Part of the mission of KXAN News is to foster a more informed and engaged community. We deliver in-depth coverage on topics like affordability, safety and mobility that affect the daily lives of Central Texans. And we explore sustainable solutions to economic, systemic and social problems. One way to achieve those goals is providing direct and consistent access to leaders who make decisions that shape local policy — seeking to understand their stances, holding them accountable for promises and asking tough questions when needed. This series of interviews with City of Austin Mayor Kirk Watson is designed with that in mind.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Sunday evening, City of Austin Interim City Manager Jesús Garza released his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
The budget forecasts a combined projected increase of 2% in local fees for the typical ratepayer.
Monday morning, Austin Mayor Kirk Watson sat down with KXAN’s Tom Miller to talk about how the budget breaks down and what it will mean for residents.
Read a transcription of their conversation below:
The transcription has been edited for grammatical clarity.
Tom Miller, KXAN: The city manager is calling for a half-billion-dollar increase, which would bring the budget up to $5.5 billion.
Mayor Kirk Watson: The budget will be $5.5 billion. And that is an increase from the last budget. Part of the way that happens, of course, is that you have to look at the various enterprise funds in addition to the General Fund, which is made up predominantly of property taxes and sales taxes and some fees. The general fund is $1.3 billion.
But then when you add in things like the airport, which I think is the third largest item after the general fund, and after Austin Energy — which is another… Austin Energy’s budget is actually larger than the General Fund budget.
The General Fund is what people think of most of the time when they think of a city budget. They think of the fund that pays for parks, that pays for libraries, and those sorts of things. Then, of course, you add in those enterprise funds, and it comes up to the $5.5 [billion].
What is the budget increase of half a billion dollars going toward?
Miller: All in, it’s looking at about a half a billion dollar increase, and up to $5.5 billion. What additional city services will people be getting?
Watson: Well, you’ll get a couple of things. One, it’s very important, I think, as we look at this first budget that I’ve been involved in since my election — late last year, six months now in office — is that we, the council, the interim manager and I, and others, have been working very much to make sure that local government works the way it ought to work [and to] fix some of the things that we inherited that were problems. I even ran saying, “let’s shake up city hall so that we get back to basics and start taking care of some of those things.”
So, a lot of what you’re going to see may be services that are now done, we believe in a better way.
I’ll give you an example. Let’s talk about Austin Energy for a second. That’s about a $1.8 billion part of the overall $5.5 billion budget. What you will see in this budget related to Austin Energy, and getting back to basics, and making sure we’re providing the services we need, is you’ll see that there were lessons learned from the winter storm.
For example, there’s a lot of money going into creating better resilience at Austin Energy, when you have times of disaster. So whether we have, you know, God forbid a wildfire, or we have another winter storm.
Even part of that is a million dollars to study, whether we ought to or how we would go about taking the overhead lines and putting them underground.
In addition, one of the things that would make government work better and we’re trying to fix is, we discovered that there weren’t generators at all of the places we felt like we ought to have generators, when the lights go out, like in that winter storm, including at fire stations, that was something we’d inherited. Well, this budget allows for some things like that.
And there are other items throughout the budget that are geared toward making local government work better.
Miller: It’s going to be about an additional $95 worth of taxes and fees annually for a household. Will people see those services work better as a result of that?
Watson: Oh, I think so. And keep in mind, here’s what we’re looking at… When you look at all the fees and property taxes, on the median home, you’ll have less than $100 increase. It’s about 2%. In these inflationary rates, we wanted to keep it below what you’re seeing in terms of typical inflation rates, and 2% is significantly below that. The goal, of course, is to do a number of things that will make a difference and enhance the quality of life in Austin.
Miller: I want to talk about homelessness. Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) estimates that there’s about 4,500 people who are homeless on any given night in Austin. Does this budget look at homelessness, and does it help get to a solution?
Watson: Yeah, in fact, this budget goes quite a bit further on homelessness. One of the things that I feel like we inherited when it came to the issue of homelessness, was that there had been a kind of an all-or-nothing approach to it, which was permanent supportive housing. And while we need more permanent supportive housing, what this budget will do is it will make a difference on the entire continuum related to homelessness, including money that is in there for homeless prevention. That is something that I think has been badly underfunded and underused.
In addition, there’s money in there for more immediate shelter beds, so that there will be, I believe, a better opportunity to enforce the camping ban. One of the problems with enforcing the camping ban is if you go and move a group of people here, and there’s no place for them to go, they end up just going over here and then you’re moving them here. So instead of doing that, we’re putting money into what are being called emergency shelter beds, because they’re essentially non-congregate shelters, so that we’ll be able to do that.
In addition, there’s quite a bit of money that goes into consolidating the way we currently deal with trash, and how we go about cleaning up encampments and things of that nature. I’ve said from the very beginning that one of the key basics when we talk about getting back to basics, and making local government work well, one of the key things is our city looks dirty. And I mean, it’s filthy, and that needs to change. And so that’s one of the things that we intend to address in this budget so that hopefully soon people will see a difference, even in that.
Miller: So what does more robust trash pickup look like? Is it, just adding more staff?
Watson: That’s what it is. If trash is on the ground, how do we make sure we have the teams that allow for that? And how do we make sure that we’re keeping our city cleaner? And that’s one of those things that when I said we need to make government work better, I’m pleased that the manager’s budget includes that.
Miller: You mentioned homeless prevention, what would that look like?
Watson: Well, it looks like things like situations where you have rapid rehousing, so that somebody is right on the edge of going into homelessness, and really, we don’t want them to fall into living homeless, and then have to wait until some permanent supportive housing is built. If we have some form of rapid rehousing where it allows them to get back on their feet quickly, so that they never really fall deeply into it. It also is in terms of certain types of stabilization activity, in some instances, rental assistance, so that they don’t find themselves where they have to leave the home they have for no home, because they have a bump in the road that a little bit of rental assistance or stabilization money would help them stay.
Affordability in Austin
Miller: In terms of affordability in Austin, clearly a big problem, this [budget] does add some taxes and fees to people’s budgets. Does it also do things to try to make Austin more affordable?
Watson: Sure. And again, I want to be very clear: it’s a 2% increase of less than $100 for someone living in a median family home. But yes, there’s a number of things.
I said during the campaign, that I can’t control inflation, as much as I’d like to, I can’t control the supply chain, I can’t control prices of gas as a consequence of the war in Ukraine… Those kinds of things I can’t control, but I can control certain other things.
For example, I can control what people are paid within the city. This budget establishes a living wage of over $20 for those people living in the city, so they’ll be in a position to afford more.
In addition to that, with regard to affordability, one of the big things that this budget does is it recognizes that we need to do better, go back to what I keep saying over and over, which is we need to make government work better in a variety of different ways. And one of the ways we can make government work better is how difficult government seems to have made it to be able to build affordable housing.
One thing that I said I was going to do was I was going to have a performance review done of our development services department so that what we could do is look at how we do site plan approvals. Well, that is almost completed by McKinsey Consulting, and this budget allows for having this the recommendations that they’re making to clean up or do better at the development services department so we can get more housing on the ground. This budget will allow for the implementation of things like that.
So yeah, there’s a there’s a very specific addressing of what is a clear Council priority. In terms of making government work better, the council and this manager have been working so well together, that the form of government is actually working better. And that’s one of the things you see in this budget is a manager who has worked to figure out how priorities are being laid out by the council and make sure they’re included upfront. And affordability is a key one.
Miller: I know a lot of the general fund is going to public safety, and of that, a lot of that is going to the police department, is there going to be enough money to the police department where the staffing levels can get back to what you need them to be?
Watson: So a couple of things. One is, we are going to be doing the kinds of things we need to do to incentivize more police officers to come into the system, and to incentivize officers to not leave the force. This council has already taken action on that, and in terms of just in the past few months, guaranteeing salaries even in the absence of a police contract, guaranteeing salaries and guaranteeing retirement benefits.
In addition to that, the council voted a 4% pay raise for the all the police officers. It also created an incentive program through the work of the manager — it was directed to the manager — an incentive program so that people that want to be cadets, they get a bonus when they sign to be a cadet, they get bonuses at two different spots along the way.
And then finally, there’s a fourth bonus if they finish their probationary period. In addition, there was an additional step put into retirement so that if you stay longer, a police officer will get even more money — a bonus and even more money.
So yeah, that’s a part of it. In addition, this budget when it comes to public safety, it does a couple of other things. One is, it provides funding to continue with cadet training and do that in a way that we believe meets the values of the citizens of Austin in the way they want their police trained.
And with regard to EMS, one of the things that it does is it makes it puts money into the budget so that we’ll also make sure that EMS is fully staffed.
Miller: EMS, in addition to the police department, is having trouble staffing. Why do you think more people are leaving EMS and police than are signing up to join?
Watson: Well, that’s not just an Austin problem, and that gets lost a lot in discussions like this. It’s a national issue with regard to policing in particular, that it’s more difficult to recruit people to come into police forces. And that’s not just a big city problem. That’s a big city problem and a small city problem. So what we need to do is we need to work to try to come up with creative ways to encourage more.
Here’s some good news. One is we’re even creating a commander position. This budget deals with the creation of a commander position in the police department that will oversee training and recruitment in such a way that we believe that will be a help. For example, in September, we know that we’re going to have the largest cadet class that we’ve had in the previous two years. But it’s going to take being imaginative.
One of the things we’re doing, for example, in this budget with regard to 911, is we’re working with Workforce Solutions of Central Texas to help create a program where we’re more engaged in the act of recruitment for careers in working with 911 calls. So there’s a lot that’s going into that.
But the question is, does this budget address it and get back to what I was saying before? I and this council inherited a badly-understaffed police department. We’re doing the things that we can to try to increase that, and we’re starting to see some of the results. But this budget helps us address it.
Budgeting for the future of Austin
Miller: With the implementation of this budget and future budgets, what’s your vision for what Austin looks like five to ten years down the road?
Watson: Well, essentially, because we talk about the increase in the budget, or the increase in the revenue and the needs, you know, Austin is now the 10th largest city in America, and it is a real focal point in a worldwide economy. And what I mean by that is that people look at Austin and say, “we want to be like that,” or “we want to partner or be a sister city” or, “figure out a way that we can do trade with Austin.”
Austin captivates the world. And I think if we look at some of our biggest challenges, they are a product of great success. People want to be here, and people want to stay here. And that adds to certain challenges. We’re not managing decay like some cities are. Now we have some issues that aren’t a real product of success, but we get to address those from a platform of success.
So the key for Austin, I think, is to keep our eye on the ball. And that is to not put ourselves in a situation where we’re managing decay, but to address those challenges from that platform of success. And the key in that, fundamental is two things, is that we, as a local government, need to work well as a local government. Now we’re going to trip, things are never going to be perfect, and there’s gonna be times when we try something that doesn’t work. And so we have to recalibrate and go in a different direction. But what we ought to always do is try to make local government work well, and that means also focusing on basics and fundamentals of local government.
And we’ve been doing that for the past six months, we’re seeing success. We’re seeing a lot of common sense back in the way we govern. And this budget, I think, is a real sign of that.