Three takeaways: Tuesday’s budget town hall touches on rail, public safety spending and value of tax dollars

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When residents got the chance Tuesday to weigh in on how the city spends tax dollars, mobility and public safety spending seemed to take center stage.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler, new city manager Spencer Cronk and deputy budget officer Ed Van Eenoo heard input from the roughly 50 residents gathered at the Central Library for the evening’s budget town hall.

The town hall was the second of what will be 11 such events throughout the city’s council districts over the next month as the city prepares to write its budget for fiscal year 2018-2019. Fiscal year 2017-2018 was the first in city history where the general fund—paid for mainly by tax and fees revenue—eclipsed $1 billion. City officials expect that upward trend to continue.

Addressing the audience, Adler highlighted the successes of the capital city but said equity issues persist in certain areas of the community and that Austin and its leaders needed to do better.

Here are three takeaways from last night’s budget town hall.

1. Conversation over potential rail systems continue

Responding to a question from the audience, Adler said the possibility of a rail line from Austin to San Antonio has come up in recent conversations. He commented that the region’s Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, or CAMPO, is studying the potential of a rail line along the IH-35 corridor.

The being-studied phase also applies to a local light rail system. Adler said the city’s transit authority, CapMetro, is reviewing the Project Connect study to determine a long-term strategy for local mass transit.

Adler said it would be hard for him to imagine a city growing as fast as Austin without a way to move large amounts of people through the city quickly.

2. Questions remain over public safety spending. More police officers or more social programs?

Contract negotiations between the city and the Austin Police Association—the Austin Police Department’s labor union—have conjured heated debate since City Council unprecedentedly rejected a proposed contract in December.

The department’s staff levels remain a central issue in the negotiations. The Austin Police Association said the department needs 329 more officers over the next five years to keep up with population growth. In March, City Council asked city staff to develop a staffing plan, which if implemented, is expected to carry a high price tag.

However, groups like the Austin Justice Coalition have advocated for the city to spend public safety funds on social programs rather than using those dollars to buy more police officers.

Adler said city council has made no decision on how to spend that money yet. He said the city plans to host community conversation in coming months to hash out a solution.

3. Residents feel they get a lot out of their tax dollars.

When polled on Tuesday how the city does in spending tax dollars, a majority of the roughly 50 participating residents said they felt the tax dollars to services ratio was on point.

Although a small sample size, Van Eenoo said the sentiment was consistent among residents in budget town halls over the years.

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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