Much of the approximately $5 billion spending plan is unlikely to change significantly from the draft released by City Manager Spencer Cronk last month. Council members have since forwarded dozens of tweaks and funding requests they would like to see included in the final budget—covering topics, such as city staffing, homeless response, disaster preparedness and parks.
During a recent budget work session, city financial staff told officials they could have more than an additional $20 million to work with, thanks to improved tax projections, some of which could now be used on council's funding wish list.
The city’s full draft budget may be viewed here, and dozens of council questions about spending and city operations may be viewed here.
The topic of raising Austin’s living wage floor has remained in focus during this year’s budget talks, following several years during which minimum wage city employees saw their pay remain flat at $15 per hour.
Cronk’s proposed budget includes a raise to $18 per hour plus a one-time $1,500 stipend, while some officials are pushing for more of a jump. Staff estimated the $18 wage already proposed costs $3.7 million, while a $20 rate would require $8.3 million-$14.5 million in ongoing funding.
District 2 Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, workers, labor groups, and council members Pio Renteria, Chito Vela, Ann Kitchen and Kathie Tovo plan to rally for a $20 per hour wage before council kicks off its budget session Aug. 17. Any raise this year could be followed by annual cost-of-living adjustments on the way to higher wage targets.
City officials could also be in line for a large raise themselves.
Mayor Steve Adler forwarded a proposal to lift council member salaries beginning after he leaves office in January. The more than $270,000 total request would bring council salaries up 40% from $83,158 to $116,688 and the mayor’s up more than 37% from $97,656 to $134,191.
Adler noted the “hard” political implications of the idea but said an update is needed as council staff may be in line to earn more than their elected bosses. Adler also pointed to other Central Texas government officials expecting raises as a reason to move forward.
“I know those guys work really hard. I know they don’t work any harder than we do in terms of time spent. And I’m not suggesting that we try to get council salaries to the same place that county commissioners are paid,” Adler said Aug. 9. “But I am open and amenable to trying to do something that will always make it so that the best pool of people are able to consider running for council offices.”
Tovo is also asking to budget for an additional full-time staff position in each council office.
Public safety, homeless response
Several council members are eyeing public safety improvements in their budget requests across various aspects of police operations and emergency response, including those listed below.
- a request from Kitchen that Cronk provide a report on filling vacancies at Austin's chronically understaffed 911 call-taking center within the next three months;
- a request from Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter that hundreds of thousands of dollars be used to improve the Austin Police Department's handling of sexual assault cases (these asks are based on recommendations recently forwarded from a national law enforcement nonprofit evaluating APD's handling of such cases);
- a request from District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly to reboot APD's license plate reader program for $115,000;
- a request from Kelly to run additional APD cadet classes, in line with continuing reviews and updates to the program, to more quickly fill department vacancies;
- a more than $2 million request from Kelly for an emergency medical services simulation lab;
- requests from Kelly and Fuentes for funding to design and build two new fire and EMS stations in areas with high response times;
- a $150,000 request from Fuentes to place three paramedics at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport during peak hours, with recurring costs estimated at more than $311,000 annually; and
- requests from Fuentes and Tovo that would both fund "toolkits" for local facilities and groups interested in starting up disaster resiliency hubs, and seek to improve how the city opens emergency shelters during extreme weather events.
On homelessness, Kitchen is proposing a continuation of the Housing-Focused Homeless Encampment Assistance Link, or HEAL, program that has sheltered hundreds of people living in encampments since last year. The nearly $2 million addition comes with a goal of serving at least 200 more people over the coming fiscal year and would be one of several pieces of Austin's homeless strategy council is considering.
Kitchen is also asking to allocate $250,000 for a public information campaign centered on the work of the city and other local entities on homeless response, given "a need for a coherent, comprehensive approach to public education and communication" on the topic. And Adler is requesting just over $406,000 for further development of the overall local homeless response system.
Austin's green spaces are also in focus this budget season, in part given a pair of proposals that could affect how the city adds new parks amid its ongoing growth. District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison has requested a freeze on parkland dedication fees—charged to new residential developments to offset city parkland acquisition costs—after officials with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department said the charges should double this year. A separate measure under consideration could also require commercial developments to begin paying those fees.
For existing park operations, council proposals include:
- a request from Alter to continue the operations of the Austin Civilian Conservation Corps., a green workforce program established early in the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than $247,000 in ongoing funding for the corps's staffing—and direction from Adler to wrap the program into Austin's homeless response plans;
- a $100,000 one-time request from Alter to improve signage and wayfinding throughout the city's park network, along with $100,000 to be budgeted on an ongoing basis;
- requests from Vela to install air conditioning in more PARD buildings and provide more shade across city parks;
- an $800,000 continuing request from Vela to add 15 full-time lifeguard positions in addition to the PARD's hundreds of seasonal hires;
- a request from Kelly for the construction of an all-abilities park space for between $5 million-$10 million;
- a request from District 8 Council Member Paige Ellis to grow the number of "nature play" areas in the city;
- a $43,000 request from Ellis to improve security at park facilities, plus $170,000 in ongoing costs for equipment and a new parks security manager;
- a request from Tovo for nearly $200,000 in ongoing funding to provide security at cultural centers around Brush Square downtown; and
- a request from Tovo to add a wheelchair-accessible bathroom at Zilker Park.