Why Does The City of Austin Give Away Millions of Dollars in Fee Waivers?

By Bill Oakey – April 3, 2014

No matter how hard I try, I can’t get this off my mind.

On March 27th, the City Council let $6 million slip through the taxpayers’ fingers with fee waivers for a road realignment project for the new U.T. medical school. Ever since then I have been bothered by one simple question.

Why?

The answer is nowhere to be found on the main page of the March 27th City Council Agenda. The topic is listed as Item 13 under “Consent Items.”  But after wandering through the legal jargon, I found no mention of the $6 million in forgiven fees lost to the taxpayers.  So, come with me and I’ll show you how to look under the stones and find where the dollars are buried:

1. Go to this link to find the list of 2014 City Council Meeting dates.

2. Click here to find the PDF documents related to the March 27th meeting.  The first file is the Agenda.  You can skip over that since we know that Item 13 is the one we need.

3. Please scroll down to the list of agenda item numbers that is laid out like a calendar.  You are all doing great.  We are almost there!  Now click on Lucky Number 13.

4. Click on the file that says, Agenda Backup: Fiscal Note.  Voila!  Here is a summary of the fee waivers, with the bottom line total of $6,038,186.  Just below the total, you will see a somewhat disturbing statement, “The amount of $6,038,186 reflects a conservative estimate of the fees based on the projected work that could be required to complete this project.”

What We Are Left With At the End of the Journey

Thank you for joining me in this intriguing quest for the facts behind $6 million of your money.  One more statement posted at our last stop on the journey is worth noting:

“Waiving fees for this event results in unrealized revenue for the Transportation Fund, Austin Water Utility, and General Fund. Although budgeted revenue for fees is based upon historical data and not necessarily upon specific events, the waiver of these fees reduces potential revenues that could be realized. Revenue for this project was not budgeted in FY 2014, therefore the waiver of these fees will not impact current year revenue projections.”

Oh my goodness.  What a huge relief!  The $6 million in revenue that we are losing was not included in this year’s budget.   I guess nobody would miss it, it’s only money.

Maybe that explains one other cryptic statement that I found.  In the document titled, “Recommendation for Council Action” for March 27th, here is a direct quote:

“There is no unanticipated fiscal impact.  A fiscal note is not required.”

It was nice of them to provide a fiscal note anyway.  And it’s comforting to know that since this year’s budget did not “anticipate” the $6 million in fees, we don’t need to worry about it!

But Just On the Chance That Somebody Does Care About This…

I met with Mayor Leffingwell on Monday, March 31st.  One of my written recommendations was for the City to provide better transparency to the public on meeting notices regarding both large expenditure items and large revenue losses, including fee waivers.   More specifically, I asked him for a policy that would require those meeting notices to address that one simple question about fee waivers…

Why?

In the case of the $6 million, I waded through every document, exhibit, schedule, addendum, note, and attachment without finding any justification.  Which makes me wonder, does the City have a written policy that governs the awarding of fee waivers?  If not, I have asked the City Council for that as well.  The policy should be referenced on the Council meeting notices, next to any fee waivers given, along with the criteria that were met before granting the waiver.  And by default, all required fees should be collected, with the waivers being highly justified exceptions, where the taxpayers at large receive something in return.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s