By Bill Oakey – May 19, 2014
The City of Austin has released a very strange set of numbers. Maybe you can help me figure them out. if it’s just me who’s crazy, then the rest of you can breathe easier and I’ll go find something else to do.
On April 24th, the City’s financial staff released a Five Year Financial Forecast for all City departments. The strange phenomenon that I discovered involves the number of new employees projected to be added annually for each department.
Let’s Look at How the City Introduces the Numbers
Here is a brief introduction to the staffing projections, taken from Page 7 of the report:
“Staffing costs represent the single largest component of the City’s Budget, and an accurate projection of future staffing levels is essential to forecasting expenditure growth. This section details existing positions and projected changes in the City’s Financial Forecast. ”
My comment: Take careful note of the portion that I underlined in the first sentence. You will want to come back later and read it again.
Now Let’s Look at Their Description of the Numbers
From Page 7, Third Paragraph:
“Staffing projections for General Fund departments do not include any positions required to implement new programs or enhance service levels. However positions have been included to address service demands arising from newly annexed areas, a growing population, and the opening of new facilities.”
My comment: Those sentences sound a little fuzzy. But not nearly as fuzzy as the numbers.
Now Let’s Take a Look at the Numbers…Click each link below:
Here Comes the Brain-Twister…Do These Numbers Make Any Sense?
The following City departments are projected to see no change at all in staffing levels for six years in a row, including this year:
Animal Services, Fire (Non-Sworn), Health & Human Services, Parks & Recreation, Planning & Development Review…(Really?), Police (Non-Sworn), Austin Convention Center, Economic Development, Juvenile Case Manager Fund, Neighborhood Housing & Community Development, Parks & Recreation – Golf, Traffic Safety Fund
These City departments are projected to see no change in staffing levels over the five years from 2015 – 2019:
EMS (Non-Sworn), EMS (Sworn), Austin Transportation – Parking Management, Austin Transportation – Transportation Fund, Aviation, Child Safety, Public Works – Capital Projects Management, Public Works – Transportation Fund. (Note: The last two departments each lose staff from 2014 to 2015)
Of course, there are several departments that are projected to see increased staffing levels. These include the new downtown library, police and fire, Austin Energy and the Water Utility. The Water Utility’s staffing numbers look pretty disturbing, considering the fact that Austinites have heeded the call for conservation and are using less water. Even further usage reductions are forecast over the next five years. And yet, the Water Utility plans to add 136.75 new positions, second only to the 187 for new police officers. The forecast suggests that the drought will continue, but it blindly assumes that water restrictions will remain at Stage 2. For an explanation of the projections for the Water Utility, see Pages 29 – 31 in the City report.
What’s the Bottom Line for You As a Taxpayer?
How About a 33.6% Increase in City Property Tax Revenue…
The official projections for tax, utility and fee increases do not look good. On Page 17 of the report, you will see that home appraisals are forecast to increase by at least 5% each year. You can see the ominous progression of increasing taxes here:
The most shocking thing about this chart is that it shows Austin’s total property tax revenue increasing a staggering 33.6%, from $355.3 million to $474.8 million! The tax rate, which would cost you more even if it stayed the same, is projected to steadily increase. Then you have to pile on utility rate increases, a parade of add-on fee increases, and all the other area taxes that you pay. As scary as that sounds, the stark reality is probably much worse. If anyone believes the projections that all those City staff positions will remain flat for five to six consecutive years, can we talk about that bridge that I have for sale?
The best solution to this strange conundrum of numbers that don’t look reliable is to work with our new City Council candidates and ask them to commit to much better transparency and accountability in the whole process of budget, planning, audit and finance. The oversight role of the City Council and their authority over the budget is crucial.
Beyond that, the current City Council should take a good hard look at whether they should continue to rely on the current City Manager, or send him on his way and appoint an interim manager to take his place. A six month internal transition before the new City Council takes office might be the best first step to getting the City’s fiscal house in order.