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Council faces hard choices on final budget day

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 by Jack Craver

City Council went through another meandering, confusing and at times tense all-day budget discussion Tuesday and still has tough decisions left to make today, when it is scheduled to give final approval to the Fiscal Year 2017-2018 budget.

The Council debate has generally not centered on major changes to the roughly $4 billion budget proposed by the city manager earlier this summer, but rather on what to spend the roughly $5 million of surplus funds identified by staff.

The problem, as usual, is that the requests for funding far exceed the available money. Rather than make the final decisions today, Mayor Steve Adler suggested that Council take votes to add certain priorities to an informal list to be used as a basis for debate today.

The initial list, authored by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council members Delia Garza and Greg Casar, included $4.9 million of funding for a number of programs, including $1.3 million to fund parent-teacher support specialists in the Austin Independent School District, $950,000 for after-school programs, $1 million for homelessness services and $200,000 for immigrant legal services.

At the end of the day, however, more than $3.5 million of spending had been added to the list, meaning Council will likely have to take some of the items off of it during today’s session.

Nevertheless, there remains potential for Council to free up more funds to spend.

Tovo is advocating to withdraw more than $1 million from the city budget stabilization fund – the pot of money that the city puts aside to make up for drops in tax revenue in the case of economic downturn – to fund a homelessness housing initiative.

Other Council members are pushing for more than $1 million in newly liberated Hotel Occupancy Tax funds to cover security costs related to South by Southwest, which are normally covered by city taxpayers. The legality of that proposal, which would free up over $1 million from the General Fund, has been disputed, however, with some arguing that security for a festival is not in line with state-approved uses of HOT funds.

Many of the concerns focused on “Quality of Life” initiatives that are the result of recommendations made by four commissions devoted to improving services to the African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American and LGBT communities.

Council Member Pio Renteria expressed offense that the initial version of the list did not include a number of items endorsed by the Hispanic/Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission that affected organizations in his district, including $55,000 for Sam’s Corner, an arts program targeting low-income children in the Montopolis neighborhood, and $45,000 for the Hillside Summer Concert Series.

Later, however, Council voted to approve adding those two items to the list.

Renteria also succeeded in getting $300,000 added for efforts aimed at getting people enrolled in Obamacare health plans. Citing the major cuts the Trump administration has made to federal enrollment efforts, Renteria argued the city had to pick up the slack.

“When there’s cuts going on at the national and state level, it ends up with us having to make up the cost for the service,” said Renteria.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan agreed to support the notion but cautioned his colleagues that there would most likely be many more cuts to federal programs in the near future that would lead the public to demand greater action from local government.

Council Member Ora Houston failed in her attempt to allocate $700,000 for mental health services targeting the African-American community, not even receiving a second necessary to put the proposal to a vote.

Adler explained Houston’s proposal was “too big of a ticket item” for Council to fund at that stage in the process. Houston replied: “Mental health is a big-ticket item.”

Council Member Ellen Troxclair issued a lonely plea to reduce spending to lower the tax burden. She noted that Council is poised to raise the tax rate by 8 percent – the maximum that is not subject to a potential challenge by voters – for the first time since 2010.

“In times of prosperity and times of growth, the tax rate should go down,” she said.

Asked how the final day of budgeting would go, Tovo told the Austin Monitor, “It’s going to go efficiently.”

Tovo denied she was expressing sarcasm. “I feel really confident. I think we’ve had lots of discussions, and I think we know where we are and tomorrow we’re going to make those hard choices.”

Photo by Jericho [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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