This article is written by KUT's Austin City Hall reporting partner, the Austin Monitor (formerly In Fact Daily).
The City of Austin’s General Fund ended fiscal year 2013 with a $14.2 million surplus. That figure amounts to a roughly 1 percent variance from projections made by city staff.
Despite the positive figure, Austin’s Chief Financial Officer Elaine Hart told members of the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee Wednesday that management was not planning on coming forward with a mid-year budget adjustment.
Following the meeting, Mayor Lee Leffingwell told the Monitor that he generally supported that notion. “I think it’s kind of a repeat from last year,” he offered, referring to a mid-year 2013 budget adjustment that allocated $10 million for affordable housing, among other items. (See Austin Monitor, Feb. 13, 2013) “We come up mid-year with a series of budget amendments that were designed to use what appeared to be a surplus at the time, and then when we got in the budget cycle, for various reasons, I think a lot of us – me included – wish we had saved that money.
“If you’ve got excess money in the budget, my general feeling is that the first priority should be to preserve that and potentially maintain the property tax rate, or even reduce it,” he continued. “That should be a consideration along with all of the other needs that are put on the table. I don’t think it has been put on the table with an equal priority for spending programs.”
However, the announcement that management would not bring forward a budget adjustment surprised Council Member Kathie Tovo. “I was a little surprised to hear the recommendation,” she said. “I understand the reason for it, and the interest in making sure that we have a significant reserve fund to help get us through the next budget process. That being said, there may be some critical one-time needs that we need to evaluate. I have at least one that I had planned to discuss with my colleagues – and so if we don’t have a mid-year budget process, then I’ll have to find another means of doing that.”
Tovo added that she would like to see modifications to the kitchen in the Asian-American Resource Center. She also said that the lingering inability of the Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Service to keep its ambulances in service might also need to be addressed.
As the Monitor (then In Fact Daily) first reported in October, the city’s fleet services department reports that it needs somewhere between 60 and 80 new repair bays to keep up with repair needs. Fleet Services Director Gerry Calk told Council members that such an upgrade could run as high as $40 million. (See Austin Monitor, Oct. 28, 2013)
Council Member Laura Morrison also implied that she would like to examine further spending options attached to the surplus. “I do understand that we did have extraordinary circumstances last (year),” she said. “We also had last year accumulated wish lists from resolutions and I do think it would make sense for us to take a look at accumulated wish-lists for this year to see if there are any that jump out that say ‘hey, we really ought to do that now…’ rather than fitting it into the bigger budget cycle.”
Segmented, the surplus was the result of an increase in revenue and franchise fees that came in $6 million over estimate, and $5.9 million less in expenditures over the period. In addition, the city saw a 7.3 percent increase in sales tax collections over estimate (to the tune of just under $62,000),
However, Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo took special note of development revenues, figures that came in at a whopping 31.4 percent over his estimate. Van Eenoo put $3.8 million in savings at the feet of the city’s Police and EMS departments. APD reported a cost savings of $2 million. EMS was at $1.8. Some of those figures were attributable to personnel savings.
Van Eenoo said development fees brought in $22.2 million in revenues to the city, more than $2 million higher than what had been projected.
Even with the rosy picture, Van Eenoo was careful to temper expectations for 2014. He reminded Council members that City Manager Marc Ott had announced his intention to hold the city’s tax rate steady next year – a fact that, as Council Member Bill Spelman said, would still result in a roughly 6 percent revenue increase thanks to continued growth in property tax income because of higher valuations.