From hotel workers to ex-offenders and domestic partnerships to Complete Streets — not to mention a budget presentation from the mayor — the City-County Council tackled a wide variety of business Monday night.
The council signified its unified support for a Complete Streets ordinance, passing it on to the mayor with a 28-0 vote. The measure institutionalizes a process that requires planners of new infrastructure projects to consider the needs of all users of the city's streets— from cars and buses to cyclists and wheelchair users — and file a written explanation in cases that don't meet the needs of all users.
Councilors divided along party lines when they failed to override a mayoral veto of the so-called Freedom to Work ordinance. Republicans continued to insist they've seen no evidence of blacklisting practices that hotel workers have testified prevents workers employed by temporary agencies from moving into permanent jobs in Downtown hotels.
But five Republicans joined with Democrats to pass an ordinance to define "domestic partnerships" and provide benefits to city and county employees in such partnerships.
Councilor Benjamin Hunter, a Republican representing District 21 on the city's Southeastside, said that although his individual morals might not align with the concept of domestic partnership, "I can't cast my morals into law nor can I judge others."
Hunter said several considerations guided his decision to support the ordinance, including the benefits children of such relationships stand to gain, the equity gained in not choosing favorites in benefit distribution and the potential economic benefits the city stands to gain by promoting itself as a welcoming, equitable municipality.
Mayor Greg Ballard at a news conference Monday afternoon said he remained undecided on the issue.
The proposed $1.1 billion budget included a planned appropriation of $595 million to the city-county general fund, the portion of the budget that officials can allocate to address priority needs. This represents a 4.6 percent increase over 2012, a reflection of increases in health care, pensions and fixed costs.
The remaining portion of the budget is supported by dedicated funds, such as transportation funds or grants, which cannot be diverted from their intended purpose.
Even with the boost to the general fund appropriation, officials project a $65 million gap between projected revenue and expenses.
The mayor outlined several strategies for closing the gap, including a planned savings of $5.5 million gained by forgoing planned raises for police officers and firefighters.
"My administration has history of supporting police officers and firefighters," Ballard said, noting that he had granted cumulative salary increases totaling 14 percent since 2008.
" Unfortunately we're not in a position to provide an additional 3 percent this year."
In response to a question about his decision to award $150,000 in raises to key members of his staff earlier this year, Ballard said his decision reflected a desire to keep money-saving talent.
"Talent is what saved this city $800 million when we were reworked the sewers. Talent is what puts $300 million to $400 million of infrastructure on the streets," he said. "I could save $20,000 on a salary and hire somebody, but then the citizens don't save the $800 million ... and we don't do all these other creative things like getting the pools fixed ... we're under budget on all that."
Overall, the proposed budget would increase the general funds for the police and fire departments by $9.8 million and $4 million, respectively.
Other cost-saving strategies include elimination of the local homestead credit, which would save $8.1 million and only affect homes not already taxed at the 1 percent rate cap dictated by state law. Killing the subsidy would increase local taxes on affected homes by an average of $24 per year.
For the councilors, as well as the heads of several agencies within city-county government who gathered at the council chambers, Ballard's budget presentation Monday night offered their first peek at his fiscal plans for 2013.
This marked a departure from years past in which agency financial officers engaged in more collaborative planning efforts prior to the unveiling of the mayor's initial budget proposal.
"We're introducing today probably not with the same level of communication we've had in the past, but that's largely due to the timing of the information we got from the state and our new technology system," said Ryan Vaughn, the mayor's chief of staff.
The council is required to pass the budget by the end of October, leaving plenty of time for in-depth discussions about its final shape, he added.
As a result of the challenges Vaughn mentioned, Controller Jeff Spalding said his department "definitely had to scramble over the last couple weeks to get an introduced budget together and we've missed some of the back and forth exchange we normally would have."
Future budget exercises should benefit from updates to the city's budgeting process, Spalding said, adding, "I do expect this process to actually get better for departments and agencies going forward."
Councilors did not have time to digest the mayor's proposal for detailed feedback, but in a news conference following the presentation said they were worried about the public safety implications and would be watching to make sure that public safety would not be cut to a point that would jeopardize the city's ability to qualify for public safety grants.
Greater analysis and debate will unfold over the upcoming weeks as the council's various committees dig into the details of the mayor's plan.
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