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Committee IDs employment, accessibility among priorities for next budget

Monday, May 11, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

The city board overseeing services for the disabled wants funding for better accessibility at City Hall, improved street crossings and more employment opportunities included in the next city budget.

Last week the Mayor’s Committee for People With Disabilities moved forward with drafting budget request language for six priorities for the upcoming budget talks, with unaddressed or partially funded requests from last year returning to the list even as most city watchers expect tight spending as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Other requests include improved programming at city parks facilities for people with intellectual disabilities, more training for the Austin Police Department related to disabilities issues as well as the hiring of an outreach officer, and adding Braille lettering to police identification.

The committee had been asked to submit its budget requests to city staff by April 24, but hadn’t achieved quorum in its meetings just prior to the onset of Covid-19, which temporarily caused all meetings of boards and commissions to be canceled. Committee members agreed last week to individually draft request language for the items, with that language expected to be approved at a special meeting that will be called later this month.

Discussion on the items included focus on the limited funding for previous requests, including adding automated door switches to more entrances at City Hall, along with the parks department programming and employment opportunities.

Committee member Robin Orlowski cautioned other members that the city’s revenue uncertainty in the face of expected sharp declines in sales tax receipts could make it difficult to fund the group’s requests.

In response, committee member Deborah Trejo said requests need to demonstrate the needs that remain and have been emphasized by the strain of the pandemic.

“My feeling is we have to keep letting the city know that we still want them to prioritize programming for people with disabilities,” she said. “We may not get what we ask for because the whole world is in crisis and governments don’t even know the full impact to their budgets because they don’t know how much people are going to be spending on sales taxes and all that stuff. But this committee should still move forward with its recommendations because they are important and we want to let the city know we didn’t just drop off the map because of Covid.”

Committee member Jonathan Franks said he wants the city to follow through with increased hiring of people with disabilities because opportunities could be limited elsewhere if the national economy experiences a prolonged recession.

“I’m seeing things every day about things being cut and people being impacted by Social Security disabilities (benefits) and things like that,” he said. “We need to be within the radar of the city and City Council’s budget work so they know this is important, especially with people with disabilities needing employment.”

Orlowski said the city has a duty to address needs that have gone unmet at the state and federal level. She observed that the economic fallout from the pandemic has put limitations on portions of the workforce – that resembles everyday life for the disabled.

“We’re in this pretty unique situation where pretty much everybody is up a creek because of mass unemployment,” she said. “The state traditionally underfunds social services and there’s been very bad planning overall, and traditionally we’ve been underemployed and unemployed and it’s a very bad situation for a lot of people. It’s frightening a lot of able-bodied people to not be working full time and not be out and about freely and they’re actually experiencing to live like us and that’s what they don’t like.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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