Budgets and Beer

This video and blog are part of our ongoing “Civics 101” series, designed to teach Austinites why local government matters and how to get involved. 

Let’s be honest. Budgets are not inherently the most exciting of topics. Why watch a video about how the city spends its money when you can watch one about a puppy and kitten who are best friends?

Because budgets matter.

No offense to adorable cats, but in terms of real life, budgets should top the priority list.

Why?

Because budgets are a direct reflection of a community’s values. How Austin spends its money plays a major role in determining the type of city it will become. Will Austin be the place that tackles climate change, or reverses inequality? Possibly, but only if we budget for it.

I don’t have to tell you that Austin is at a crossroads. It’s all anyone seems to talk about. Our city is growing, and along with it, traffic and affordability issues. But what no one seems to be talking about is the budget – one of the major tools at our disposal to fix these problems. The truth is, budgets can seem confusing and because of that, very few people get involved in the city’s budget process.

That’s why we created this video. The idea is to give you the tools and information you need to finally understand what the heck is going on with the city’s $3.5 billion budget, and eventually, to get involved.

Here’s how you can get involved:

  • Fill out the Budget Office’s survey – This is the easiest way to get involved. The survey only takes a few minutes to complete, and is designed with the budget novice in mind. You don’t have to be an expert to tell the city where you would like it to be spending more or less money. The survey is available here.
  • Attend an upcoming board or commission meeting – Throughout the months of May and June, these citizen advisory groups will be making recommendations to City Council about what they would like to see in the new year’s budget. All of these meetings are open to the public and provide time for community input. A full list of upcoming board and commission meetings is available here. A list of eco-specific board and commission meetings is below:
  • Get involved with a local nonprofit – Several local environmental nonprofits are already starting to advocate for specific budget priorities. By connecting with them, you can stay-up-to-date on important meetings to attend or petitions to sign.

Environmental nonprofit budget priorities:

  • Composting – Texas Campaign for the Environment has already launched a campaign to make sure citywide curbside composting is included in next year’s Austin Resource Recovery budget. To get involved with this initiative, you can follow Texas Campaign for the Environment on Facebook, or contact them here.
  • Ending Austin’s use of coal – Did you know? Despite Austin’s ambitious renewable energy portfolio, we still have one remaining coal-fired power plant (the Fayette Power Project) on the books. Austin City Council recently called for the plant to be retired by 2023, but there is still one problem – money. Austin Energy has some debt tied to the Fayette coal plant, and that debt must be paid off before the plant can actually be retired. That’s why Public Citizen Texas is calling on City Council to start setting aside money in this year’s budget to pay off the debt and ensure that Fayette is retired on schedule. More information about how to get involved with this effort is available here.
  • Energy efficiency enforcement – One of the biggest components of Austin’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is energy efficiency. Twenty one percent of Austin’s greenhouse gas emissions come from energy use in commercial buildings. Austin is working to reduce this number through energy efficiency regulations and codes in commercial buildings. The problem is, there are currently no full time staff dedicated to enforcing these energy efficiency codes. That’s why Public Citizen Texas is leading an effort to get the city to establish three dedicated staff members for energy efficiency code enforcement. You can learn more about this effort by following Public Citizen Texas’ Facebook page.
  • Funding for local solar and low-income energy efficiency programs – ATXEJ, the environmental justice arm of the local Sierra Club, is leading an effort to advance eco-friendly programs that benefit the underserved in Austin. They’re dedicated to ensuring that a cleaner environment benefits everyone, not just the wealthiest amongst us. To stay up-to-date on their budget efforts, you can follow along on their Facebook page. 

Budget Timeline

Although the new year’s budget won’t officially go into effect until October 1st, the budget process has already begun. Public engagement activities (like the Budget Office survey) will continue through mid-July. The city’s Budget Office (run by the City Manager) will then present a proposed budget to City Council. After that, City Council will spend most of August editing that initial proposal, as well as holding several public hearings on the budget and proposed tax rate.

Budget Development Timeline

Although most of the public hearings are held in August and September, now is the time to start getting involved. Input shared with the city’s Budget Office and City Council during May and June will help decide which new ideas and programs make it into the proposed budget in the first place.

The bottom line is that now is the time to get engaged. A $3.5 billion budget is too important to be left in the hands of a select few.

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