Guest Editorial – City Budget Slaps Taxpayers; Reforms Needed

Oakey: New council needs to look at budgeting overhaul

Posted: 6:00 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014

By Bill Oakey – Special to the American-Statesman

It’s as if somehow the City Council never got the message, even though the message has been echoed loud and clear across the city. The taxpayers need relief. Austin has an affordability problem.

The budget that the City Council adopted has landed with a thud. Taxes are going up again. Oh, they heard the message from the taxpayers all right. But the sad fact is that they just don’t care. This City Council simply never met a spending opportunity that it didn’t like. If 50 people split up and walked into each of their offices tomorrow with 50 new spending proposals, council members would put all of them on the next agenda and then add a few more of their own. Affordability is apparently just a word to them, something to repeat when they are out in the community but to completely ignore while they are on the dais.

I have had the opportunity to meet with many of the candidates running in the 10 new council districts, as well as for mayor. I have recommended some crucial financial accountability and transparency reforms. To start with, the city should stop playing games with budget surpluses and inflated departmental budgets padded with unfilled staff vacancies. We need quarterly reports with budgeted versus actual revenues and expenditures posted to the city’s website. And we need to limit unfilled vacancies to no more than 5 percent of the workforce as Portland, Ore., does, instead of the 9.7 percent that is currently allowed in Austin.

The existing policy on budget surpluses is to wait until February to announce the amount of any budget surplus from the previous fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. For two years in a row, we have had surpluses of $14 million. In 2013 the council blew through that amount in a few minutes with no public input or anything else resembling normal budget scrutiny. Council members were about to do the same thing this year when outraged citizens, including myself, bombarded them with emails begging them not to spend the surplus. This time they held off on spending the $14.2 million, but only temporarily.

That surplus was quietly tucked away, and the council never mentioned it again. When I contacted them and asked about it last week, I was told that all but a few million of it “was absorbed into the new budget.” My specific suggestion during the spring to transfer the money to hold down the water rate increase was ignored. The loud chorus of citizen appeals to use the surplus for tax relief was also ignored. When I asked council members to revise the written policy on spending budget surpluses to include taxpayer relief as a specific option, the request was denied.

Throughout the year the potential exists for the city to run up a budget surplus. Current rules allow departments to spend money from staff vacancies on other projects. We definitely need serious reforms, such as the Honolulu policy that places funds for unfilled vacancies under the control of a central office, to be disbursed only as needed.

We need a new City Council that listens to the people and takes affordability seriously. There is more to serving in that job than generating costly new plans for every spending opportunity under the sun. If you went online and downloaded all the corridor gentrification plans, forestry and trail plans, etc., you would get dizzy trying to add up all the costs. If city leaders don’t find some way out of business as usual, the people who live here and our local economy will suffer. Let’s hope that the new council not only hears the affordability message but acts on it as well.

Oakey is a retired accountant and writer of the blog AustinAffordability.com

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2 thoughts on “Guest Editorial – City Budget Slaps Taxpayers; Reforms Needed

  1. benwhite11

    Oh, goodness gracious. Show me the right thing to do and the noble thing to do and I’ll go with.., oh hell, who am I kidding…The noble thing. The new council ( most anyway) won’t be any different. Show them all the tax money they have at their disposal and they’ll spend it EVEN MORE than the current council because NOW they have a specific area to look after,
    ” be responsible for “. At first, that’s ok. But soon it will turn into a ” benevolent leader ” mentality . Sigh..,

    Reply

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