Approved Austin 2017 budget comes with higher tax bill, new programs

After months of debate over the 2017 Austin city budget recommended by staffers, most of the changes the City Council made to the $3.7 billion budget were incremental compromises. Increasing the homestead exemption for seniors to $82,500 instead of $85,000. Adding several hundred thousand dollars in health and human services increases instead of a few million.

Once all the details were hammered out Wednesday night, the City Council approved a budget that will charge the typical resident about $87 more in city taxes and fees next year. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Next year’s operations include a 2 percent pay increase for city employees, to kick in during the pay period before Christmas. There’s funding for a new curbside composting program, at a cost of $4.2 million to the city and a phased-in cost of $64.80 to homeowners after five years. There’s $600,000 more for housing aimed at reducing homelessness.

The $970 million general fund also includes money to hire eight new employees to test DNA evidence for police, one facet of the rape kit backlog that prompted emotional testimony before the council two weeks ago. Austin also set aside $475,000 to help keep live music venues and $400,000 to extend healthy food options.

The new property tax rate of 44.18 cents per $100 of property valuation will be a decrease from last year’s rate of 45.89 cents. The council also voted earlier this summer to increase the homestead exemption, knocking 8 percent off the taxable value of a home, up from 6 percent. But with rising property values, most homeowners will receive higher tax bills. For the typical homeowner, that will mean a $46 increase in the annual property tax bill.

Fees in most areas of the city will also increase, including an average water cost increase of $35 for the year. But, thanks to a deal approved last month between ratepayers and Austin Energy, annual electricity costs will decrease an average of $44 for the year.

Council Members Don Zimmerman and Sheri Gallo voted against the budget, saying they couldn’t support the associated tax and fee increases. Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who recently gave birth to a daughter, didn’t attend the vote, but issued a written statement detailing her opposition.

Council Member Ora Houston voted in favor of the budget but then, without explaining why, abstained from the votes to set the tax rate to pay for it. She later told the Austin Monitor that she had concerns about taxing her constituents more.

City Manager Marc Ott, Mayor Steve Adler and the other council members defended and praised what they called a strong budget.

“In a perfect world we could provide all the services that our community needs and not have to raise taxes,” Council Member Delia Garza said. “But we don’t live in that perfect world. In that perfect world we would not have a situation of being the most economically segregated city and (having) 1 in 4 of our families having trouble putting food on the table.”

“We had to make some hard choices, and I’m proud of the work we all did here, together,” she said.

To make way for new programs, the council cut funds from the staff’s budget by delaying the hiring of dozens of positions, postponing the relocation of a data center, eliminating funding for a resident technology survey, reducing expansion of third-party review for building inspections and other trims.

The final vote followed a few extended discussions over major budget changes that were eventually rejected.

The council spent most of Wednesday morning debating a proposal to shift $575,000 of Austin Energy’s capital budget to fund lighting at the city’s “highest priority” parks. The proposal, from Council Member Kathie Tovo, died in a 5-5 deadlock. Adler said he hoped the idea would eventually come back in the form of a resolution.

“Security in our parks is really important,” he said. “I would not rule out any source of funding to get that done, but I am uncomfortable trying to make that kind of decision as we’re sitting on the dais on the last day of budget.”

Similarly, most council members shot down a final-hour proposal from Gallo to keep city utilities from raising rates. She argued that if Austin Energy could find space in its operations to reduce fees, so should other city services. But other members said they didn’t have enough information to cut, potentially, tens of millions of dollars.

“I don’t know what we would be cutting to do this,” Adler said. “Austin Energy took months to figure out where they would make cuts.”

Zimmerman, who backed her proposal, said that Troxclair had submitted the idea in early August and failed to gain traction on it.

Council members also were divided over the larger homestead exemption offered to seniors and disabled residents. Gallo, Zimmerman and Council Member Ann Kitchen sought to raise the exemption, first to $91,000, then to $85,000 as city staffers had initially proposed. The council settled on a compromise halfway between that $85,000 and the $80,000 that had been the 2016 exemption.

Adler noted that, while the property tax bill for a senior’s median home will increase by a few dollars, it will be lower than it was in 2013 and 2014.

“That’s not what I’m hearing from my constituents, but OK,” Kitchen responded.

Data from Adler’s office show the median senior homestead will pay $735 in city property taxes, down from $783 in 2014. But with increases to other fees, the overall payments to the city will be $161 more than that year.

Clarification: This story has been updated to remove a reference to funds to test backlogged sexual assault kits. Austin police Chief Art Acevedo said grant funds will be used to address the backlog. It was unclear Wednesday evening whether the city would allocate funds to address the issue.

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