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Citizens simply ask for more at budget hearing

Thursday, August 23, 2018 by Jo Clifton

A significant majority of those who spoke at Wednesday’s public hearing on the city’s Fiscal Year 2018-19 budget seemed pleased with the money city staff had recommended allocating to their specific interest. Several praised City Council and City Manager Spencer Cronk on their allocations in the preliminary budget.

But of course, most of them wanted more – primarily for parks, for mental health professionals, and to help prekindergarten children in need of educational services, immigrants, and the homeless.

Austin attorney Pete Winstead, who chairs the Greater Austin Crime Commission, also wanted more, a lot more. Winstead asked Council to implement the findings of a report that recommends hiring 56 new police officers, not the 33 the city plans to hire this year. He pointed out that in order to do community policing, the community needs more officers, and the percentage of the budget dedicated to police has declined.

Advocates for mental health services told Council they needed more funding, which would free up officers so they don’t have to go to so many calls to deal with people in mental distress. Advocates for Integral Care’s Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Team are seeking more money from both the city and Travis County. Ellen Richards, Integral Care’s Chief Strategy Officer, said they are seeking about $1.9 million, of which Austin would provide 60 percent and Travis County would provide 40 percent.

In other years Council has heard complaints about increases in the tax rate and utility bills. But this year, Austin Energy residential customers can expect a rate increase of less than $3 for the entire year, while Austin Water customers, on average, will see their bills decline by $1.44, according to a snapshot of the city’s proposed budget.

As Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo explained, the general homestead exemption will increase from 8 to 10 percent for the coming year. On residential property valued at $400,000, the tax bill for 2019 will go up about $35. The combined projected increase for all bills, including utilities, will go up about 2 percent, he said.

Council heard from Trey Salinas, a lobbyist for commercial and business customers of Austin Energy, one of just two people who talked about Austin Energy’s budget. Salinas said Austin Energy is currently working on the fuel charge adjustment for next year. The utility does not make money on the fuel charge, but it is passed through to the customer.

Salinas did not say the charge is unreasonable, but he expressed concern that Austin Energy is planning to increase its cash reserves. He acknowledged that the utility offers its residential customers some of the lowest rates of any utility in the state but said that has not always been the case with commercial rates. In essence, he said his clients want to see the numbers sooner rather than later.

Tim Arndt had no complaint about the rates, but asked that Austin Energy increase the amount of money in its weatherization program, which he said would benefit low-income residential customers.

Arndt said that the utility staff had indicated that “the building sector was saturated. … Last year they invested $1.8 million in efficiency just in the affordable housing sector. This year, they’ve made it so restrictive and difficult to participate, they might invest a third of that.” He urged Council to increase the budget for multifamily weatherization programs to $3.5 million “and make it less restrictive so that owners can participate.”

Rebecca Lightsey and Jon Levy, both with American Gateways, which provides legal services to immigrants, thanked Council for allocating funding to their organization. However, Lightsey explained that the $135,000 grant from the city only allows them to help three people a week, while they have 30 people a week coming through their door to ask for services.

Colin Wallis, CEO of the Austin Parks Foundation, thanked Council for adding money to the parks budget for maintenance. However, Wallis and at least six others pleaded for more money for parks.

Libby Doggett, well known as the wife of local U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, was among those asking for more money for early childhood education. Doggett said she had gotten together with business leaders in the community who recognize that they need to start early to make sure that children are prepared as they grow up to become productive members of the workforce. The group is called Early Matters Austin, she said, noting that 46 percent of Austin kindergartners were not ready for kindergarten when they entered the classroom in 2017.

Austin has already committed the funding to remodel eight local classrooms to make them appropriate for 3-year-olds, she said. Doggett and several others urged the city to put more money into that effort in the future. She also asked the city for $75,000 more to fund a consultant for early childhood education.

Council Member Alison Alter asked Doggett if she was looking for additional funding for classrooms this year. Doggett replied that she wasn’t and that “eight is perfect.”

Council will hold a final budget hearing on Aug. 30.

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