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What Should Austin Do With a $14 Million Surplus?

Liang Shi for KUT News

A larger than expected surplus from fiscal year 2012, plus higher sales tax revenues has Austin City Council members discussing which projects should be funded.

That was the talk yesterday at a special mid-year budget session, and with more than $14 million on the table, the possibilities are near endless.  

There’s talk about funding the Zilker Hillside Theater and a wildfire fuel mitigation program to clear brush and dead trees, among other things. But the difficulty Tuesday was distinguishing between the “would like” and “must-have” categories. (Here's a list of all the initiatives council is considering.)

The problem is that those categorizations are often subjective. And on the Austin City Council, there are seven individuals with very distinct priorities.  

Council member Chris Riley has proposed to keep some city trails open at night, as a way to make travel safer for cyclists – but police patrol of those trails would cost more than $3 million a year. Council member Kathie Tovo wants to allocate $10 million for affordable housing projects, in the wake of November’s housing bond defeat.

But Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell is having none of that. “I mean, some of this [money] is already committed,” he said. “There’s money in there for implementing civil service, we have to do that. There’s money in there for implementing the [single-member] district plan, we have to do that. So that should really be subtracted out of this ‘wish’ and ‘want’ list.”

Implementing the district plan that voters approved last November will cost the city somewhere around $500,000. 

Travis County judges have approached Mayor Leffingwell to consider funding local forensic labs. There’s a huge backlog of untested DNA evidence because there’s no money for testing. That would certainly be on Leffingwell’s priority list. 

Starting in March there will be another expense the city had not considered when budgeting for 2013. Ed Van Eenoo, Deputy CFO with the City of Austin, told the council that the vendor that’s provided city cemetery maintenance “for many, many, many years has decided that he will not be renewing the contract with the city.” Van Eenoo noted there are “five city-owned cemeteries, approximately 200 acres, and effective March 3 the current vendor will terminate providing that service.”

The council is expected to vote on what projects to fund on Feb. 12.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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