Don’t ask how much money the Austin City Council can give your department. This year, ask instead how your department can contribute to the council’s goals.
As Austin reaches the budgeting season for fiscal 2019, which begins Oct. 1, city departments have put in requests for $46 million in additions beyond the finance department’s draft budget. A year ago, that would have meant individual department presentations to council members, with department leaders giving overviews of their roles and asking for extra staff and equipment.
Now, it means requests for budget additions are tied to 10 concerns council members have said they most want to address:
• Skills and capability of the community’s workforce
• Accessibility to quality health care services
• Climate change and resilience
• Accessibility to quality parks and recreation
• Accessibility and equity in transportation choices
• Fair administration of justice
• Condition of city infrastructure and effective adoption of technology
• Vibrancy and sustainability of creative industries
The new approach has changed the budgeting game, said Ed Van Eenoo, Austin’s deputy CFO. He sent council members a memo last week that included 71 funding requests across nine outcome categories plus “other.”
“The main thing we’re seeing with a strategic plan (system) are budget priorities that are very much targeted to what the council priorities are,” Van Eenoo said. “In the past we would get 200 or more requests from departments that were really more of a wish list, and not targeted to council priorities.”
The biggest pool of requests landed in the infrastructure and technology bucket, with 12 departments putting in requests totaling $18.5 million. Building Services, for example, would like $5 million more for deferred maintenance on “many city buildings,” plus funding for asbestos mitigation and preventative maintenance.
Looking at outcomes has led some departments to think collaboratively. The emergency, police and community court departments are together requesting $3.5 million to continue an existing Homelessness Outreach Street Team that includes police officers, case managers and medics.
Four departments joined together for a $990,000 proposal to address graffiti and panhandling in city parks, under the workforce skills umbrella. They propose money for parks, health and community court staff to redirect panhandlers to social services and paid jobs cleaning graffiti or caring for animals at the city animal shelter.
No departments asked for funding to further the goal of “fair administration of justice,” the only outcome that did not draw requests. Austin police submitted a request classified as “other” for $3.1 million to fund 15 new officers and two civilian employees.
“More officers doesn’t necessarily lead to a fairer administration of justice, that can be just about departmental operations,” Van Eenoo said.
However, two advisory commissions suggested funding initiatives in the name of fair administration of justice. The African American Resource Advisory Commission and the Asian American Quality of Life Advisory Commission asked for a $1 million investment in the police monitor’s office and $160,000 for immigration assistance for Asians, respectively.
Members of the public, for their part, ranked fair administration of justice the top safety item they wanted to see improved, above reliability of critical infrastructure, timeliness of emergency response and emergency preparedness.
The city’s public input process included workshops in each council district and surveys completed by more than 450 residents.
Overall, 58 percent of those residents said city taxes and services are about right and should be maintained at the current levels, while 28 percent said taxes and services should be cut and 14 percent said they should be increased. Forty-four percent said the two-thirds of the general fund budget allocated to public safety is about right, and 42 percent said it’s too much.
“The result is not uncommon. We do the public input process every year, and people generally feel they get good services for the price they pay,” Van Eenoo said.
There were some geographic distinctions in the public responses. Four council districts in northern or southern areas of Austin ranked “equity of city programs” as the government function they most wanted to see improved. Responses from council districts in West or Southwest Austin most emphasized cost and sustainability of local government.
Members of the public also offered their own funding suggestions.
“We need public showers for bikers,” one wrote.