Austin’s 2018 budget discussions are crawling to a close this week, and City Council members are looking for more cash.
Council Member Leslie Pool began the week’s talks Monday with a request for the city to revisit its economic development payments to the Domain — revitalizing a debate that’s been ongoing for at least a decade.
It wasn’t clear whether the suggestion had any support to move forward, and the council didn’t immediately return to it after an executive session to discuss legal matters behind closed doors. The council is expected to adopt the budget sometime this week. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
Austin in 2003 approved a $37 million tax break over 20 years for the Domain in exchange for the development creating jobs and affordable housing. Some buyers’ remorse settled in after that, and a push to revoke the Domain’s incentive package became a ballot proposal in 2008, but voters rejected it.
The city’s agreement with the Domain, which is in Pool’s North Austin District 7, includes a stipulation that any payments are subject to agreement from future councils. But Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Jimmy Flannigan pushed back strongly against the city backing out of its end of the economic incentive agreement, saying it would be a terrible precedent to set. Austin needs to live up to its deals, they said.
“Every time, as a city, we talk about going back on a previous agreement, the next agreement becomes more expensive,” Flannigan said. “Every time we send a signal to the community that we’re not going to hold ourselves to agreements we make, the next negotiation becomes more expensive.”
Moreover, he added, voters already settled the debate over the Domain.
“We simultaneously acknowledged that ‘You know, we don’t really like this Domain agreement,’ and we changed our city policies,” Flannigan said. “But the community said, in no uncertain terms, we should be keeping to the agreements we make.”
The debate over tax incentives to businesses comes as officials have said the city will make a push for Amazon.com’s secondary headquarters. Pool and some other council members had campaigned against such business incentives.
With a proposed budget that includes various cost increases that are already committed — from staff raises to new expenditures such as police body cameras and operation of a new Central Library — the staff’s proposed $1 billion general fund leaves only a thin $5 million buffer for council-driven expenditures.
Some additions have drawn support from multiple council members, including more funding for homeless services, funding for social services at schools, salaries to continue employing 12 police officers hired on a one-year basis in 2016 and legal services for immigrants.
Some council members have expressed frustration with the budget overall and want more funding for health and social programs.
“I don’t think we’re where we need to be in regards to health and human services,” Council Member Ann Kitchen said Monday.