Monthly Archives: June 2015

U.T. Journalism Student Reports On Vacant City Staff Positions

Introduction By Bill Oakey – June 25, 2015

Last week I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from Amanda Atwell, a journalism student with a minor in government at U.T. As a follower of this blog, she became interested in the high number of vacant staff positions in the City budget. She asked me some questions for a paper on that subject for one of her journalism classes. So, today I welcome her to this blog by posting her report, which I found to be quite impressive.

But first, a few quick notes about Amanda. Last year she received College Honors from U.T.’s Moody College of Communication. She belongs to Texas Student Television and currently works as an intern at KXAN-TV. Her career interests include sports broadcasting and political journalism.

Amanda Atwell

Amanda Atwell

Resolution Passes Regarding Vacant Positions

By Amanda Atwell

Austinites will have a better idea of where some of their tax dollars are being spent because of the recently passed resolution by City Council regarding excessive city job vacancies.

The resolution, which passed June 11, will attempt to eliminate some of the 1,012 vacant city staff positions. It will also allow City Council to re-appropriate the funding for vacant positions. The resolution allows the council to reevaluate the necessity of the long-term vacancies, some vacant for nine years. Many positions have been vacant due the difficulty of the city being able to compete salary-wise with the private sector. The resolution requires the city manager to bring vacancies before the council from the varying departments, allowing the council to determine what to do with excess funding and whether or not to terminate the position for the next fiscal year.

Austinite and author of a website focused on affordability in Austin, Bill Oakey, believes the resolution is a step in the right direction, but is still concerned about the lack of transparency in where tax dollars are going. Oakey is a former member of the City Electric Utility Commission and continues to work with City Council to find solutions to alleviate excess city spending, in turn lowering the burden on city taxpayers. According to Oakey, much of the unused money for the vacant positions has gone into a “slush fund,” making it unclear what exactly the money was used on. “It’s (money) just thrown into a pile and they can use it without much accountability,” Oakey said. According to the resolution, $73 million is allocated in the budget for the current vacant positions.

While the lack of transparency in city government presents a major issue, the inability to fill these positions could have major implications in the city’s ability to provide necessary services. According to Oakey, Austin’s Emergency Call Center (911) remains badly understaffed, resulting in excessive overtime and increased stress on employees. The fire department suffered vacancies because of a hiring dispute and a federal mandate that resulted from the issue, postponing the hiring process. The police department and Austin Energy also have suffered from vacant positions because of the lack of applicants with the proper skills.

Austin Energy has struggled to fill vacancies because of the competition with private-sector employers. According to Ken Craig, policy advisor for Council Member Ann Kitchen, other employers are capable of being much more competitive with salaries, therefore making it difficult for Austin Energy to fill high-skill positions such as engineers, and information technology specialists. “There is a potential impact in not being able to fill needed positions, as services to citizens may be compromised,” Craig said.

The resolution allows the city manager to bring forward specific positions to be discussed by the council, whether to eliminate the position or reevaluate the pay. “It would be helpful for the city manager in situations where we have trouble filling a vacancy because we’re not being competitive in the pay that we’re offering, it would allow him an opportunity to make that case to the council, as well,” Council Member Troxclair said at the council meeting June 11.

Some believe while this is a step in the right direction, there is room for further improvement. Michael Searle, policy advisor for Troxclair, said this is just the first step in the process of reducing the number of vacancies and improving budgetary transparency. Cities such as San Antonio place protections on the percentage of allowable city job vacancies, capping their allowable vacant positions at around 6 percent. Austin is currently at 8 percent according to Searle.

The resolution does not place a percentage cap on vacant positions, but aims to increase transparency in the budget, and allows City Council to re-appropriate funding for non-sworn positions that remain vacant more than 12 months. The resolution will allow City Council to determine whether to continue funding of the long-term continuing vacancies by requiring the city manager to notify the council of positions vacant over 12 months. “This will allow us to put a structure in place so that we don’t get into this position again,“ Troxclair said at the council meeting June 11. “We don’t have to check in every, you know, every few years, and say, oh, well, we’ve been spending, you know, $500,000 on this position that was vacant.”

In order to completely alleviate the issue, Oakey believes more change should happen. “I think the new resolution was a softball approach to the problem,” Oakey said. He favors the “Honolulu policy,” which places funds for vacant positions under the control of one central office. This office will then distribute the funds on an as-needed basis, preventing departments from padding their budgets with the excess funding. Honolulu, Hawaii, adopted this policy when the city had a similar affordability crisis. Oakey also suggested that the city’s website should provide the taxpayers full transparency.

Oakey supports the resolution, but still questions where the money previously allocated for these positions went. According to an article in the Austin Business Journal, in August 2013, Austin had 934 jobs available, but only 76 were advertised and open to applicants. According to Oakey, three council members said that the funds specifically for the salaries of these vacancies could be used for other unknown purposes without discretion. Because of lack of regulation regarding the unused money, Oakey said it is difficult to tell where exactly is has been spent in previous years.

Oakey said the most immediate impact the resolution will have would be the requirement of regular reports from the city manager on the amounts of budgeted funds from vacant positions that are available to be re-apportioned. While this doesn’t eliminate the funds from the budget, it allows for accountability to the taxpayer and helps to ensure their money is spent responsibly, improving on the lack of policy regarding the issue in previous years.

Austin Needs A Budget Affordability Strategy – Can Houston Help Us?

By Bill Oakey – June 16, 2015

Members of Austin’s new City Council have thrown down the gauntlet. They have made it clear in public statements and in Council meetings that they want to protect vital City services, and also make a real impact on affordability in the upcoming budget. That will be a tough hill to climb, so kudos to them for taking on the challenge.

Unfortunately, the one thing that is burned into everyone’s mind (pun probably intended) is the recently-retracted Staff suggestion of closing down a fire station. As an Austin resident since 1971, I can recall many times during economic downturns when the City kept the budgets lean. Taxes did not shoot up in those years, and I don’t recall that City services suffered irreparable damage. I contend that 2015 is one of those years when the City should hold the line once again. Austin’s current “boom” does not help the people on the wrong side of “the most economically segregated city in America.” But the question circles back to this: What cuts from what parts of the budget?

Scale Back On City Employee Pay Raises

I don’t believe that we can afford to give large across-the-board pay raises to City employees. One of my proposals calls for a sliding scale approach. City workers received a 3.5% pay raise last October, followed by another $750 raise in April. That alone exceeds what thousands of Austinites received during the same period. It does not seem hard-hearted to suggest that the lowest paid workers should receive higher raises, while the executives at the top should get very little, if any.

Council Members Ellen Troxclair and Don Zimmerman have revealed calculations showing that it would only cost $600,000 to raise the pay of Austin’s 350 full time workers earning less than $15 per hour up to that level. That sounds like a reasonable thing to do.

City officials have discussed trying to boost a large number of positions up to the level of some sort of market survey. Well, in a perfect world, every person in every job would be paid according to a study that shows how much they are really worth. The City needs to keep in mind that their jobs pay very well compared to an enormous number of other jobs in town, and the benefits are considerably better. If the Council Members are looking for a place to save measurable amounts of money in the budget, that would be a good place to start.

Pick the Right Set of One-Time Expenses For the $26.9 Million Transfer From the Reserves

It is out of my scope of knowledge to second-guess where the Staff and Council should look to find that list. But closing a fire station should not be on it. Perhaps they can defer some planned  purchases and spread them over a longer period. If they set a limit to the budget that does not go too far past the amount of the current budget plus the reserve transfer amount, then they will not need a large effective tax rate increase. My suggestion would be to ask the Staff for some alternate scenarios, with enough line item details to allow the Council to set priorities and make the best choice.

Get Rid of the Special Event Fee Waivers for For-Profit Companies (For Crying Out Loud)!

This is arguably one of the most unpopular policies in all of City government. I don’t need to repeat the specific details on that issue. But what seems in order is a compromise solution that funds City expenses for the events from a split formula. That would include the Hotel Occupancy Tax, a small surcharge on ticket sales, and, if anyone can handle this concept, requiring the event organizers to pay some portion of their own fees. This new funding formula needs to cover the entire cost of City services, keeping in mind that fees collected plus fees waived currently add up to less than the total cost of the services.

I hope the City Council has put in an information request to check on the intent and status of the November 2014 City Manager’s memo that appeared to shift the focus on special event funding over to setting up multi-year agreements with event organizers. That plan could lock the taxpayers in to continued fee waiver subsidies.

Is There Somebody Down In Houston Who Can Help Us?

I can remember a time when the last thing Austin wanted to be was anything like Houston. That town was considered just too big, just too disorganized without any zoning laws, and they had too darned many mosquitoes. Well, very recently I came across this little gem of a headline,  “Mayor Parker Holds Line On Spending With Final Budget Proposal.” Although this proclamation comes from the Houston Mayor’s web page, there are some interesting concepts and tidbits.

Similar to one option that Austin is considering, Houston’s Mayor proposes doubling the senior and disabled homestead exemption. And this statement sounds quite appealing, “Improved internal controls and more transparency for taxpayers and elected officials.” Their Budget Stabilization Fund would come in at $20.4 million, which compares to the estimate of $59.8 million for ours, after the transfers out. Of course, there may be very good reasons for the differences between Austin’s and Houston’s policies and strategies for their budgets. But I’m a big believer in looking at what other cities do and why they do it. Our new City Council members might gain some valuable insights by reviewing Houston’s proposed budget, which is available here.

With any luck, maybe we could ease our traffic woes by encouraging some of our visitors to head south to Houston and take a look around. To get them in the mood, how about these two songs – “Houston,” by Dean Martin from 1965 and “Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer to You)” by Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers from 1983.

Budget Official Confirms $26.9 Million Surplus – But Doesn’t Want Us To Call It A Surplus

By Bill Oakey – Updated June 13, 2015

Late Friday, we received word that Mr. Ed Van Eenoo, Austin’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer, wrote a response to the City Council regarding this blog’s reported “budget surplus.” He states that the $26.9 million cited in the City document referenced on the blog last Thursday is “not a surplus.” To be clear, he identified that same amount and described it as part of the Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund, but he stopped short of labeling it as a surplus. Excerpts from Mr. Van Eenoo’s email to the Council are attached to the end of this posting.

Do We Have a Surplus or Don’t We?

After the end of each fiscal year, any surplus funds from the annual operating budget will flow into the Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund. These surpluses come from increased revenues and / or lower expenditures than what were budgeted. Mr. Van Eenoo Identified $12.3 million in surplus funds from the FY 2014 budget that were transferred to that reserve fund this year. But that $12.3 million is only a small portion of the Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund. It has grown from $31.4 million in 2008 to $54 million in 2010 to an estimated $86.7 million for FY 2016. Since the source for those reserves is annual budget surpluses and interest, then the $26.9 million that has been deemed available to spend in the upcoming budget could be classified as surplus funds. Not all of it is a “new budget surplus,” but a look at the complete picture should settle the splitting of hairs. The important issue here is that funds transferred into the budget from a source other than new taxes creates an opportunity to lower the amount of new taxes needed.

What Are the City’s Financial Policies On Using Reserve Funds for Spending In the Budget?

In any given year, the City can spend up to 1/3 of the Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund. But, there is a caveat. Another policy requires that the City maintain a total balance in the 3 General Fund reserve accounts that equals 12% of the General Fund requirements in the upcoming budget. The limit of $26.9 million is derived from the second of those two policies.

What’s the Bottom Line for the New Council and the Taxpayers?

The City’s official record shows an estimated amount of $26.9 million in reserves that can be spent in the upcoming budget. The big challenge for City staff and the new City Council will be selecting the ideal set of one-time expenditures that can be funded from the reserves. If the City can identify critical one-time items that do not stretch overall spending too far beyond last year’s budget, then we could see tangible tax relief. It’s a matter of perspective. They can save money by picking items that were included in previous budget forecasts, but were not tied to assumptions of future surpluses. Or, they can regard the $26.9 million as an opportunity to create new “wish lists” and thus, higher spending. What needs to go onto everyone’s list is the word “affordability.” Helping the taxpayer’s is one of this year’s biggest “unmet needs.”

Last Year’s Proposed Staff Budget Included $29 Million From the Same Reserve Fund

Take a look at this Budget Office response to an information request from former City Council Member Mike Martinez:

2014‐2015 PROPOSED BUDGET RESPONSE TO REQUEST FOR INFORMATION

DEPARTMENT: Financial Services – Budget Office REQUEST NO.: 125
REQUESTED BY: Martinez
DATE REQUESTED: 9/2/14

DATE POSTED: 9/5/14

REQUEST: Please provide a breakdown of every expense in the proposed budget that is funded by the Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund, including a justification for each expense request.

RESPONSE:

Included in the Proposed Budget is a transfer from the Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund to the Critical One‐Time Fund of $29,029,312. The list of items proposed to be funded along with the justification for those expenditures is attached.

Here is the link to that document and the attached list of proposed expenditures.

Excerpts From Mr. Ed Van Eenoo’s Response to the City Council On Friday June 12, 2015

Regarding the $26.9 Million – “That figure, which was presented as part of our financial forecast, is our preliminary estimate of the allowable amount that the City’s Budget Stabilization Reserve will be able to be drawn down by in FY 2016 while remaining within Council’s adopted financial policies.” Then he goes on to say, “As you well know, reserves represent a one-time source of funding and as such their use is limited to non-recurring expenditures. Therefore, it would not be allowable under the City’s financial policies (nor advisable under any circumstance) to use those funds as a means of offsetting a recurring revenue reduction resulting from the implementation of a general homestead exemption.”

My Comment – I stand corrected on the last point. My suggestion in last Thursday’s blog posting that the surplus might be applied towards offsetting the homestead exemption is not valid. I have edited the posting and removed it. Perhaps a teacher should slap my hand with a ruler, because I have a copy of that financial policy in my affordability archives. But, we all make mistakes and hopefully, we learn from them. You can see the revised blog posting here.

Regarding the $12.3 Million – “The actual year-end surplus for FY 2014 was $12.3 million, roughly in line with prior-year surpluses. These funds flow into the Budget Stabilization Reserve for appropriation by Council in the subsequent fiscal year pursuant to the City’s aforementioned financial policies.”

City Projects Huge $26.9 Million Budget Surplus!

By Bill Oakey – June 11, 2015

Please Note: Since June 11 when this entry was posted, a great deal of additional research has brought new information to my attention. The $26.9 million addressed here comes from the City’s Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund. That fund holds all of the unspent budget surpluses from previous years. Therefore, not all of the $26.9 million represents a “new” surplus. But all of it does come from surplus funds that have accumulated in the reserve account, along with some interest that the fund has generated. Please see the more recent related blog entry here. Below you will see the original version of this posting.

This announcement may be the first-ever local news story to break first on AustinAffordability.com. I included a teaser in yesterday’s posting, but now I have the actual documentationThe City of Austin Financial Services Dept. is projecting a budget surplus for this year of $26.9 million!

The document linked about requires a brief bit of explanation. There are two ways that the City can calculate what we call a “budget surplus.” The most prudent approach is to multiply the General Fund requirements of $903,560,106 by 12%. That comes out to $108,427,213. The top three Wall Street rating agencies prefer that cities keep that 12% amount in their reserves. The total of Austin’s three reserve funds equals $135,352,153. Therefore, if you leave that 12% requirement in the reserves, the leftover surplus is $26,924,940.

There is a City Financial Services policy that allows up to 1/3 of the single Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund to be drawn down and appropriated. That amount in this case would be $28,891,885. But since that figures exceeds the surplus left after the 12% rule mentioned above is applied, it is best for us to assume that this year’s official City Budget surplus will be $26.9 million.

So, What Will Happen to This Huge Budget Windfall?

For each of the past two fiscal years, the City has announced budget surpluses of around $14 million. As this blog has pointed out, there is no set policy on whether or how to spend these surpluses. The previous City Council spent the entire surplus for FY 2014 in a few minutes with very little discussion and no public process. Last year, there was an organized effort by citizens, including this blogger to urge the Council not to spend the surplus. They complied with our request, and the money was kept in the reserves. However, appeals to the Council to use the surplus to hold down taxes or to offset a projected water rate increase failed. The surplus was allowed to become part of the spending pot for this year’s budget. The existing Financial Services “General Fund Financial Policy” and the City Council’s latest Budget Amendment Ordinance do not include taxpayer relief as an option for addressing surpluses. One of my reform proposals calls for much stronger taxpayer provisions, and public disclosure of periodic statements of budgeted vs. actual revenues and expenditures.

Now we find ourselves at the beginning of the new 2015 Summer Budget Marathon. Grab onto the rails and prepare yourself for a wild and bumpy ride! We still have time to try to influence the fate of the $26.9 million surplus. It cannot be used for recurring expenses that would depend on equal surpluses in future years. But there are plenty of one-time expenses that are fair game. Using the surplus for those would set up a tax-saving opportunity. However, there’s a catch. Those expenses would have to be ones that were planned in the budget before the full $26.9 million surplus was put into play. If the City created a wish list of new items to spend it on, then a tax cut would flutter away like a butterfly released from a jar. Our new City Council seems more inclined toward affordability than the last one, so let’s keep our fingers crossed.

What Can You Do to Prepare for the Ultimate Outcome?

You can write to the City Council using this single-click link to reach all 11 of them. In the meantime, I have three recommendations for cautionary tales that you might enjoy watching on YouTube or Netflix. Pretend that you as a taxpayer are among the main characters in each of these stories. All three of them start out on a very promising note.

1. Twilight Zone Episode: “The Man In the Bottle”

2. Twilight Zone Episode: “The Rip Van Winkle Caper”

3. Movie: “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (Don’t read any spoilers)!

butterfly

A Day In The Life Of A City Hall Watchdog

By Bill Oakey – June 10, 2015

Part One

I guess today is Wednesday. That’s what it says on the special clock that somebody gave me for a retirement gift in 2007. It shows the days of the week instead of the time, in case you forget. In any case, I got up early this morning so I could eat breakfast downtown and then head to the City Council Budget Work Session.

It was held in a small room across from the City Council chambers. The tables are arranged in a square, so the Council Members can face each other. Looking at that scene made me wonder if the Council Members will be pleased to face the taxpayers when the long hot summer is over and the budget is finalized. I was the first one in the room, except for the guys setting up the video equipment.

Before the meeting got started, I received a bit of very exciting news. It has to do with a newly calculated budget surplus, left over from the current budget. As soon as I receive the details on that, I will post them here. But the subject of budget surpluses leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Last year the Austin American-Statesman reported a $14 million surplus. I urged the readers of the blog to contact the City Council members and implore them not to spend it. We succeeded on that front. The Council pulled back their spending requests and agreed to leave the surplus in a reserve fund. Affordability advocates wanted it to be saved for taxpayer relief, or perhaps transferred to the Water Utility to soften their upcoming rate increase. But neither of those options took place. The surplus was tossed into the available spending pot for last summer’s budget talks. In fact the decision on what to do with the surplus was never mentioned publicly. The existing Financial Services Dept. policy and the city ordinance for budget amendments lack sufficient taxpayer protections. That’s why I have included it in my list of reform proposals.

OK, so back to the square table in the small room and the Budget Work Session. It was not at all what I expected. In my imagination, the Council Members would sit down and start sharing ideas on how to meet the needs of the City, while in the midst of our serious affordability situation. I had hoped that they would bring up cost-saving proposals and perhaps debate them. Those kinds of talks will probably come later. At least I hope so. This morning’s session was a very long staff presentation on their vision of the spending needs for the upcoming fiscal year. I quickly found myself awash in a sea of acronyms and buzzwords. I did not have access to one of the big loose leaf binders that adorned the spaces at the table.

But here’s the bottom line. The word “affordability” never came up. Not even once while I was there. It was all about millions upon millions of dollars in spending needs. Certainly, there will be needs for funding the various departments. But as a retired State employee, I am used to the concept of comparative budget scenarios. There is a baseline budget request that reflects very little increase in overall spending, and then 2 or 3 higher spending options to evaluate as alternatives. If the City has a budget review process of that nature, I am not aware of it. After watching and listening to the proceedings for about an hour, I exited the room and went home.

Part Two

I had a 3:00 afternoon meeting with the Policy Director in Council Member Ellen Troxclair’s office. It was very productive. In fact, I learned a great deal about the complexities of some of my proposals. There are questions to be answered and details to be sorted out. But the willingness of people on the new City Council to consider major reforms is extremely gratifying in its own right. This was a full one-hour meeting. I came away armed with the knowledge that if there are hills to climb, I now have a better map to approach those hills, and perhaps even the right tools to climb partway up some of them. That’s a very good feeling.

Part Three

At 5:27 I received an email from the Budget Adviser to Mayor Steve Adler. He requested some information on my proposal to implement the “Honolulu Plan” to control funds budgeted for vacant staff positions. His timing was great because I had just been informed at my last meeting that there was a potential pitfall. I decided to take a stab at solving the stumbling block, and to lay out an example of how one City department might comply with the new guidelines. But first, you can take a look at the Honolulu news article from 2013 that sparked my proposal. Their City Council grew weary of City departments taking money budgeted for vacant staff positions and spending it for other purposes. They even invoked the term “slush fund.” The situation in Austin has been very similar, with the staff vacancy rate approaching 10% of the total workforce. The reform could yield several millions of dollars in annual savings.

Here is my response to the information request from the Mayor’s Office:

The Austin City Charter allows the City Manager to shift funds within a department as he sees fit. Here is the text of that Charter provision:
Article VII, Section 8, Last Sentence:
  • § 8. – APPROPRIATIONS.

    No funds of the city shall be expended nor shall any obligation for the expenditure of money be incurred, except in pursuance of the annual or interim period appropriation ordinance provided by this Charter. At the close of each fiscal year any unencumbered balance of an appropriation shall revert to the fund from which appropriated and may be reappropriated by the city council. The council may transfer any unencumbered appropriation balance or portion thereof from one office, department, or agency to another. The city manager shall have authority, without council approval, to transfer appropriation balances from one expenditure account to another within a single office, department, or agency of the city.

Here is my proposed solution to that City Charter restriction. The City Council should be able to establish a policy that budgeted funds for all vacant staff positions approved in the FY 2016 budget be placed into a single account, to allow the City Council to exercise its oversight authority as manifested in the functions of the Audit and Finance Committee. The single account could be called the Vacant Staff Positions Fund.  Under this policy, all Staff departments would submit their funding requests to fill vacant positions to the staff official who manages the single account. This action would not prevent the City Manager or his staff from transferring funds within any department after they receive these funds. However, the policy would provide a mechanism for the City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee to monitor the flow of the funds. It would provide a solid foundation for good transparency. The City Council also has the authority to ask the City Manager to provide regular summaries of funds budgeted for vacant positions and the categories of expenditures ultimately used for those funds within in each department.
Additionally, I would support a City Council initiated City Charter amendment in the future to amend Article VII, Section 8. This amendment would require the City Manager to utilize budgeted funds for vacant staff positions for only that purpose. But the City Council could approve a different usage of those funds in specific cases, through the standard budget amendment process.
I also learned today that It is very important to give a simplified explanation and clear example of how the Vacant Staff Position Fund would operate.
Here is a hypothetical example:
1. Department X is allocated $10 million for 200 FTE’s in the FY 2016 budget. Of those 200 FTE’s, 170 of them are filled when the budget is adopted. The other 30 of those FTE’s are vacant. In this example, the total budgeted amount for those 30 vacant FTE’s is $1.5 million. This figure is based on a hypothetical average salary of $50,000 per FTE (without fringe benefits, to keep the example simple). The budgeted total for the filled FTE’s is $8.5 million.
2. Throughout FY 2016, Department X would not need to request funds from the central Vacant Staff Positions Fund unless and until it spends the total budgeted amount for the filled positions. in this example, the filled FTE budget is $8.5 million.
3. Therefore, in order to fill a position from the $1.5 million portion of the budget that had been identified as vacant, Department X would need to submit a request to draw funds from the Vacant Staff Positions Fund.
4. As per Article VII, Section 8 of the City Charter, the City Manager could still transfer funds within a department after those funds have been drawn from the Vacant Staff Positions Fund. But the City Council could ask the City Manager to provide summaries of all expenditures of funds that originated from those withdrawals.
A future City Charter amendment, as described above, would be the best-case scenario. With the amendment that I have proposed, the City Manager would have the ability to spend funds from vacant staff positions for other purposes. But to do so would require City Council approval through the standard budget amendment process.
Thanks, and I hope this response will be helpful. Please feel free to contact me at any time with additional questions on any of my affordability proposals.

Affordability Proposals For The Austin City Budget

By Bill Oakey – June 9, 2015

It’s that time of year again. This year we have an unprecedented opportunity for affordability reforms. Those of you who have followed this blog since 2013 will recognize some of the items included below. The good news is that the new 10-1 City Council has been very open to suggestions and ideas from the citizens. I have witnessed a new spirit of transparency and inclusiveness.

In that light, I have offered the following proposals for their consideration. If anyone would like to review the details on these from previous blog postings, just enter the topic in the Search box in the upper right section of this page.

  1. Truth In Taxation – Develop a “Taxpayer Impact Statement” that shows the true percentage amount of a tax increase. That would be the percentage increase above the zero “effective tax rate.” State law allows cities to impose a maximum 8% effective tax rate increase. So, the Truth In Taxation percentage would be somewhere between zero and 8%. Adopt either a City Ordinance or a City Council Resolution that directs all City staff and all City Council members to publicize tax increases using the Truth in Taxation standard. This standard would also apply to press releases and all other communications published by the City of Austin. This reform would replace the old standard of just publicizing changes to the “tax rate.” The past practice has been to characterize new City budgets as “holding the line on the tax rate.” Of course the tax rate by itself is very misleading. You can have a tax rate decrease and homeowners with large tax appraisals will still see a steep increase in their tax bills. The Taxpayer Impact Statement should include a chart that shows the dollar impact on a range of home values, perhaps between $100,000 and $1 million, in $25,000 increments.

This proposal is based on the Truth in Taxation principles embodied in House Bill 328, which I proposed to the Texas Legislature in 1987, and was passed and signed into law by Governor Bill Clements.

  1. Use Budget Surpluses for Taxpayer Relief – Please revise the language in the General Fund Financial Policy that is contained in Ordinance # 20140410-004, to Include:
  • A statement that Austin’s affordability challenges require that every effort be made to hold all budget surpluses in reserve accounts, rather than spending the money. Departmental assessments of “unmet needs” must be measured against the needs of renters, homeowners and businesses that struggle with their own budgets.
  • Items to be considered for non-emergency spending from a surplus must be applied to a matrix that evaluates the worthiness of the project in the context of other critical priorities, including relief for taxpayers in the next budget cycle.
  • Items approved based on the matrix described above will be submitted to Council Committees for review, and a public hearing on these items will be held by the City Council prior to a vote.
  • Budgeted vs. Actual revenues and expenditures, by department and with bottom line totals should be published on the public financial website. This will transparently show whether surpluses or deficits exist throughout the year. These statements could be updated quarterly or monthly, depending on how often they are already being generated by financial staff.
  • Budget surplus amounts not spent will be held in reserve accounts until the next budget cycle. Those unspent surplus amounts will be labeled and disclosed as such at the beginning of the next budget cycle. The next budget must be planned and debated without regard to the accumulated prior year surpluses. After the next budget is finalized, the surplus amounts will then be applied as expenditure reductions, in order to generate tangible cost savings to the taxpayers.

Please note that this proposal requires a cultural shift in thinking. The view from inside City Hall has been that “found money” is a new revenue stream available for spending. The view from outside City Hall is that leftover money could be and should be applied to taxpayer relief. Austin affordability is a new reality that has not played a part in City financial decision-making to the extent that it needs to be from now on.

  1. Limit and Control Staff Vacancy Funding – Limit to no more than 5% of workforce (as done in Portland). Assign control of funds to one central office. That office would disburse the funds to departments only to fill vacant positions as needed (as done in Honolulu).
  1. Publish Revenue and Expenditure Data for the Hotel Occupancy Tax – Currently there is no easy way to find that information on the public website. This fund is growing very rapidly, from $51 million in 2012, to an estimated $70+ million in 2014. A large number of additional hotel rooms will be coming onto the market in the next couple of years.
  1. Use The Hotel Occupancy Tax to Offset the Cost of Special Event Fee Waivers – Alternate funding sources, mostly from HOT funds, are currently being used for a portion of special event costs in 30 Texas cities, including Cedar Park, Dallas, Georgetown, Giddings, Fredericksburg and Round Rock. This fact was illustrated in the City Manager’s Power Point presentation to staff in mid-2014. Fee waivers in Austin do not account for the entire deficit that City incurs during special events. In 2013, we experienced a funding gap between expenses incurred and fees collected of $3,110,104. Note that The City Transportation Dept. reported the 2013 funding gap to be $4,256,000, with the total five-year deficit from 2009-2013 coming to $10,694,000.
  1. Index the Over-65 Homestead Exemption – This initiative was proposed by the last City Council. It is my understanding that City staff has been asked to present an analysis to the current Council. Travis County is also considering indexing their Over-65 exemption. It is posted for action on the Commissioners Court agenda for June 16. Both entities currently have an exemption of $70,000.
  1. Implement City Staff pay increases on a sliding scale, rather than across the board – City employees received a 3.5% pay increase this year, plus an additional $750 pay boost in April. It has been common practice for the State Legislature to grant larger pay raises to the lowest paid State workers, while giving smaller increases to the highest paid workers. City executive salaries could be left as they are, since their affordability issues are significantly less than those of most Austinites. The City Manager should be given carefully determined flexibility to award higher pay increases for certain positions that are difficult to fill because of specialized skills. However, pay increases on a very broad scale based on market surveys does not fit with Austin’s current affordability environment. Huge numbers of Austin workers are being paid salaries and wages that are significantly less than what would be considered livable by any reasonable measure. The taxpayers would be quite upset if the City went overboard in granting big raises to large numbers of City employees at this time. Please keep in mind also that retired Austin teachers, retired University of Texas staff employees and State of Texas retirees have not received a cost of living increase since 2001!
  1. Hold One Or Two Informational Budget Work Sessions With Council Members and Staff From San Antonio – This could include a meeting with the San Antonio City Council and a meeting that includes Austin Energy and CPS Energy. The two cities share many commonalities, and each could learn from the other about successful cost-saving initiatives and various planning strategies.

Please total up the cost savings from these proposals, as they relate to the upcoming FY 2016 City Budget. This savings amount can be applied toward reducing or eliminating any tax increase associated with the increased general homestead exemption. You will also see recurring savings from these proposals in future budget years.

A Big Thanks To Council Member Don Zimmerman

By Bill Oakey – June 6, 2015

In the City of Austin, the name Don Zimmerman means different things to different people. Whenever I bring up the name, I get a variety of strange looks and interesting expressions. I suppose there could easily be more than one Don Zimmerman here, since Austin has become a pretty big city. The Don that I know best currently represents District 6 on the Austin City Council. Before he was elected last November, he earned a reputation as a fighter for the taxpayers, even occasionally taking his battles to court.

When I walked into his office at City Hall recently, I came prepared with documents and notes to support my affordability proposals for the upcoming City Budget. We did not discuss party politics. It was a straightforward dialog about longstanding problems with the budget. The most amusing thing he showed me is the City’s latest “Budget in a Box.” It actually does come delivered in a box. This cleverly marketed product could be easily mistaken for some kind of X-Series video game console kit, complete with hardware and software manuals and a DVD. It looks colorful and exciting from the outside:

Budget box

City of Austin Budget In a Box

But to put it mildly, Don Zimmerman was not impressed. The first thing he showed me came as no surprise, but it ticked me off nonetheless. Get ready for this everybody…we should have known it was coming. The wonderful news from the Budget In a Box is that the City is forecasting a slight decrease in the property tax rate!  Yes, once again we are not being told the Truth-In-Taxation percentage of the estimated tax increase. That is why the first item on my reform list has always been Truth In Taxation. Because of the high property tax appraisals this year, the tax rate could go down slightly and we would still see a pretty stiff tax increase, especially those people whose appraisals have hit the 10% cap. The truthful amount of the City’s tax increase would be stated as the increase above the “effective rate.” That is the amount that would generate the same amount of revenue as the City received last year. By law, they can raise the effective tax rate by as much as 8% without triggering a rollback election by citizen petition. Last year’s tax rate changed by only a fraction of a penny, but the increase above the effective rate was 3.8%.

Meanwhile, back in Don Zimmerman’s office, we looked at the chart on Page 57 of the Five Year Financial Forecast. I will not attach an audio recording of the words that may have slipped out when we saw the huge chart of tax, utility and utility add-on fee increases. You can read it yourself right here. For a “median-value home” of $221,086 the bottom line projected increase is $18.53 per month. The tax portion of that is only $7.05. But here’s the problem. The estimated tax amount does not include any new programs or changes made by the staff or the City Council. And the chart does not take into consideration whether your home saw a double digit tax appraisal increase. So, the tax increase that you would actually see on your bill would most likely be considerably higher. And, by the way, how many people do you know who live in a “median-value home” that is appraised that low?

To summarize my meeting with Mr. Zimmerman, he told me that he supports my affordability proposals. And he mentioned one of his own that I will explain in detail in another posting. We all have a big hill to climb between now and the end of the budget season. It will not be a stroll on the beach, like the Beach Boys portrayed in their 1974 album, Endless Summer.

As for Don Zimmerman, some of you may have him confused with that other guy out there that some people think is “way out there.” The one that brings to mind flying saucers, conspiracy theories, and tables levitating to the sound of voices from the dead. That is not the Don Zimmerman that I talked to down at City Hall. But, I don’t want you to leave this blog disappointed if you came here looking for a pathway to adventures from another world. Just grab a beer or a glass of something else and check out this video.

Special Event Fee Waivers – Other Texas Cities Prefer Hotel Occupancy Tax

By Bill Oakey – June 4, 2015

The quest to eliminate taxpayer-subsidized special event fee waivers may get a boost, thanks to the discovery of a little-publicized City Manager’s Power Point presentation from mid-2014. This presentation followed the May 1st passage of City Council Resolution # 20140501-036, sponsored by Kathie Tovo, directing the City Manager to review alternative funding sources for special event fee waivers. One specified option was to consider using the Hotel Occupancy Tax. A subsequent information request from then Mayor Pro-Tem Sheryl Cole revealed that Austin’s Hotel Occupancy Tax revenues have galloped from $51 million in 2012 to an estimated $70+ million in 2014.

The newly discovered Power Point presentation should put to rest any fleeting suggestion that Austin cannot or should not use Hotel Occupancy Tax funds to replace millions of dollars in fee waivers. This statement appears on Slide # 17: “To date we have researched and found 30 cities in Texas that currently utilize other funding sources for special events that qualify; most utilizing a percentage of HOT Funds administered by the Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB).” Cities cited in the presentation include Cedar Park, Dallas, Georgetown, Giddings, Fredericksburg and Round Rock. You can download the Power Point presentation here.

From an affordability standpoint, here’s a revelation that should catch everyone’s attention. On Slide # 8, charts show that in 2013 the City granted $1,146,127 in fee waivers. But somehow they wound up with a funding gap of $3,110,104 that year. The event costs for all City departments added up to $6,703,457, while fees collected only came to $3,593,353. (The City Transportation Dept. reported the 2013 funding gap to be $4,256,000, with the total five-year deficit from 2009-2013 coming to $10,694,000).

At the City Manager’s Power Point session, Slide # 2 states that an alternate funding proposal for special events was due to his office on July 24th, and to the City Council on August 7th (the date specified in the Council resolution). We now know that something transpired at City Hall between May and November of 2014. Marc Ott’s November 7th memo signaled a new direction for responding to the issue, as well as a new one-year-later deadline. They are now pursuing a plan for multi-year agreements with special event organizers. These carry the potential for locking in the taxpayers to continuous fee waiver subsidies. The whole notion of considering the Hotel Occupancy Tax as an alternate funding source disappeared down the rabbit hole.

But now it is on its way back out…Stay tuned!

Rabbit Hole

Special Event Fee Waivers: Will The Old Guard Please Sit Down, Will The New Guard Please Stand Up!

tererBy Bill Oakey – June 3, 2015

For the past several years, various citizen groups, City Commissions and the Austin American-Statesman editorial board have called for doing away with taxpayer funded fee waivers for large for-profit special events. This endless stream of subsidies adds up to somewhere around $2 million per year. Of course, the granddaddy of them all is South By Southwest.

The Old Guard message has always been the same. That these big festivals bring in tourists and boost the economy. They claim that the fee waivers are a “sound investment.” In reality, they put a strain on the taxpayers that has persisted for far too long.  At the biggest events, public safety is severely compromised, with police shortages in neighborhoods citywide. It’s time for the New Guard at City Hall to stand up and tell these event promoters that we just can’t afford it anymore.

The question comes down to priorities. If the City insists on not making the for-profit event companies pay their own fees, then they could easily fund the subsidies with the Hotel Occupancy Tax. The revenues from that fund have ballooned from $51 million in 2012 to over $70 million in 2014.

The Old Guard prefers to restrict every penny of the Hotel Occupancy Tax for tourism and convention activities. Their lobbyists have erected a wall of resistance around City Hall. But what are the community’s priorities? Do we have a crisis in Austin with low tourism rates, or do we see new hotels popping up like mushrooms? A couple of million dollars per year would be a minor tick to the tourism fund, but it would certainly help offset the tax burden when combined with other affordabilty reforms.

In May of last year, Council Member Kathie Tovo got a resolution passed directing the City Manager to review usage of the Hotel Occupanct Tax and ticket surcharges as alternatives to the event subsidies. His report was due last August and was specifically timed for last summer’s budget talks. That deadline passed and a new one for this August emerged. in a Long Term Analysis of Special Events, City Manager Marc Ott proposed a new plan that completely sidesteps the Tovo resolution. He wants to establish multi-year City agreements with the major event organizers. If the watchdogs amongst us are not careful, the taxpayers could easily get locked into muti-year fee waiver subsidies.

Sometime between last May and November, the previous City Council heard from vested interests on the Music Commission and the Arts Commission that the Hotel Occupancy Tax should be off limits for special event fee waivers. But the new City Council is appointing brand new members to all boards and commissions. And here’s a parting thought. Lean closer and let me whisper a suggestion that has not appeared on any Council agenda or City Manager memo…Psst…Why not make the for-profit event owners PAY AT LEAST SOME OF THEIR OWN FEES? Sorry, that wasn’t a whisper, but I couldn’t help myself!

Here’s What You Can Do to Help

Use this single link to email the Mayor and all Council Members to ask for an end to the fee waiver subsidies. We can make positive changes if we look forward and we work hard enough. Will the Old Guard please sit down, and will the New Guard please stand up!