Council can show leadership on levy

Published 5:10 pm Saturday, September 24, 2011

Given the hand that state lawmakers dealt to Austin, it is clear that the city will have to increase its tax levy. It is also clear that the inevitable tax increase can not be held to a minimum unless the mayor and council provide leadership that is clearer and more effective than they have delivered to date.

Earlier this month, the council approved a preliminary tax levy increase of 13 percent. The council then planned a series of work sessions at which its members hope to whittle down the increase before they have to finalize the levy in November. So far, their whittling has yielded the metaphorical equivalent of a few sliced fingers, but no real progress. The council appears to be voting its way through every line item in the budget when what it needs to do is set guidelines that city staff can use to produce a budget — or, even better, several alternate budgets — for council review. Instructions to staff might look something like this: “Prior to Oct. 15, propose to the council a budget that yields a tax levy increase of 9.9 percent or less, which maintains a strong commitment to public safety, parks and basic infrastructure, and which emphasizes services to residents over spending on non-service functions such as outside lobbyists. Include an executive summary that outlines significant changes from the 2011 budget.” The council’s priorities might well differ from that example. That’s OK. The issue, at the moment, is a need for leadership.

Establishing clear goals would not only provide staff the direction they need, it would also give taxpayers a clear statement of how the council plans to address the city’s tax and budget issues.

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The details of city management, taxation and budgeting are incredibly complex, certainly beyond the understanding of even well-informed city residents such as city council members. That is why the city has highly trained, highly skilled professional staff, and it is they who need to work out the budget and levy details with the council and mayor’s leadership.

It is the job of elected officials — the city council and mayor — to determine direction and strategy. It is their job to provide leadership that reflects the community’s needs, in this case by clearly stating goals and by delegating detail work to the people who know how to get it done. It’s also their job to be moving in a direction clearly enough that the people they represent can see and understand.

Austin’s proposed double-digit tax increase is unacceptable. But it is not inevitable. With strong leadership and skilled, thoughtful number-crunching it should be possible to pare the levy to an acceptable level. The sooner the council and mayor provide the necessary leadership, the sooner that effort will move toward a satisfactory conclusion.