percent of Austin’s $1 billion General Fund. That percentage has actually been in decline over the past three years, with its share of the General Fund falling about 3 percent over that time period. This year’s proposed budget has public safety funding at 66.5 percent of the General Fund.

Cary Roberts, who is the executive director of the Greater Austin Crime Commission, warned that the trend was “setting up our police department to fail.”

“Public safety isn’t a conservative or a progressive issue. It’s a community concern. So this is a question of priorities, not a lack of revenue,” he said. “Please fund public safety first.”

Still, some are hoping for a radical change from how things are done. Kathy Mitchell, with the Austin Justice Coalition, reiterated a request for the city to end “meet and confer” negotiations, “walk away from the contract that governs the police association” and reform some of the department’s current practices.

Mitchell asked that the city begin, instead, to allocate public safety resources “to more effective approaches that address root causes.”

“The commitments you have already made to increase funding for health and social services are critical to public safety. These services have been starved for more than two decades. Your equity office must be resourced appropriately after you’ve heard from others tonight. Address mental health needs with mental health care, not policing. Address addiction with treatment, not policing. Address homelessness with homes and interventions recommended by your homeless team. Address truancy with age-appropriate programming, including swimming, as we’ve heard tonight,” she continued.

In fact, many of the speakers on Thursday were there to ask Council to up their social services and focus on increased equity. Though Council members remained mostly quiet during Thursday’s hearing, some Council members have already signaled that the proposed funding for social service contracts will be a point of contention this year as it has been in years past. Despite promises to tie such spending to the consumer price index and to increase the budget annually, the staff-proposed budget does not include increased public health funding.

And, as the city struggles with how to deal with a system of failing pools, members of the Montopolis swim team showed a video that highlighted the disparity between pools in the city, on the heels of a heated discussion about pool equity and the Aquatic Master Plan. Driving the point home, the children pointed out that their facilities didn’t have things like painted lanes, flags to signal the end of a lane or adequate kick boards.

One of the children in the video explained that they noticed the difference when attending meets across the city, saying, “I absolutely noticed a difference in the facilities. The farther west we got the nicer the pools were. Things that were west and north were a lot nicer.”

At the moment, Council has the ability to raise taxes 14.4 percent next year, to 46.5 cents per $100 of property valuation. That increase is above the rollback rate and would trigger an election. It would also allow the city to move forward with a tax swap with the Austin Independent School District. If the city moves forward with that swap, even though city taxes will be higher, the city budget won’t be. In fact, it seems as though this year will be a tight budget no matter what plan moves forward. Currently, there is about $5 million on the table for Council members to add things.

Photo by Tax Credits made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

city budget: The city’s plan for expenditures based on income.

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