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Budget Strives to Address Council Directives

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A public hearing on the proposed City budget is scheduled for Aug. 18, and Council will vote on it Sept. 12 through Sept. 14.

From the Austin Monitor: The non-senior Austinite who owns a median-priced home and uses an average amount of water and electricity can expect his or her bill for taxes, fees and utilities to increase by about $12.48 per month for the 2017 Fiscal Year, under a proposal from the city’s budget staff.

The projected property tax rate is 44.11 cents per $100 of valuation, which is the rollback rate, the highest rate the city can charge without the possibility of triggering a rollback election. This figure represents a 1.78-cent decrease in the tax rate. The city’s tax rate has gone down in most years recently because of the continuing climb in property valuations, according to Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo.

Van Eenoo described these changes, and others, during a media briefing on Wednesday. He is making a similar presentation to City Council this morning.

The budget staff is proposing a two percent wage hike for all city employees whose work is considered satisfactory. In addition, all employees will receive a 29-cents-per-hour salary increase – or about $600 per year – in order to cover the increased cost of health insurance in Fiscal Year 2016-2017. Van Eenoo said that would cover the cost hike for employees with families, while single employees will not see any increase in their insurance rates.

The city will provide an additional $3.4 million for Emergency Medical Services in order to reduce EMS employees’ workweek from 48 hours to 42 hours, as promised by Council. In order to accomplish that goal, EMS will hire 52 new medical professionals.

Van Eenoo said that the change to EMS workers’ hours was one of several policy directives the budget staff worked with in order to arrive at a proposed FY 2016-17 budget.

In addition, the Austin Police Department will spend another $1.5 million for overtime to staff the city’s spring festivals such as South by Southwest. APD will add 12 new officers plus 22 civilian employees, and the Austin Fire Department will hire three new firefighters in order to staff the new fire station at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Van Eenoo said the airport would pay the $217,000 to fund the firefighter positions.

Overall, he said, budget writers proposed to add 435 new positions for the coming year.

Perhaps the most important factor in considering the budget is the city’s growth, with Austin’s population projected to reach more than 937,000 by January, compared to a population of 842,743 in 2013, Van Eenoo said. He was careful to explain that the figures came from the city’s demographer and, because of the city’s rapid growth, might have to be revised upward, as has happened in the past.

Providing a living wage for temporary positions as well as lifeguards at the city swimming pools will cost about $1.1 million, and the city will provide $200,000 for child care within the Health and Human Services Passages program.

Budget writers are proposing to add $1.1 million to the city’s Housing Trust Fund, $600,000 to the Housing First initiative, $500,000 for additions to social service contracts, $380,000 for the sobriety center and an additional $217,000 for a sustainability initiative at Colony Park.

All of these are proposed in response to Council’s directive to increase funding for social services, Van Eenoo said. Council Member Delia Garza sent out a notice to the media on Tuesday that she and members of Austin Interfaith would have a press conference this afternoon to discuss funding for health and human services programs.

As has been the case for many years, public safety claims the lion’s share of the general fund. For the upcoming year, budget writers anticipate that public safety will make up 71.5 percent of general fund expenditures, with community services accounting for 20.7 percent. The general fund will increase by an estimated $56 million under the budget writers’ projections. Of that amount, $13.8 million is attributable to APD and $10.6 million to the fire department. The Austin Public Library, which does not usually rank very high in increased funding, will get a $6.1 million bump, largely because of the new central library.

In order to pay for some additions to the general fund, budget writers proposed increasing the transfer from Austin Energy and Austin Water. Together, those utilities will provide $5.1 million more in the coming fiscal year than they have provided for this year.

The city’s property tax bill on a median-priced home is estimated at about 1.7 percent as a share of median family income, roughly the same as Fort Worth but less than Dallas. Adding other taxing entities, however, makes Austin a more expensive place to live. Van Eenoo said that although the city’s share of a taxpayer’s tax bill is only about 20.4 percent and Travis County’s share is only about 15 percent, Austin ISD’s share is 54.6 percent.

A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for Aug. 18, and Council will vote on it Sept. 12 through Sept. 14.