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Budget season begins with arguments over ‘riders’

Wednesday, July 27, 2022 by Jo Clifton

It’s budget time again. Mayor Steve Adler got the ball rolling at Tuesday’s City Council work session by noting that staff had expressed concerns about the number of budget riders Council members might be bringing forward. He also said staff members were concerned about the timing of those directives from Council.

Budget riders are generally policy directives but sometimes they have financial implications. A Council member will often use riders to make sure their areas of interest get the amount of attention from staff that the Council member thinks is appropriate. Sometimes that requires additional funding and frequently it requires analysis from staff.

Adler said Council needed to present the riders early enough for staff to analyze them, suggesting that his colleagues have their budget riders ready by Aug. 10, in anticipation of budget adoption on Aug. 17. He added that the riders should have support from four Council members, like items from Council.

That did not go over well.

Council members Ann Kitchen, Vanessa Fuentes, Kathie Tovo and Chito Vela all pushed back on requiring co-sponsorship. Only Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said she liked the idea. Council Member Paige Ellis said she might be comfortable with three sponsors, but not four. The idea didn’t make it through the work session, but Adler pointed out that any budget rider that has co-sponsors is more likely to be adopted.

There were also a lot of questions about timing on budget items.

Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter said in the past, as a matter of course, she had gotten three co-sponsors for her budget riders. She told her colleagues she was concerned this year about “what feels like a more concentrated schedule” than in years past. She wanted to ask staff to make the work sessions further in advance of budget adoption, not just the week before.

Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo was seated in front of Council, while Budget Officer Kerri Lang was attending the meeting virtually.

Fuentes wanted to know how long it would take to get answers back on budget questions, noting that not getting those answers would delay writing the budget riders. Van Eenoo said normally “it would our goal to get the answers back in five days,” but during the two weeks before the budget staff might get 100 questions. “It’s hard to hit five days when there’s so many questions,” he said.

That answer alone highlighted a dilemma both staff and Council members face in putting together a budget.

Tovo said she had been looking through the list of “unfunded items” for next year’s budget. One of those is new HALO cameras, which are funded in the current budget. Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon has said that the department needs more HALO cameras, which help the police investigate crimes, and Tovo has said she supports adding more cameras downtown.

Tovo wanted to know why HALO cameras were not in the proposed budget. Lang explained that the unfunded list could mean the item would not be proposed for funding or that it was still being reviewed.

Starting at 10 a.m. today, Council is scheduled to hear from the public on their ideas about the upcoming city budget. The word “budget” appears 13 times in Thursday’s mammoth agenda, but none of those items refer to the city’s overall budget. Council will have public meetings about the budget on Aug. 2, 9 and 11 before adoption on Aug. 17, and the following two days if necessary.

Council members Kitchen and Pio Renteria are hosting a budget town hall meeting online at 10:30 a.m. Saturday. Fuentes held a town hall on the budget last week and Council Member Leslie Pool will hold one on Aug. 6. Several other Council members are doing the same or have already done so.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here. This story has been changed since publication to correct the date of Pool’s town hall. 

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