Council adopts $4.2 billion budget
Wednesday, September 11, 2019 by Ryan Thornton
For the second year in a row, City Council has adopted its fiscal year budget in a single meeting of discussing and adopting amendments.
With the budget passing 10-1, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said his vote against the budget came down to the lack of adequate planning for the budget deficits forecasted in the not-so-distant future.
The $4.2 billion budget is $100 million more than the Fiscal Year 2018-19 budget and includes allocation of $1.1 billion to the General Fund dedicated to public safety, parks, animal shelters and libraries.
The citywide expenditures are 3.8 percent higher than the previous budget.
Although Council did not vote to approve the tax rate, which it plans to adopt in a separate vote on Sept. 25, its approval of the budget inherently endorses the proposed property tax rate of 44.31 cents per $100 property valuation, 0.28 cents higher than the Fiscal Year 2018-19 rate.
The total impact of taxes, combined with new rates for some city services and fees, such as the Austin Resource Recovery or Clean Community Fee, will together increase by about 2.9 percent for the typical ratepayer, costing residents on average an additional $115.47 per year.
Council typically adopts the property tax rate simultaneously with the budget, but was held up this year by the Travis Central Appraisal District. Due to a large number of appraisal protests, the district missed its standard July 25 deadline to set its property values, which the city did not receive this year until Aug. 16.
While the 44.31 rate is firm, Council will still be complying with state law by holding a tax rate hearing at 1 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13, before voting on Sept. 25.
Council was able to free up $2.1 million from the proposed budget by removing the allocation for the Austin Fire Department’s requested Command Tech program. That program would have entailed reclassifying 27 firefighters as command technicians, requiring the department to pay more in overtime for the remaining employees, who would need to work more hours to ensure fire engines were adequately staffed.
Though the department didn’t get funding for the Command Tech program, Council approved $664,000 to open a new temporary fire station in Del Valle on Oct. 1, nine months before the permanent station is set to open at an adjacent site.
While staff had proposed increasing the amount of funds put into the Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund by $548,352, the amount of money allocated into other efforts and programs Tuesday left only about $89,000 for the city’s reserve fund.
Wary that the city is not taking its financial predicament seriously enough – not the least of which is the state’s 3.5 percent cap on property tax revenue increases effective Jan. 1, 2020 – Flannigan said he generally supports the budget and its programs but could not support that lack of preparation.
“My concerns remain that we are not making good decisions for the long-term fiscal position of the city,” he said. “I continue to be frustrated that we can see charts that have deficits charted at three, four or five years, but we’ve done very little so far to adjust to that.”
In one of several victories for Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, Council approved $178,976 in ongoing funds for a child care center at the south location of the Austin Municipal Court now under construction. A one-time fee of $225,000 will also be pulled for the child care facility from 2019 savings. Staff said the center will serve court employees and employees of other offices sharing the space and could also feature a no-cost drop-in area for those using the court system.
Council also approved another of Garza’s proposals, allocation of $150,000 for access and support for residents seeking abortion care.
Generating more controversy than anticipated, Council Member Alison Alter’s proposal to create a pot for the Homeless Strategy Officer to work with failed to make it into the budget. The idea, which suggested pulling around $2 million from the Housing Trust Fund and pre-payments for the Pay for Success program to be used for current homelessness issues, may be coming back for further discussion at a future meeting.
Council members Pio Renteria and Natasha Harper-Madison both strongly opposed the general concept of sending a message to residents that the city was willing to use money intended for affordable housing and home repair to help those who are living without a home.
Alter did, however, manage to secure roughly $900,000 in funding for wildfire mitigation efforts.
Council Member Greg Casar’s attempt to prevent spending money on police officer positions that will not be filled this budget cycle failed to gather enough support to merit a vote. The proposal was to authorize the requested 30 officer positions while only funding 26, as with the department’s attrition rate those positions are very likely to remain unfilled.
Police Chief Brian Manley told Council that the department’s policy is to only recruit for positions that are already authorized and funded, meaning that the proposed reduction in funding would prevent APD from beginning the recruitment process for those positions, even though they would not be filled in the coming fiscal year.
Council included funding for the 30 officers along with $392,000 to the department for training clinicians to improve emergency response in calls requiring mental health services.
This story has been corrected. We originally reported that Council’s approval of the budget inherently endorses the proposed effective property tax rate. This has been changed as that decision endorses the property tax rate, not the effective property tax rate. Photo by John Flynn.
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