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Budget Day 1: Lots of talk, little action

Tuesday, September 12, 2017 by Jo Clifton

City Council members spent Monday, the first day of consideration for the Fiscal Year 2017-2018 budget, asking questions about how to use the Hotel Occupancy Tax and talking about their preferences for adding money to the budget. They took only one concrete action: directing the city manager to work with Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr to cut about $255,000 from the department’s budget.

Council Member Alison Alter had a specific recommendation that for 18 months, or “until vacancies at Austin Fire Department stabilize to 40 vacancies,” the department implement a rule requiring mandatory overtime for firefighters on their Kelly days. (Kelly days are a tradition in fire departments due to the nature of firefighters’ 19-day work cycles.) Voluntary overtime has helped push the understaffed department’s overtime budget to more than $21 million.

However, City Auditor Corrie Stokes reported in June that although voluntary overtime can affect cost, the department’s many vacancies were a much bigger factor in creating a huge overtime expenditure.

Council Member Delia Garza, a former firefighter, spoke against Alter’s required overtime proposal, calling it anti-labor. Garza said workers organize in order to prevent the kind of action Council was about to take – requiring firefighters to work overtime.

Mayor Steve Adler said, “I think the dais is unanimous in the sentiment that we need to fix overtime.” He then turned to Interim City Manager Elaine Hart and asked for her perspective. Hart said she would prefer to work with the fire chief “to see what we can do to work with Kelly days. I personally don’t like mandatory overtime. … But I will work with (the) fire chief to see if there are other ways to reduce the overtime.”

Kerr sat in the audience, grim-faced. She has explained on multiple occasions that the department’s vacancies – which reached 150 this summer – and the order from the U.S. Department of Justice have limited her ability to recruit. But she expects things to get better when a new firefighter class graduates at the end of September.

The Austin Monitor spoke with Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, after the meeting. He said, “You have to figure out how to lower your aggregate overtime rate that you’re paying.” According to Nicks, a subcommittee of the association had worked on the problem for a while, but then they were told to stop. He expressed a willingness to keep looking for a solution.

Council Member Ora Houston voiced concern at the end of Monday’s meeting that if Council did not speed up its deliberations, it would not get done on Wednesday, the final day scheduled for passing the budget.

The Monitor asked Adler if he was concerned about that possibility, and he said there was “no way” that Council would not finish on Wednesday. He noted that most Council members had expressed their preferences for dealing with the $5 million that staff has said is available to be allocated without cutting important programs. In addition, he pointed to a memo from Hart on reallocation of the HOT tax, in which she said staff had “developed a plan to achieve $8.6 million or 11.57 percent of the Chapter 351 (7 cents) Hotel Occupancy Tax for historic preservation.” Such a proposal, she said, “would still allow for future expansion of the Convention Center that has been recommended by the Austin Convention Center Master Plan and the Visitor Impact Task Force.” But that is a fight for another day.

Adler said he thought it would not be necessary to decide how to allocate the $8.6 million during this week’s budget process, so long as they set the money aside to be used for historic preservation.

The Monitor‘s predecessor publication, In Fact Daily, reported on Sept. 11, 2007, that “Council Members and a weary staff breezed through the $2.5 billion city budget in about an hour and a half Monday morning. Three days had been scheduled for the process. Most of the time was spent allocating the $1.3 million not yet spent for various programs, such as Barton Springs improvements, an extension of the Lady Bird Lake trail and adding women’s facilities to the city’s fire stations.”

The article noted that it was clear that Council members had done a lot of horse trading behind the scenes. It wasn’t transparent but it was quick, with Council reading from a 19-page script. In 2007, the tax rate was set at 40.34 cents per $100 valuation, and a median-priced home was valued at $174,712. The owner of that home paid $705 in city taxes in 2007.

On the same day, the publication also reported that Brian Rodgers was launching a charter amendment petition to gather signatures to stop the city from paying subsidies to the Domain. On Nov. 5, 2008, In Fact Daily reported that 52 percent of those voting in that election rejected the proposition that the city should not pay. There was a heated community debate about the issue, with the majority of business people opposing the proposition. They heavily outspent Rodgers’ political action committee with their own PAC, known as Keep Austin’s Word.

On Monday, Council Member Leslie Pool pushed once again for the city to stop paying Simon Properties, the current owner of the Domain. Council Member Ann Kitchen supported Pool’s request for more information, but Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Jimmy Flannigan were strongly opposed. There was no vote on the proposal.

This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that Council Member Ann Kitchen supported Council Member Leslie Pool’s request for more information about the Domain subsides, not necessarily the proposal to stop paying them. Photo by John Flynn.

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