City manager replies to worries, saying he hasn’t proposed cuts.
ByAndra Lim and Lilly Rockwell firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com
Public Safety Commission Vice Chairman Mike Levy and the Love North Austin blog sent email blasts this week sounding the alarm bell about “proposed budget cuts” that would shutter a fire station, scale back the Austin Police Department’s highway enforcement division and get rid of a neighborhood police program.
But in a strongly worded response Friday, City Manager Marc Ott said he has not proposed any budget cuts.
Yes, Ott did ask city departments to look for cuts that ended up totaling nearly $23 million, part of an exercise as the City Council was weighing various options for a larger homestead exemption.
No, Ott hasn’t formally proposed any of those ideas, and anyhow, most of the council members have said they aren’t interested in cutting services.
“At this stage in the process, it’s a conversation and not a proposal,” Ott wrote to Love North Austin blog editor Mary Rudig on Friday afternoon. “There is no budget proposal, nor are there proposed cuts. There are options for discussion, and opening that discussion to the Public Safety Commission — and to the public in general — is the right and appropriate thing to do.”
Ott’s proposed budget, which the council can amend, won’t be released until the end of July. If the city’s financial forecast is any indication, that budget is more likely to contain additional spending, including several dozen additional police officers, than steep reductions.
Levy thinks Ott might well wind up pushing for some of the cuts in the staff report. But Levy also acknowledged the possibility that the report might include what are known as “Washington Monument” cuts — reductions to some of a government’s most appreciated and celebrated services that officials offer up when faced with the chopping block, knowing that the inevitable public outcry will stop the cuts from ever being made.
The City Council has spent most of its budget sessions so far talking about a homestead exemption rather than drilling down into spending by department, but the mayor and nearly all council members have still made it clear they aren’t willing to cut city services. In fact, they may be so unwilling that they haven’t spent much time looking over Ott’s list of possible budget cuts.
A member of the city’s Animal Advisory Commission testified June 4 before the council about the homestead exemption, saying he was concerned the city might cut animal services to pay for the tax break. Commissioner Larry Tucker pointed to three potential cuts included in Ott’s report: eliminating the feral cat spay and neuter program, closing the Austin Animal Center on holidays and scaling back rabies clinics.
After Tucker finished his remarks, Mayor Steve Adler responded, “I’ve been involved in this conversation now for over a year, and I’ve never heard anyone — anyone — suggest cutting any of those services in order to fund a homestead exemption.”
“Well, that is very good to hear,” Tucker replied. “I hope that, I trust that, that’s true.”
Adler again reassured him: “I just, I’ve never heard anyone, anyone suggest that.”
The only council member who seems interested in making cuts to city services is the most fiscally conservative one, Don Zimmerman.
At a budget workshop last month, he suggested that any large organization — public or private — has people on its payroll who are “virtually worthless.”
“What I mean by that is those people could stop showing up for work and not get paid and no one would notice they are missing,” Zimmerman said.
The last time city departments presented potential budget cuts was for the 2010 fiscal year, when the nation was in the midst of the recession. Departments identified $45 million in potential cuts. The actual reductions made: $12.1 million.