Are city of Austin taxes too high (meaning services should be cut), too low (meaning services should be improved) or about right (meaning services should be kept as they are now)?
The bars on a graph jumped back and forth Tuesday night as about 50 people inside Austin’s Central Library — and participants watching remotely — thumbed in answers to an interactive poll during one of the city’s first public input sessions regarding the 2019 budget. The third bar eventually shot to the top, with more than half of respondents selecting “about right.” Meanwhile, roughly equal numbers of respondents selected “too high” or “too low.”
Fifty is a small sample size, especially in a room filled largely with city employees and dialed-in government activists, but everyone in Austin is encouraged to weigh in on tax rates and funding priorities — online or in person — as the city holds a series of public budget meetings spread across individual City Council districts.
In August, City Council members will amend the budget amid public hearings on it. The council will vote on the finalized budget in September for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Attendees and people submitting virtual questions Tuesday asked Mayor Steve Adler, City Manager Spencer Cronk and Ed Van Eenoo, the city’s deputy chief financial officer, about future police staffing, the potential for commuter or light rail lines and how the CodeNext land-use rewrite could affect tax revenue and the budget process.
City officials went over the basics of the $3.9 billion budget, which includes a $1 billion general fund to run most city operations and self-sustaining enterprise funds such as Austin Energy, Austin Water and Aviation. Public safety expenditures account for about 67 percent of the general fund budget.
On Wednesday, 58 percent of the poll respondents listed public safety funding as being too high, versus only 10 percent who said it was too low. Van Eenoo noted that the percentage of Austin’s budget spent on police, fire and emergency medical services has decreased in recent years and is pretty typical when compared to most cities.
This year, for the first time, Austin began looking at its budget by strategic outcomes — such as safety, economic opportunity and “government that works” — instead of just by department. The shift came after an 18-month process that the council approved in March. City staffers said the new approach would help in prioritizing city functions.
Despite the poll responses, a couple of people asked about the possibility of more public safety funding. An online question asked if the city expected to follow a plan to increase police staffing over five years. Amanda Lewis, a member of the city’s Commission for Women, asked the council to consider funding additional victims services counselors within the Austin Police Department to respond to sexual assault victims.
Another speaker rejected the idea that more police officers would help community policing, saying: “I do not believe we should be spending more money on police. It’s not working.”
Austin is still negotiating with the Austin Police Association on a labor contract, after the City Council rejected a proposed deal in December. Those negotiations are expected to last at least several more months, according to a staff memo issued Tuesday.
“No decision has been made with the policing issues that we have,” Adler said at the forum. “It’s certainly of high interest.”
FUTURE BUDGET MEETINGS
Care about how the city of Austin spends your tax money? You can complete an online survey or share your concerns at one of these upcoming public budget meetings spread across individual City Council districts:
6:30 p.m. Wednesday: The Learning and Research Center, 2800 Spirit of Texas Drive (District 2)
10 a.m. Saturday: Pan American Recreation Center, 2100 E. Third St. (District 3)
6:30 p.m. Monday: Spicewood Springs Library, 8637 Spicewood Springs Road, (District 6)
6:30 p.m. Tuesday: South Austin Senior Activity Center, 3911 Manchaca Road (District 5)
6:30 p.m. June 11: Location to be determined (District 9)
6:30 p.m. June 18: Shalom Austin, 7300 Hart Lane (District 10)
6:30 p.m. June 19: Northwest Recreation Center, 2913 Northland Drive (District 7)
6:30 p.m. June 21: Austin Pizza Garden, 6966 U.S. 290 (District 8)