Tuesday, July 13, 2021 by Jo Clifton

City budget proposal gives taxpayers a break

Despite a pandemic that still ravages parts of the country and in the face of hostile legislation from the state, Austin “has come through the many challenges of the past year in as good or better shape than any big city of America,” City Manager Spencer Cronk said Friday as he laid out city staffers’ proposed budget for 2021-22. In fact, both sales tax and property taxes are projected to be significantly higher than what was anticipated just a few months ago, he reported.

So Cronk proposed raising property taxes for next year just 3.5 percent, the amount allowed during normal fiscal conditions. (Because of Winter Storm Uri and its terrible toll on Texas, cities may temporarily raise their property taxes 8 percent for the upcoming year.) The tax rate is proposed to be 54.31 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The rate for the current year is 53.35 cents per $100.

Overall, the city’s budget is $4.5 billion, with about two-thirds devoted to public safety and with money restored to the police budget as required by state law. But the more important number for most people is the total yearly impact of the city’s property tax and other bills – payments for Austin Energy, Austin Water, trash and recycling collections, and various fees. The increase in costs of all those categories is about $38, according to city projections. That number takes into account the newly increased 20 percent general homestead exemption, which Council raised from 10 percent earlier this year.

How accurate those projections are for homeowners will depend in part on how much the assessed value of their homes has increased.

Cronk said, “I will tell you that we worked very hard to keep the combined tax and fee increase in this proposal below 1 percent, because despite the relatively good economic news overall in the past year, we obviously recognize the financial difficulty that many Austinites still find themselves in as a result of the pandemic.”

One reason Austin is in such good financial shape is its continuing growth and popularity. According to the city budget document, “This budget will raise more total property taxes than last year’s budget by $52,524,899 or 5.7 percent, and of that amount $21,368,668 is tax revenue to be raised from new property added to the tax roll this year.” The document notes that the city had yet to receive its certified appraisal roll from the chief appraiser of the Travis Central Appraisal District, so the amounts noted are estimates.

Despite this year’s good news, the same may not be true in future years because of the 3.5 percent cap on property tax revenue increases. “Things like wages, rent and insurance premiums will require a fundamental change in the way we do business,” Cronk said. “In short, without securing additional revenue and/or dramatically curtailing expenditure growth, we project an ongoing budget imbalance that will grow year after year.”

Friday’s budget session did not offer City Council members an opportunity for comment, but they will be holding community input meetings on July 22 and 29. Council work sessions are scheduled for July 27 and Aug. 3, with budget adoption set for Aug. 11.

EMS union chief says city budget proposal inadequate

While referring to the statewide weather emergency “that laid bare an unpreparedness for extreme climate events which will increasingly become the norm,” as well as “the specter of mass shooting events in the heart of our very own downtown,” Cronk did not talk about increases to staffing for emergency medical services. His failure to do so was a disappointment to Selena Xie, president of the Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services employees union.

Xie said EMS, like APD, is losing employees because there are simply not enough EMTs to handle all the work they have to do. She pointed out that a lack of staff means that the department must shut down one ambulance at 10 p.m. one or two nights a week, instead of continuing in service overnight on a regular basis.

Her union is asking for an additional 40 full-time employees, which is estimated to cost $1.8 million for the upcoming fiscal year. On an annual basis that would be $3.6 million, but they’re asking for an additional academy class to start next March. The Cronk budget recommends 661 EMTs and the union says they need 683. Xie noted that the service is short about 100 employees right now, but will be adding 35 at the end of July.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose District 9 covers downtown, has been supportive of hiring additional EMS personnel. In a post on the City Council Message Board, Tovo listed her first priority as “additional EMS resources for the Downtown Area Command to address the high call volume near 6th Street, as well as other community-based health investments.”

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes replied to Tovo on the message board, saying, “I am particularly excited to support your effort to secure vital EMS resources for those on the front lines during these pressing times. I look forward to working with all of my colleagues to craft a budget that meets the needs of our communities.”

Xie said the department has a plan for dealing with problems caused by large crowds in the downtown area, but those plans have not been implemented because of a lack of funding. She said the department would like to staff two motorcycles and two golf cart-type vehicles for emergencies downtown. In addition, “EMS should have a trailer where patients can wait inside, receive treatment and then be taken if necessary to the hospital.” Although Cronk mentioned the Sixth Street shooting, the budget does not address such problems, Xie said.

Council Member Greg Casar said via email, “I agree with (Xie) that we need more EMS and will work with my colleagues on this in the budget.”

Council Member Alison Alter responded by email also, saying, “I certainly will be examining whether we have made sufficient investments in our EMS staff and their training and equipment. As you know, I was a big champion of the additional ambulances and staffing we successfully added last year. At this time, it is too early for me to provide any specific direction.”

Council Member Leslie Pool said via text, “What I can tell you is that available funds are limited due, in part, to the Council’s earlier commitment to build the five new fire stations. That policy decision plus the state mandate on police essentially determines the future for other key expansions.”

Although Council agreed to build the fire stations in 2016, it has taken years to do so. Cronk mentioned that the combined fire and EMS station on Loop 360 is under construction and is expected to be complete next summer.

Photo by Images Money made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services: This organization provides emergency services to the region.

city budget: The city’s plan for expenditures based on income.

City Manager Spencer Cronk

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