Due to a budget battle taking place at Austin City Hall, the heart and values of Austin are at stake. That’s according to Council member Delia Garza, some members of the Austin ISD Board of Trustees, One Voice Central Texas, which is a coalition of 93 nonprofit organizations including HousingWorks Austin and the coalition Austin Interfaith. Those individuals and groups held a news conference on July 27th at a south Austin school to call for the City to make a stronger commitment to increasing funding for social service programs.
Council member Garza said, “I have always been committed to making sure our working families have a voice and that our budget reflects that we cannot keep using that we are the most economically segregated city as a talking point. We need to reflect that in our budget.”
The issue centers around a resolution the City Council passed in January of this year that established a goal of increasing the investment in social services funding and contracts for social services for FY 2017 from the current $4.4 million to $8.3 million. However, in recent discussions about the City’s budget, that increase in investment has not been committed. Tom Mendez of Austin Interfaith said “We do not want to hear that the budget is tight – if it’s so tight you should not have given a tax break to the few,” referring to the recently-passed homestead exemption which will cost the City about $15 million annually and will benefit affluent homeowners more than others. Mendez also laid out a list of social services priorities totaling $3.5 million, which he said the City must fund. Those priorities are listed to the right.
Speaking on behalf of One Voice Central Texas, Meg Poag said not increasing funding for social services will take the city backward. “Human services have a proven record of having a significant return on investment,” said Poag. She cited studies that show the savings that come from investing in prevention of mental illness, allowing seniors to age in their homes rather than being prematurely institutionalized in nursing homes, and from workforce development. Poag also argued that social services help cities avoid spending for incarceration, public safety and emergency medical services.
Austin ISD trustees Paul Saldana, Anne Teich and Gina Hinojosa are particularly concerned that if the City doesn’t increase funding for social services, the District will have to cut back on its afterschool program that keeps dozens of AISD schools open after the final bell rings so students will have a safe and educational place to be while their parents are working. Also, the trustees said the District needs help funding its parent support specialist program which ensures students have a safe and healthy home environment.
Perhaps the most powerful moment came when Army veteran Jamaal Kelley, flanked by his wife Amanda, talked about how social services were a safety net during a critical time in their lives. Kelley said after serving in the war in Iraq, he suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. He was also badly injured in an automobile accident. Kelley said he became homeless and says it was only due to assistance from One Voice, Front Steps, the Salvation Army, the VA and HUD’s VASH housing voucher program that he and his wife were able to get their lives back on track. “The services we received weren’t handouts,” said Kelley. “They encouraged and strengthened us and gave us hope for the future, all without affecting our independence.”
The debate over the City’s FY 2017 budget is continuing.