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What do Austinites want the city budget to prioritize?

Monday, July 16, 2018 by Jack Craver

In the process of crafting its annual budget to present to City Council, city of Austin staff held 11 events throughout the city in an effort to hear what Austinites think about how their tax dollars should be spent.

In a lengthy memo addressed to Mayor Steve Adler and Council, Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo outlined the results of that community engagement process, which included a town hall meeting in each Council district and a citywide event hosted by Adler and broadcast live online.

According to Van Eenoo, 450 people showed up to the events and 500 people tuned in to the citywide event online, both via Facebook and the city website.

The 950 participants (some of whom were likely duplicates) represent about 0.1 percent of the city population. And of those who attended, less than half filled out surveys about what they believe should be the city’s budget priorities, so the survey results can hardly be assumed to represent the views of the general public. The district-specific data is even less representative, given that the sample sizes range from 11 to 40.

Nevertheless, the survey information is still a potentially relevant indicator of what those who are most engaged in city politics think about how tax dollars should be spent, and how those views differ among residents based on what part of the city they live in.

The surveys focused on the six “outcomes” that Council has said should underpin city programs: economic opportunity and affordability, health and the environment, mobility, safety, culture and lifelong learning, and perhaps most broadly, “government that works.”

Within each of those outcomes are subcategories called “indicators.” For instance, the economic opportunity outcome is split into seven indicators: housing availability and affordability, cost of living compared to income, homelessness, income inequality, ability to improve income, job training, and unemployment.

When asked which of these economic indicators should be the city’s top priority, the great majority of those polled cited housing affordability (40 percent) and cost of living (33 percent), hardly a surprise in a city where housing prices have far outpaced gains in wages. While 18 percent cited homelessness as the top priority, only 2 or 3 percent of respondents cited income inequality, job training or unemployment as their top concern.

In general, the results were similar across districts, with one notable exception: the vast majority of those from District 8, in Southwest Austin, put cost of living as their No. 1 concern.

On mobility, just under half (47 percent) said that the city’s top priority should be reducing congestion and 35 percent said that it was more important to promote access to transportation choices. Only 9 percent said the top priority should be safety, 8 percent cited the condition of infrastructure and only 1 percent cited cost.

In some ways, the differences of opinion about transportation between districts were predictable: those districts with higher populations of low-income people were more likely to prioritize transit options over congestion reduction. There were some surprises, however. Of the 33 people who participated from District 6 in the far-northwest suburbs, a third indicated transit options as their top priority – nearly as many as prioritized reducing congestion. In contrast, of the 40 who answered from the similarly suburban and similarly conservative District 8, 28 opted for congestion relief and only seven chose transit options as their top priority.

When it came to safety, the most popular indicator was “the fair administration of justice,” chosen by 39 percent of respondents citywide. Tied for second place, at 21 percent, were “quality and reliability of critical infrastructure” and “timeliness and quality of emergency response.”

In general, residents from districts with larger low-income and minority populations were more likely to prioritize the fair administration of justice. Of the 14 respondents from District 1, which has the city’s largest concentration of African-American residents, 10 selected that indicator. In District 8, only five of 40 respondents chose it. In District 10, the city’s wealthiest and whitest district, a quarter of respondents did.

On health and the environment, “accessibility to quality health care services” was the most popular indicator, garnering 38 percent of the citywide total. Twenty-four percent said their top concern was access to quality parks, 12 percent prioritized general “environmental quality,” and 10 percent chose “health conditions among the public.” There were not significant differences in responses between districts.

When it came to the city’s cultural priorities, the top two vote-getters, at 25 percent each, were “honoring and preservation of historic and ethnic heritage” and “appreciation, respect, and welcoming of all people and cultures.” Next was “quality of lifelong learning opportunities” (21 percent) and “quality of cultural venues, events, programs and resources” (16 percent). Finally, 13 percent said the top priority is the “vibrancy” of the city’s creative economy.

Residents of Districts 1-4, all of which are majority nonwhite, were more likely than other districts to prioritize the preservation of historical and ethnic heritage.

The greatest diversity of opinion came in response to the “government that works” outcome category. In first place was “equity of city programs and resource allocation” (29 percent), followed by the “financial cost and sustainability of city government” (28 percent), “condition of city facilities and technology” (13 percent), “transparency and ethical practices” (11 percent), “satisfaction with city services” (10 percent),  “public engagement and participation” (7 percent), and “employee engagement among city of Austin employees” (2 percent).

The city’s two wealthiest districts – 8 and 10 – were the least likely to prioritize equal distribution of city resources, at only 12 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

This story has been corrected to clarify that 950 participants represent about 0.1 percent of the city population, not 1 percent.

Photo by slgckgc made available through a Creative Commons license.

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