Higher taxes, fees on table
Sales tax revenue boost would let officials avoid possible cuts, add city employees
The City of Austin would hire 88 more police officers, firefighters and paramedics under the less-bleak-than-expected 2010-11 budget that officials proposed Wednesday.
Programs that were in danger of being axed, such as library hours, a police cadet class and the Trail of Lights, would be spared because of higher-than-predicted sales tax revenue, budget writers told the City Council.
But those programs and added services would come at a cost to taxpayers.
The owner of a median-value home of $184,484 would pay $843 in city property taxes next year, an increase of $52 or 6.6 percent from this year. Utility bills for services such as water and electricity would increase a total of $4.94 a month for the average customer.
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All city employees would get pay raises, 47 vacant jobs would be cut, and 12 jobs would be turned into different positions.
Overall, it is a rosier budget picture than last year’s, when the city cut 124 vacant jobs, increased taxes and gave no employee pay raises.
“We took our medicine and made a lot of tough decisions last year,” city Budget Officer Ed Van Eenoo said. “We are now in a better position than many other cities.”
The City Council will hold two public hearings before approving the budget in mid-September. The budget will take effect Oct. 1.
Like other cities, Austin went through several rounds of cost-cutting in the past few years as the economy tanked, property values dipped and consumers spent less.
Sales taxes and property taxes make up most of the operating fund that pays for Austin’s basic services, such as parks, libraries and police.
Proper ty values have dropped 3.8 percent since last year. But sales tax revenue began to rebound this year after a long slump and is expected to keep rising next year.
That will give the city nearly $11 million more to work with in 2010-11 than it expected.
The budget plan includes money to add 48 police officers, 30 paramedics, 10 firefighters and 72 other city workers, Van Eenoo said.
The paramedics would staff ambulances in Avery Ranch in Northwest Austin and Harris Branch and on Harrisglenn Drive in Northeast Austin, and the extra firefighters would ‘This is a meat-and-potatoes budget,’ Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, listening to the proposal at City Hall, said Wednesday. Leffingwell said he was pleased the plan preserves and enhances services. help the city get closer to its goal of having four firefighters on every firetruck — a national standard.
“This is a meat-and-potatoes budget,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell, adding that he was pleased by the proposal. “We are preserving and in many cases enhancing core city services.”
The budget also includes extra money for new library materials, social services for chronically homeless people, more land planning staffers, two family advocate jobs in the Center for Child Protection, carrying out a plan to increase pet adoptions and bolstering the city’s three pension funds, one of which has been hit especially hard by the economic downturn.
Five vacant parks jobs would be turned into different jobs dedicated to better maintaining downtown parks. Two other vacant jobs would be changed into contract compliance jobs in Fleet Services, a department that’s been plagued recently by allegations of mismanagement.
The city would cut money for an HIV prevention program, an LBJ High School academy to recruit future firefighters and the video traffic monitoring of stalled vehicles and car wrecks.
The money cut from the HIV and traffic monitoring programs has historically not been spent, and some money would remain to continue those programs, Van Eenoo said. The academy has a poor success rate: Only one graduate became an Austin firefighter, he said.
The budget is based on a tax rate of 45.71 cents per $100 of property value, up from 42.09 cents this year.
State law would allow the council to raise the rate to 46.93 cents before residents could petition for an election to limit the increase.
Choosing that ceiling rate would give the city an extra $9.2 million to work with. But three of seven council members must run for re-election next spring and will probably be wary of choosing the highest possible tax rate.
“I would be very uncomfortable increasing the rate” beyond what budget staffers proposed, said Council Member Bill Spelman, who won’t face re-election until 2012. “We’re still in a recession, and we would already be asking the public to pay more” at the 45.71-cent rate, he said.
Police officers, firefighters and paramedics would get 3 percent raises next year, as required by their contracts. Police officers and paramedics gave up scheduled pay raises this year to help the city save money.
Non-public-safety workers, who also got no raises this year and have no bargaining rights, would get 2.5 percent raises in the 2010-11 budget.
Van Eenoo said it would cost an extra $2 million to give nonpublic-safety workers raises of 3 percent instead of 2.5 percent. A few council members expressed interest in that idea at Wednesday’s budget presentation.
Water bills would rise an average of $3.84 a month, partly to pay for construction projects that are planned or under way, including a new water treatment plant.
Customers who use the biggest of three garbage carts, 90 gallons, would pay $1 more a month under the proposed budget, and residents who use the medium-sized 60-gallon cart would pay 35 cents less. That change is designed to encourage residents to trash less and recycle more.
Austin Energy would tack on a 79-cent fee to its bills to cover Austin’s portion of statewide transmission lines that will carry wind power from West Texas.
The city-owned utility has not increased its base electricity rates since 1994 and needs to undergo a long rate review process to do so. It will start that process this fall with the hope of getting new rates in place in 2012.
Residents would also pay a slightly higher fee on their utility bills to help the city build and maintain roads.
For two years now, Austin has avoided some of the worst cuts that have befallen other major cities.
Though the city trimmed vacant jobs last year, it avoided layoffs and furloughs and kept intact most of the services that residents in public meetings said they care about, such as library hours, a police cadet class and youth programs.
City officials last month unveiled a list of $9.3 million in possible items to cut from the 2010-11 budget, so the public could offer feedback. Wednesday’s proposal included only a handful of the cost-cutting ideas, totaling about $600,000.
Austin City Manager Marc Ott,
left, and Mayor Lee Leffingwell discuss the