Parks, police departments get extra attention in budget talks
For the first time in the past five years, city of Austin residents will see a lower property tax rate from the city. Austin City Council approved Sept. 10 a 0.02 cent property tax decrease to 50.27 cents per $100 of valuation for the 2013–14 fiscal year. The council also approved a $3.3 billion budget for fiscal year 2013–14—about a $200 million increase from the previous fiscal year.
Despite the lower tax rate, Austin residents may still pay more in property taxes because of increased property values.
"I've voted to raise taxes many times since I've been on council and in the mayor's office, but I just think that when your economy is better than anybody else's in the country, if you can't hold the line then, when can you?" Mayor Lee Leffingwell said.
Council members showed particular interest in two areas when crafting the general fund budget: the Austin Parks and Recreation Department and the Austin Police Department.
APD's general fund budget of about $295.4 million makes up the largest portion of the city's general fund departmental expenditures. APD's approved general fund budget for 2013–14 is about an $11 million increase over the fiscal year 2012–13 amended budget of $284.4 million.
Councilman Bill Spelman said APD has accounted for a significant portion of the general fund's growth over the years, and the city will not be able to afford that continued trend. City staff said APD has accounted for 47 percent of the general fund's growth since 1999.
"I'm concerned that we are systematically doing two things," Spelman said. "One of them is that our general fund is getting systematically more lopsided toward public safety, and second, that it's becoming bigger and bigger as a proportion of [what we have] to pay."
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said at a budget work session that the city has a need for even more officers than what is provided in next year's budget, but his department will be able to meet the needs of the community with an additional 47 officers.
"I would say our needs are greater than 47 [officers], but 47 is what's in the budget," Acevedo said. "I can tell you what we plan to do with the 47. I can tell you that we could have had 92 or even more. We have the work for them."
Mary Arnett, president of the Citizen Led Austin Safety Partnership, said at a public hearing for the budget Aug. 22 that City Council should give APD more officers in addition to what is already in the budget.
"The reason we need more officers is to keep our crime rate low," Arnett said.
CLASP supports a county-wide network of Neighborhood Watch and Patrol volunteers.
PARD was one department that saw a boost in funding for the 2013–14 fiscal year.
Richard Craig, a representative of Great Austin Parks—a coalition of park groups advocating for park improvements and increased funding—said the city needed to provide more funding for PARD because the department is still working to recover from cuts in previous years as well as the city's population increase. He added that the situation has come to a critical point.
"When our parks [department] becomes the butt of jokes, something has to be done. We've really lost our way," Craig said.
According to budget documents, the parks' budget decreased by about $4.6 million from fiscal year 2001–02 to fiscal year 2003–04. It was not until the 2006–07 budget that the department was funded above the 2001–02 level.
Great Austin Parks pushed for increasing park funding by about $4.8 million, or an 8 percent increase in the PARD's budget.
"I think the primary problem we have with our parks now is maintenance," Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said. "We're just not able to keep them up, and people are beginning to voice concerns about using them, so we need to protect that investment."
During budget deliberations, council members approved increased funding for the PARD, including about $3.6 million for general maintenance, pool services, trail services and forestry management.