A political action committee, Citizens for an Accountable Austin, is underwriting a drive that has gathered nearly enough signatures to ask voters on the Nov. 6 ballot if they favor an independent audit of all city government functions.
Based on the results of similar audits in several states, cities and school districts, Austin could find savings of between $150 million and $400 million, said Michael Searle, treasurer of the PAC and head of the petition drive.
Petition crews have gathered more than 17,000 signatures and Searle said he expects to present at least the necessary 20,000 to the city clerk by about July 10, in plenty of time for the names to be validated and to put the audit question on the ballot. Please see the blueprint for the audit here.
The idea of a third-party audit of city departments including the city’s energy and water utilities has long been popular with voters, including a level of bipartisan support unusual for such a high profile issue in Austin.
“Conservatives may see it as an opportunity to reduce taxes and liberals may see it as an opportunity to free up resources for important city investments,” Searle told The Texas Monitor. “There may be a way to do both.”
Earlier this year, Searle resigned as chief of staff to Ellen Troxclair, the city council’s lone conservative member, to organize a political action committee built around the idea that operating inefficiencies are potentially costing Austin taxpayers millions of dollars annually.
An audit of the state government in Kansas identified as much as $434 million a year in cost savings. Wyoming, Rhode Island and the city of Seattle found similar savings with their audits. The Detroit Public School System found annual savings of $53 million in its audit. More on those examples here.
Based on studies of those audits, Searle said Austin could expect to see savings of between 4 percent and 10 percent annually. With the current budget of $3.9 billion that would mean savings of $156 million to $390 million a year.
The cost to do the audit would range from $1 million to $2 million, Searle said.
“Whatever the upfront costs are, the savings will be much more significant than the initial investment,” he said. “This is a long-term, strategic investment for the city.”
Searle said he recognized at the start of the signature drive there would be some political resistance. But Austin has a new city manager, Spencer Cronk, who has been delivering a message of budget transparency. He hopes Cronk will be more receptive to the findings of an outside audit.
Cronk, via city spokesman Andy Tate, declined to respond to a request for comment. “Our city manager is declining to comment on the Austin efficiency audit petition drive at this time.” Tate’s email said.
“The goal isn’t to force the City Council to do anything but to provide critical information, to identify these opportunities. By freeing up resources through efficiencies, inefficient dollars can be reallocated,” Searle said.
Early on, he enlisted Fred Lewis, longtime city activist, attorney, member of the Charter Review Commission and self-described “New Deal liberal” in the petition effort. Lewis said Monday he has long questioned the city’s spending priorities and how city departments spend their funds. Above all, Lewis said the taxpaying public has a right to know why and how the city spends its money.
“Whether you’re liberal or conservative, you have a right to know if you are getting what you expect in the delivery of basic city services, Lewis said. “Transparency about government spending is a good thing.”
Lewis said some on the left in Austin mistake scrutiny for an attack on city programs. Wasted funds are funds not available for those programs, he said. “Whether you want more money for programs like me or less money like Michael, you still should have an expectation that you are getting your money’s worth.”
When putting his petition together, Searle called on Ed English, who formed a group called Audit Austin for an unsuccessful run at a City Council seat in 2014. English describes himself as a “dyed in the wool, confirmed independent, moderately liberal on social issues and moderately conservative on fiscal issues.”
English said his call for a third-party, citywide audit might have been a couple of years early. With the arrival of a new city manager, he said, “we believe this can have a big impact. We hope to be able to provide the tools for the council for the 2019 budget.”
English had hoped the City Council would take up the issue at its regular session this week — its last before a month-long summer break. However, a fourth council member could not be found to support putting it on the agenda.
Like Lewis, English said it would be wrong for the council or the public to read political motives into the petition drive. “I think it should be judged on the merits of the petition, whether or not it’s in the public’s best interest — and I think it is.”
A third surprising supporter is Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance. Famous for taking on corporate powers to protect the area’s aquifer, Bunch has recently been critical of several projects that have corporate support, like the expansion of the city’s convention center. He’s also criticized the water utility’s conduct over hundreds of deliberately misread water meters last summer.
“They have been, in our view, hiding critical information about how they spend our money,” Bunch told KXAN-TV this week.
Both Lewis and English said they are comfortable with Searle’s decision not to reveal the names of the donors who have put up the money for the petition drive through Accountable Austin Action, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit.
“There are many people in the city who believe in this policy but were afraid to contribute to the initiative for fear of retribution,” Searle said. “We have seen this in the past, so we eliminated the problem as a barrier to wider civic participation.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].