By Bill Oakey – August 1, 2014
Back in March, readers of this blog launched a successful email campaign to stop the City Council from spending a $14.2 million budget surplus. But since then we have heard nothing from City Hall about what has been done with that money. This week the City Council began discussing the budget in earnest during a two-day work session. But there are several critical questions that have not been brought to light:
How Much Has the Budget Surplus Grown Since February?
It was at a March City Council work session that they made the decision not to spend the $14.2 million surplus. So, if that money went into a reserve account, how much is it worth today? We were told that the announced February surplus came from a combination of increased sales tax revenues, vacant staff positions, increased permit fees, and other revenue increases from an improving local economy. Now we deserve to know how much the surplus has grown since February?
I have repeatedly recommended that the City Council ask for detailed quarterly reports on the budget versus actual spending numbers. These reports should be presented to the City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee. This simple, common sense reform should have been in place already. And we should not have to wait for the new City Council to enact full transparency for our taxpayer dollars. Especially when two long term incumbents are asking voters to elect one of them as our next mayor!
How Much Money Is Left Over From All Those Vacant Staff Positions?
As of last December 31st, the City Manager reported that 9.7% of the City’s workforce existed only on paper as unfilled vacancies. Every month that has gone by since then with unfilled vacancies presents the potential for increases to the budget surplus. When I researched this issue back in May, I learned something quite disturbing from Council Members Mike Martinez and Bill Spelman. They both informed me that the vacant positions are fully funded in the budget, and that the affected City departments can transfer the money and spend it on other items! We are talking about millions of dollars of taxpayer money that is repeatedly and consistently allowed to slip down into a black hole.
Despite my meetings with both Mr. Martinez and Mr. Spelman, no action has been taken to improve the accountability or the transparency of these surplus budget funds. Even at a time when affordability has risen to the top among the issues in the current City Council campaign.
In previous postings to this blog, I have recommended that the City limit the funding of vacant staff positions to the 5% level that has been adopted by Portland, Oregon. And I suggested that the City Council enact the Honolulu model for controlling funds for vacant staff positions. In Honolulu, these funds are held in a provisional account in a central office. They are restricted for use only to hire new employees, and the funds are distributed on an as-needed basis. It is long past time that the taxpayers of Austin be given the same accountability standards that other prudent American cities enjoy. And we should only elect City Council candidates who commit to adhering to these logical and reasonable standards.
To learn more, you can read one of my previous blog postings on this topic here.