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Speakers urge Council to increase community services budget

Wednesday, August 3, 2022 by Jo Clifton

City Council heard from about two dozen speakers Tuesday, the majority of whom urged Council members to put more money into the upcoming budget for community services such as helping the homeless, helping people pay their rent and building more affordable housing. A number of speakers urged them to increase wages for city employees, particularly emergency medical workers.

Several speakers urged Council not to increase the police department budget. Lindsay Ignatowski reminded Council members that any increase to the police budget would be permanent because of state law. She complained that information she had been able to gather about the budget was confusing. Like numerous other speakers, Ignatowski urged Council to raise city employees’ starting salaries to $22 an hour. The city manager’s proposed budget includes a starting salary of $18 per hour, up from the current $15 per hour.

Sasha Rose said the city needed to commit more funding for rental assistance and to help the homeless. She urged Council not to put any money into neighborhood policing.

Alex Luna, who began work as a crew member of the Austin Civilian Conservation Corps in Austin parks, is now in a leadership position. He said the program allows people to gain experience in conservation work and has allowed him to have health care and given him meaningful work in the parks. He urged Council to make the program permanent.

Susan Pantell pointed out that city budget documents lay out the impact of tax increases on homeowners but not on renters, who also experience increased costs when property taxes go up. She was also opposed to reducing property taxes for homeowners.

Julie Zweig said there have been a number of attacks on the Jewish community and requested additional funding for city operators to take reports about such attacks. According to Zweig and Mariette Hummell, the city needs to do more to fight antisemitism. They reported that Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter would be bringing a budget amendment to help deal with the issue.

Yvonne Weldon, a candidate for the District 3 Council seat, urged Council to reduce the tax rate and ridiculed the proposed $350 million bond election. Unlike all the other speakers who addressed the issue, Weldon said Council should move forward with a contract to buy license plate readers. Many others said Council should definitely not put that tool into the hands of police.

Chris Harris with the Austin Justice Coalition asked Council to invest more in its citizens. “This budget represents probably the greatest opportunity that you all have of making those types of investments,” which will make Austin a “strong and secure community.”

Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo told the Austin Monitor the proposed city budget includes $75 million for community investments. Some of the community investments people have asked for were included in the budget, he said, including additional legal services for immigrants and additional rental assistance programs. “But not everything was included,” he said, noting that writing a budget always involves tough choices.

Following the hearing, Council voted to move forward with the possibility of increasing next year’s property tax rate at 3.5 percent higher than this year’s. Mayor Steve Adler explained that the vote was merely procedural and would not set the tax rate. Council Member Mackenzie Kelly voted no, Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison did not participate in the vote, and the remainder of Council voted in favor.

An increase of 3.5 percent is unlikely to happen. The current proposal on the table from City Manager Spencer Cronk would see an increase of 2.7 percent — a jump that includes rates, fees and property tax paid by the typical homeowner. The $5 billion proposed budget does include increases in Austin Resource Recovery fees and higher electric rates.

While one speaker, Cyrus Reed of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, told Council his group would oppose the rate package put forth by Austin Energy, no one addressed the other rate and fee changes. Reed, a member of the city’s Electric Utility Commission, said his group would be considering the Austin Energy proposal at their next meeting.

Council set a public hearing on the budget and on the proposed rate increases for Austin Energy and Austin Resource Recovery for Aug. 17.

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 clarify the 2.7 percent increase that was proposed under the city manager budget.

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