There's a infamous selling technique called moving the focus.You never ask the buyer "Do you want to buy a truck?" Instead, you ask, "Would you rather drive a black truck or a red truck?"
Now the buyer's focus has been shifted so they are thinking about owning and driving a truck--and they are no longer thinking about the sale of the truck.
This week, many citizens will be talking City Council about items they want to see in next year's budget. And after months of moving the focus, City of Austin will sell citizens a budget. Using Budget in a Box, media coverage, and a great deal of calculated spin, Austin has succeeded in getting citizens to ask, "Where should we spend the money we have?"
But citizens have been hoodwinked into overlooking an even more important question--Why is there no accountability or auditing of the City's revenue streams?
For example, Seaholm is #TIF 18. What is a TIF? It's where the city collects additional taxes or revenues for specific costs or projects.
Here is a powerpoint on TIFs:
Here is the City Auditor's page:
And a list of special reports:
Where is current information on these 18 TIFs? Which TIFs are still being collected? How is the money being collected, and what is the auditor doing to ensure all the revenue for these TIFs is being paid to the City?
Let's look at Hotel Taxes. Citizens have been assured that between events and all the money spent downtown Austin has a booming hotel industry that generates millions in hotel taxes. Well, according to the Auditor, 5 hotels were checked and none of them were paying all of their taxes:
Once again, there is a disturbing lack of any evidence that the City is actually taking the collection of hotel taxes seriously, and there is also no evidence the City did anything after discovering all 5 hotels were not in compliance during the last audit.
How about the Austin Convention and Visitor Bureau? Through the agreement with PCMA, the Bureau generates eleven different kinds of revenue. Eleven different sources and yet, there is no audit or accounting trail to be found on the city website. We just know how much the contract costs:
Ever heard of the TARA office? Thats the City's Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs office and one of their jobs is to make sure the franchise fees and access line fees get paid. According to the Auditor's webpage, the last audit was done in 2012:
EMS is paid for through a complicated agreement between the City and Travis County. Here's a sentence from the 2012 audit:
"As a result, EMS management cannot provide assurance that the department is depositing all revenue it recieves"
Once more, there is indications from both audits there is serious problems with how the money is being collected, but there appears to be no follow through and no plan in place to ensure these revenues are being tracked and accounted for.
Finally, there is the official Interim Audit Plan, for 2015. A look at the list of projects shows that not one project is related to auditing or checking incoming revenue:
As the Gray Panthers have pointed out, affordability starts with accountability. The current budget is 3.5 billion dollars for Austin. Let's do an exercise. Let's say that Austin is only losing 5% of its revenue through lack of audits, and adequate checks and balances. That would mean we still have 175 Million dollars missing.
That's more than enough to repair some pools, build a few more sidewalks, and still keep a library branch or two open on a Sunday.
When you are asking City Council to approve certain items in the budget, take a moment to also ask them the question you are not supposed to ask--
When is there going to be some accountability and auditing of the City's revenue streams?
editor, Love North Austin