Getting down to business

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Turn Riverside Arena into a community center. Ax the mosquito spraying and school crossing guard programs. Reduce library hours and trim funding to local service agencies.

In a Tuesday night work session that lasted nearly three hours, five Austin City Council members mulled those ideas in light of an anticipated reduction in local government aid.

Ultimately, no formal action was taken to make cuts to programs or personnel. But the meeting provided further insight that bleak financial times are ahead and council members will have to make tough fiscal decisions.

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City Finance Director Tom Dankert and City Administrator Patrick McGarvey informed council members and Austin Mayor Bonnie Rietz the reduced amount in LGA could hit $1.8 million.

Translated: Austin needs to figure out a way to balance that anticipated funding shortfall.

"You need to start thinking about the policy and direction you're going to head in," McGarvey said. "I feel this council and others should enact what they can, much sooner than later."

Most of the council members agreed that implementing two fees is one way to do that. Having a stormwater management fee and a street light fee would cost city households, on average, $4.50 more a month on their bills. The fees would eventually generate $650,000 in revenue.

Council member At-Large Wayne Goodnature said personnel cuts, which are "rotating costs," are one option that should be considered. Dankert pointed out that action on cuts didn't necessarily have to occur this month, but the council shouldn't let the idea linger, either.

"Can you balance the 2003 budget without personnel reductions? Absolutely," he said. "Can you do this the next two to five years? Absolutely not."

Council members discussed the possibility of offering early retirement packages to city workers as a way to trim the employee count.

Another discussion on cutting expenses centered on using Packer Arena more for ice time and Riverside Arena less. Because of the new geothermal system in place at the Packer Arena, its utility bill is sharply lower than the one at Riverside.

"It was $3,245 less this past month," noted City Engineer Jon Erichson.

Goodnature said it would make fiscal sense to capitalize on the cost savings at Packer Arena and think of other options with Riverside Arena.

"Packer Arena could become profitable and Riverside Arena could be turned into a community center," Goodnature said. "I don't think we'll be able to absorb more deficits. I think we're going to have to rethink how we reallocate recreation money."

Erichson, Dankert and others pointed out that there is no guarantee Packer Arena would be able to make a profit, with more dollars used for ice time and less money being spent on utilities.

However, Dankert said the city took in only $350,000 in revenues in the Park and Recreation budget, while spending $2.3 million this past year.

Council member Lynn Koch said the council should take a harder look on non-essential programs that are carrying a large expense.

"We have to prioritize," he said. "I think we should do everything we can to get to breaking even on these other issues. To me, I would rather have people pay for more extra-curricular activities than cut personnel."

The council schedule its next work session for March 18.

Dan Fields can be reached at 434-2230 or by e-mail at