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City Council approves Austin’s $5.5 billion budget for 2024

Thursday, August 17, 2023 by Jo Clifton

With Mayor Kirk Watson in the driver’s seat, City Council delivered the Fiscal Year 2023-24 budget of $5.5 billion just before 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, including amendments requested by a variety of assistance groups and pushed forward by Council.

Council approved the budget and tax rate by a vote of 10-1, with Council Member Mackenzie Kelly opposed.

The overall tax rate will decrease by 1.69 cents. But because of increasing home values, a typical homeowner – “defined as the owner of a median valued  ($499,524)  non-senior home,” per the city – will see a 6.1 percent increase in their tax bill. According to the city’s calculations, that means the typical homeowner will have a city tax bill of about $148 per month, which is up $102 annually from last year.

Rates for electricity, trash service and other fees will also increase slightly.

According to the city, “Altogether, the combined projected impact of tax, rate and fee changes represent an increase, for the typical ratepayer, of  3.6%  – equivalent to an additional $172 per year or $14.31 per month.”

Watson thanked all those who took the time to weigh in on the budget at a variety of hearings and town hall meetings throughout Austin. He emphasized the importance of public input on decisions about how the city spends its money, calling this year’s budget process “a very collaborative process.”

City staff had proposed a budget that included increasing the city’s reserves to 17 percent. After the meeting, the Austin Monitor spoke with Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo about those reserves. He noted that in the current budget, “we had reserves at 14 percent.”

Bond rating agencies prefer that cities keep a higher percentage of reserves. Although staff recommended somewhat more, Van Eenoo said that “with the budget that Council approved, our reserves are increasing to 16.6 percent.”

Although what Council approved is more than the city currently keeps in reserves, it is about $4.7 million less than what staff had proposed, Van Eenoo said. However, he seemed pleased that reserves are increasing by about $35 million.

Council members offered a number of amendments to the budget, many of which focused on helping low-income and unhoused residents. What follows is a glimpse of the amendments Council approved.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes introduced an amendment to add $1.3 million to the budget to continue the Family Stabilization Grant Program. The program offers cash grants of $1,000 per month to 85 families per year. Members of the group UpTogether spoke to Council about the benefits of the program, convincing them to continue the grants for the coming year.

Council Member Alison Alter sponsored an amendment to continue funding for 10 Austin Police Department victim services counselors. Alter said these counselors “support survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence (and) other non-family violence aggravated assaults.” She also sponsored an amendment to provide full-time staff to implement a land management plan for the city’s parks and preserves. In a news release, Alter said, “With recent fires throughout Central Texas and Red Flag Warnings from the National Weather Service, this plan is a critical component in our fight against the threat of wildfire.” The plan is expected to win Council approval in the near future.

Despite her vote against the budget, Kelly successfully offered an amendment to purchase a new aerial fire truck for $1.8 million.

Council Member Ryan Alter sponsored amendments to provide funding for the Neighborwoods Community Tree Planting Program and to add funding to shelter services for people experiencing domestic violence. He also sponsored an amendment to help provide digital delivery of services for people experiencing homelessness.

Council Member José Velásquez offered amendments to provide funding for HIV/STI testing and treatment for vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community. He also sponsored an amendment to increase funding for a variety of programs to help low-income students and parents and the Austin school district.

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said she was very pleased about the passage of several amendments that she sponsored. Those included nearly $400,000 to enhance programming at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, new funding for launching a mobile community court pilot program and increased funding for a residential treatment facility for those suffering from mental health problems. She also thanked residents for showing up before Council to give input on the budget.

Council Member Chito Vela offered a variety of amendments, such as increasing to the number of shade structures at city playgrounds and recreational spaces; adding $850,000 to the city’s spay and neuter services for pets; and helping low-income immigrants pay for legal services.

Council Member Zo Qadri sponsored a number of items related to helping the unhoused population. He also offered amendments to help students, including one to offer food assistance to those struggling to find nutritious, affordable food.

Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis offered amendments to continue a program offering free gun locks, noting that such equipment saves lives and prevents injuries. In addition, Ellis sponsored amendments to provide better park security and maintenance. She told her colleagues she was very excited about expanding composting services for people who live in multifamily housing.

Council Member Leslie Pool said this was her ninth budget. “Every year, I think it will be easier, because I have a sense of the rhythms and what to expect. And every year, I’m amazed at how unique every budget process is,” she said.

Pool then thanked staff and interim City Manager Jesús Garza for their “excellent work” to put together the budget: “We are delivering significant service to every single corner of our community.” She said she wished that more of those who had come to talk to Council about the budget could have stayed to see the end product, because many requests made it into the budget.

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