Proposed City of Austin budget adds police officers, raises taxes


by ASHLEY GOUDEAU / KVUE News and Photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

Bio | Email | Follow: @AshleyG_KVUE

Posted on August 1, 2013 at 11:14 AM

Updated Wednesday, Aug 14 at 10:25 AM

AUSTIN -- Every day about 45 people move into the Austin city limits.

Last month, Karen Adler and her family were among them.

"We think Austin is a great city to live. Love that there are all kinds of different people here and all different types of culture," Adler said.

The Capitol City now ranks as the 11th largest in the nation and city leadership is dealing with growing pains, especially when it comes to the budget.

"We are growing rapidly and that requires a growing infrastructure and a growing number of staff personnel to maintain all that," said City of Austin Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo. 

Thursday, Van Eenoo presented a $3.3 billion dollar budget proposal to the council.

Austin City Manager Marc Ott explained that the numbers allow the City to increase its workforce to meet the needs of the growing community. The budget allows for 376 new positions within the city and emergency services departments.

“This budget includes 47 new officers to maintain our 2 officers per 1,000 population,” said Austin City Manager Marc Ott. “It includes 55 new positions in public works to improve our efforts in terms of mobility and infrastructure.”

"We're going to have a lot of great and new and exciting service enhancements. I mean one of the most noticeable ones, just step outside and look up, you're going to see cranes dotting the skyline of downtown Austin," added Van Eenoo, "and that creates a lot of demand for our plan reviewers and building we're adding 30 positions to in our budget to address that."

The city also plans to hire 20 employees to maintain the city's five cemeteries.

All city staff and police officers will also get a 1.5 percent raise. Austin Fire and EMS are currently negotiating pay raise possibilities. The emergency services offices must coordinate their raises through their unions.

To pay for those new positions, services and raises, the city is proposing a property tax increase. The city staff wants to raise the current rate of 0.5029 to 0.5114. That equates to a property tax rate increase of $0.0085 for every $100 of the home's value.

For a median priced Austin home (about $185,000) that raises the tax bill by $4.17 a month. The proposed budget also raises Austin Energy's monthly rate by $3.46 a month for the typical home owner and $5.06 a month for Austin water utility customers. The Clean Community Fee will be increased by $0.85 a month per household and the Drainage User Fee will also increase $0.85 per household a month. That brings the total monthly increase up by about $14.39. 

Mayor Lee Leffingwell said his goal is to have property tax rate remain the same. He added that the city is on the "cusp of an excellent budget" but thinks the city can do better.

"I think we should be doing everything possible to keep our tax rates and other fees and charges as low as we possibly can because that's our responsibility," said Leffingwell. "I want to emphasize I think that we're in good shape but I really question at this point whether we can do better on controlling expenditures and keep that tax rate just a little bit lower ."

During the meeting, Leffingwell also pointed out that a property tax increase may not be necessary if the city hadn't reallocated funds in the middle of the year for affordable housing and the general fund.

"We made a mid-term budget correction about 6 months ago where we added really $15.7 million to the budget. It only costed out as $5.7 because $10, that $10 million for affordable housing came from another source, but the point is if we had $15.7 million laying around right now, we wouldn't have a problem," said Leffingwell.

His point, he wants the council to be cautious about spending. Still, Leffingwell said if a property tax increase is desperately needed, and he feels the council did all it could, he will vote for it.

And many home owners say they will just bite the bullet.

"Of course I never want to hear that those kinds of things are going up because that effects my family's budget and what we can spend money on. But I think as long as the utilities are spending money responsibly, I'm okay with it. As long as we're getting great service in return, I'm okay with it," said  Adler.

A new tool called ‘Budget in a Box’ allowed residents to scale where they want to see City dollars go. According to the results of more than 500 participants, most said they wanted to maintain the same level of service regarding emergency response, energy, water and a clean community.

A majority of respondents approved spending more money for parks and libraries, health and housing, as well as planning and economic development.

An overwhelming majority were willing to pay more for better service in the City’s Streets and Infrastructure Department.

The council and departments will spend the next month in workshops, modifying the proposal. The council will vote on the final budget in September. It goes into effect October 1st.

The council will also decide this month whether to call a bond election for affordable housing.

Click here to view the proposed budget

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