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Council members talk about the budget

Thursday, September 6, 2018 by Jo Clifton

As City Council begins its final work session on the budget this morning in preparation for next week’s budget setting meetings, the Austin Monitor asked Council members to tell us the most important aspects of the Fiscal Year 2018-19 budget.

Both Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Greg Casar said increasing the minimum wage for all employees to $15 an hour was perhaps the most important thing this budget would accomplish.

Adler said that increasing investments in affordable housing and services for the homeless was also very high on his list of accomplishments. He noted that in the coming year the city would allocate about $40 million for affordable housing, including $5.3 million for the housing trust fund.

Currently, the tax exemption for the disabled and people over 65 is $85,500, Adler noted. He said he would like to raise that to $90,000 for the upcoming year, but he did not indicate that he would push strongly for the increase this year.

But Adler said it was important to make sure the budget did not grow too much when Council is adding its amendments. He said he is proud of the fact that it would be the second-smallest budget increase in recent memory, adding that the smallest increase was the first year the 10-1 Council took office.

Council members Ellen Troxclair and Jimmy Flannigan, on the other hand, did not want to go higher than the 4.9 percent increase above the effective tax rate proposed by City Manager Spencer Cronk.

Adler praised Cronk, saying he did a really good job, and noted that Cronk had asked each Council member individually about what they wanted to see in the budget.

Casar said the $15-per-hour wage is by far the most important aspect of the new budget for him. “I think that is a step forward in the budget process, in that we’re getting some of the most important things to Council done without amendments,” he said.

For his District 4, Casar said, “We’re trying to get moving on a health and senior center at the Gus Garcia Recreation Center.

“As far as a citywide issue goes, I’m going to probably be working on amendments to try and improve our work in reducing relationship violence and domestic violence because so much of the violent crime increase that’s been reported (in Austin) is actually related to relationship and domestic violence,” he said.

“I don’t see anything new in our budget that is really working to reduce that, and the SAFE Alliance (Stop Abuse for Everyone) and other folks have been advocating for some funds to be set aside to address that issue in particular,” Casar said. He referred to a recommendation from the Public Safety Commission to set up a fund to help people escape from domestic violence – they could use the money to get their locks changed, buy a bus ticket to somewhere safe or rent an apartment for a couple of months, for example.

At least three Council members are very interested in taking care of deferred maintenance, particularly in the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

District 10 Council Member Alison Alter told the Monitor via email, “My highest priority at this stage in the budget process is increased funding for PARD, specifically PARD’s many deferred maintenance needs.”

She added, “I also am very interested in increasing our investments in after school programs and parent support specialists in AISD schools as well as providing tax relief via the senior homestead exemption.”

In response to our query, Flannigan’s communications director, Kate Messer, pointed to a statement Flannigan made in August about the budget.

On Aug. 10, the day after Council adopted a maximum tax rate increase of 6 percent over the current year, Flannigan posted a statement on the City Council Message Board expressing support for the manager’s budget proposal, which would have increased taxes by 4.9 percent.

“Given a possible proposed tax increase of 6%, the city has the potential to collect an additional $5 million of taxpayer dollars,” Flannigan wrote.

“I know that many of us will hear from great organizations and programs over the next month that do good work and deserve our support. It happens every year and we end up earmarking millions of dollars in projects that have an unclear impact on the overall strategic direction we have agreed upon as a Council. Many of us have lamented this procedure hoping for a new budget process, and our City Staff has started to deliver on that request,” he said.

Flannigan said that instead of allocating money to new projects, he thought any additional tax dollars should be spent on deferred maintenance.

“The focus on the condition and quality of our city-owned property (pools, parks, public facilities, etc.) was one of our top ten strategic indicators. By preventing the further deterioration of our public facilities, we can also reduce the deterioration of the public trust in their beloved community assets, address unsafe conditions for the public and city staff, and lessen the need to issue debt in the future which reduces our overall bonding capacity,” Flannigan said.

Council Member Ora Houston in District 1 indicated her support for putting the additional tax dollars into deferred maintenance also.

In a reply that appeared on the message board on Aug. 20, Houston said she agreed with Flannigan. “As I travel throughout the city to meet City employees where they work, I have been appalled at some of the conditions of their workplace environment and the City facilities.

“In addition, there are deferred maintenance needs at various public facilities like the Walnut Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, where one of the two separators (organic from non-organic material) is broken and parts are not available to make the repairs.

“I support any additional tax dollars being added to the Government that Works outcome, especially the Deferred Maintenance Fund,” she concluded.

District 8’s Troxclair told the Monitor she would like for the city “to live within its means – or for the city to live within its residents’ ability to pay.” Ever the conservative, Troxclair said she didn’t think the city had done a very good job in making growth pay for itself.

“People don’t get 8 percent increases in their salaries every year. Yet that is what the city has assumed, because we have increased taxes 8 percent year over year. I really am happy that looks to be around 6 percent this year, but I really still feel that that is more than the average Austin resident can afford,” she said.

“At some point the city is just really outstripping people’s ability to pay.”

Troxclair said this leads to a whole host of ills, including gentrification, loss of our artist community and economic segregation. According to Troxclair, high taxes are “the root cause” for many of the city’s most serious problems.

This story has been corrected to clarify that the city manager recommended 4.9 percent increase above the effective tax rate, not a 4.9 percent increase in the budget. Photo by Jericho [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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