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Council begins final slog through budget today

Monday, September 11, 2017 by Jo Clifton

After hours and hours of budget work sessions, including two such sessions last week, today City Council must at least start to make the hard decisions of what to fund and what to leave for another year. Today is the first of three days set aside to finalize the budget.

Although several Council members have indicated that they want to remove funding from allocations in the staff’s budget, there does not appear to be a consensus about what they might cut in order to fund their favorite projects.

If they do not cut any of the funding outlined in the staff budget, they will have $4 million in recurring funds and $1 million in what are known as one-time funds for those projects.

Council Member Greg Casar on Thursday presented his colleagues with a list that included several topics they are likely to support. That included increasing health and human services funding by about $3 million, adding $600,000 to the city’s housing trust fund and continuing to fund a number of other programs, such as assistance to students and parents in Title 1 schools and immigrant legal services. His list also included adding money to increase funding for the city’s new Equity Office and training for counselors for survivors of sexual assault.

A number of his colleagues also indicated that they would support the counselor training, and Mayor Steve Adler wants to increase funding for the Equity Office, so those things seem likely to happen.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair led the charge on the resolution to allocate 15 percent of the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax to fund maintenance and operations of city historic sites as well as operation and maintenance of such popular tourist destinations as Barton Springs Pool, Zilker Park and the Umlauf Sculpture Gardens. It was a tough fight and Mayor Steve Adler strenuously resisted taking money that might otherwise be allocated to Visit Austin (formerly known as the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau).

Although several of her colleagues provided lists of items they wanted added to the budget, Troxclair did not. Instead, she told the Austin Monitor last week, “I wanted to take that money and apply it to lowering the tax rate. That’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m especially hopeful that the Council will at least take the $1.5 million that we were previously spending from general revenue on police and SXSW. But now that we’ve been able to move that as an expenditure over into the convention center (budget), we can give that back to the taxpayers.”

It seems unlikely that Council would vote not to go to the rollback rate of 8 percent above last year’s rate. The Texas Legislature has threatened to lower that rollback rate to either 6 percent or 4 percent. Every time there is a threat, it encourages the Council to go to the rollback rate because next year they might not be able to do so.

Adler announced on Thursday that he wanted a presentation on uses of the Hotel Occupancy Tax at the beginning of today’s deliberations.

Troxclair posted a message on the City Council Message Board listing various projects that she believes are eligible for HOT funding. Her list adds up to close to $10 million.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo put in a lot of work alongside Troxclair and Council members Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchen on the HOT funding question. However, Tovo’s list includes about $10 million worth of items she would like to see added to the budget, starting with the Austin Independent School District after-school program and funding for parent-teacher support specialists for the district. Tovo, along with several of her colleagues, supports funding for a redesign of the downtown homeless shelter and an increase in funds for permanent supportive housing.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan told his colleagues he was concerned about how much money the Council was planning to spend “given … the instability of federal programs. It’s fairly obvious to me that if the federal government pulls back its financial support, then our community is going to want us to fill that gap and I’m concerned about adding ongoing commitments.”

He continued, “I’m concerned about adding new programming. I’m concerned about being at a minimum of 12 percent in our reserves. I think from a prudent perspective I would be willing to fund some one-time things, things that can generate funds.” For example, Flannigan said he would be willing to support upgrades to the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex in East Austin because that could allow the complex to generate more revenue. He also said he would support adding money to the Asian American Resource Center funding because that would enable the center to solicit private funding to continue its upgrade.

Pool posted a list of her budget recommendations on the City Council Message Board. They included $1 million for investments that would bring 10 city playgrounds into compliance With the Americans with Disabilities Act and $400,000 so that EMS can replace its outdated system for tracking patients’ medical records.

Pool also wants to invest $35,000 to pay for about 900 graffiti abatement kits that would allow community members to respond rapidly to graffiti and for marketing materials the city can use to raise public awareness about graffiti regulations and abatement resources.

Several members of Council, especially Council Member Delia Garza, have pushed for more funding for items recommended by the city’s quality-of-life commissions. Adler posted the following statement on the message board on Friday:

“On the dais, many of us have expressed a continuing desire for a better and more effective way to receive and process budget recommendations we get from the Quality of Life Commissions. The Commissions are working hard and we need to do better to take advantage of and to benefit from this resource of community insight and expertise.

“We should handle the QofL recommendations this year as a transitional year as we commit to do better. This year, we’ll still allocate funding with consideration of the work of our Commissions. (The Concept Menu and the first showing of individual council member priorities contain many of the Commissions’ recommendations.) We need to act on them. We need to do more. We must also set into motion a deliberate course of action that will have us change structure and systems so we can be in a different place and with a different process next year.”

Photo by John Flynn.

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