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Survey: police important but not doing good job

Friday, July 29, 2005 by

If the city’s snapshot of customer satisfaction levels is really a good indicator, Austin citizens are dissatisfied consumers of Police Department services. According to City Manager Toby Futrell, budget writers used the city’s Annual Citizen Survey, which measures customer satisfaction levels with city services and programs, when setting priorities for 2006.

While the survey participants ranked police services as their No. 1 priority, they didn’t think much of what is being provided. One a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being the highest, Austin’s police services received a low mark of 2.71.

That caught Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas’ attention. “We have to look at what’s going on with public safety,” he said. “When we sign a contract with the police department, we are requesting that they meet certain customer satisfaction goals. We need to find out what is really going on here.”

After police services, respondents listed other priorities as EMS Services, Fire Services, Traffic Flow, Environmental Protection, Affordable Housing, Health Care and Social Services, Parks, Economic Development, and Libraries.

The survey measured four major areas: Public Safety; Youth, Family and Neighborhood Vitality; Environmental Sustainability; and Infrastructure Maintenance and Repair. Fire Protection and EMS received some of the highest marks, at 3.58 and 3.49, respectively.

Transportation issues received the lowest marks, with Alternative Transportation modes getting 2.43, Road Maintenance, a 2.08 and Traffic Flow, a dismal 1.96.

Respondents listed their top five issues as Mobility (parking, traffic, congestion, construction), Quality of Life, Growth Management, Cost of Living, and Tax Issues.

Restraint in hard times pays off Careful planning through tough economic times has brought the City of Austin back to the point where it can begin “strategic reinvestments” in services previously cut or eliminated, Futrell told the Council again yesterday as she presented her final draft of the 2006 city budget.

But some Council Members expressed concern that rapidly escalating costs for police, fire and EMS could make it harder to balance future budgets and force huge increases in the tax rate.

Futrell said balancing the city budget during the 2002-04 economic downturn brought some difficult challenges, but that making the right decision then is paying dividends now.

“We are now experiencing a modest recovery,” said Futrell. “In 2002 through 2004, we delayed a lot of non-essential items, but we used one time funds judiciously and did not use them to finance ongoing programs. We stayed away from deficit spending. It’s a strategy that is now beginning to pay off.”

The 2006 budget is balanced without any new cuts, without raising the tax rate, and contains several “add backs” to restore programs and services cut during the lean years, she said. It also allows the city to reinvest in its workforce, which was cut back during the downturn.

“Those years have not been without consequence for the city,” Futrell said. “We have felt the pinch in lower customer satisfaction ratings, and in employee morale. With this budget, we are shifting to a strategic reinvestment in those areas that were cut.”

Futrell gave the Council a range of options that would provide them with some choices about what strategic add backs they could fund, based on different tax rates. She proposes a property tax rate of 43.95 cents per 100 dollars assessed valuation, which is lower than the current rate but not as low as the effective rate. Futrell’s proposal would generate $2.6 million more than the city collected in property taxes this year because of an increase in the value of the city’s certified tax rolls. The rate still allows Austin to claim the lowest tax rate among the state’s five largest cities.

Futrell proposed $6.5 million in add backs, in the following categories:

• Community services, $2.4 million, 60 new positions.

• Infrastructure/planning, $700,000, 15 new positions.

• Public Safety, $1.4 million, 28 new positions.

• Invest in the Workforce, $1.5 million, no new positions

• Social Services Contracts, $500,000, no new positions.

An additional $1.3 million is proposed for neighborhood reinvestment, Futrell said, for a total of $7.8 million in add backs.

One potential dark cloud on the horizon is the explosive growth in public safety spending. The combined budgets for police, fire and EMS services make up 65 percent of the $479.7 million general fund for 2006, dwarfing other line items such as Libraries and Parks or Health and Human Services.

One chart presented to Council showed the explosive growth in salaries in the public safety sector, projecting that at the current rate, public safety pay would have grown 232 percent between 1992 and 2008. Growth projections for all other departments were 37 percent for the same period.

“Those numbers are incredible,” said Council Member Brewster McCracken. “I am concerned that down the road we are not going to be able to meet our obligations. We are really going to run into a mess in the next few years.”

Thomas, a former APD officer, had a different take on the numbers. “We can never pay these people enough for the jobs that they do,” he said.

The long-term impact of police, fire and EMS contracts is likely to be a major topic of debate at the Council finalizes the 2006 budget. Council Member approved a schedule for completing the budget process. On Aug. 4, Council members will discuss and vote on setting a date for a tax rate hearing, which will be on Aug. 25 and Sept. 1. Budget presentations and Public hearings on the various portions of the budget are set for August 4, 18, 25 and Sept. 1, and first, second and final readings of the budget are scheduled for Sept. 12, 13, and 14, respectively.

For a detailed look at the proposed budget, go to http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/budget/ (See also, In Fact Daily, April 29,2005.)

The owner of a home once occupied by the man who founded the Boy Scouts in Austin has received permission from the City Council to demolish the structure. While the Historic Landmark Commission, city staff, and the Planning Commission had recommended designating the home at 1409 E. Second Street historic, new owner Dan Day was able to convince the Council that the structure was beyond repair.

The home first came to the attention of the Historic Landmark Commission earlier this year when Day applied for a demolition permit–after receiving a notice from the Solid Waste Services Code Enforcement Division that the building was no longer safe and needed to be destroyed. That lead to a review by the HLC, which prohibited the demolition while the historic zoning case was being considered. "No matter what you do, you're stuck," observed Council Member Brewster McCracken. "You're ordered to demolish it, and you're prohibited from demolishing it."

Day said he agreed with the assessment that the home was not able to be saved. "I've been a framing carpenter for seven years. I've remodeled houses. There's a huge extent of bad lumber in the house," he said, describing how the previous owner had shored up key portions of the building with plywood. "That's for the record."

But Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told Council Members the core part of the building deserved to be protected. While some later modifications to the house were in disrepair, Sadowsky said the original building, which dates back to the early 1900s, could be saved.

In addition to being a good example of Folk Victorian architecture, Sadowsky said former owner Lyman Bailey was a pivotal figure in Austin's history. "This is the type of individual that staff believes our program should be commemorating. He was instrumental and inspirational to generations of youth in Austin," he said. Bailey founded the first Boy Scout troop in Austin in 1911, established a pre-cursor to the YMCA, and served as the probation officer for Austin and Travis County.

New property owner Dan Day had been willing to move the home off of the lot onto a property in the Swede Hill area. Sadowsky said discussions with that Swede Hill property owner collapsed on Wednesday, but staff had been in talks with a separate landowner in the same neighborhood.

"It seems to me we have two different opinions here," said Council Member Lee Leffingwell, who sought clarification on the structural integrity of the home. "I'm wondering if there is any way we can resolve this issue."

After hearing from Sadowsky and Day, Council Member McCracken moved to deny historic zoning for the property on a 7-0 vote.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Not running . . . Although he was reported to be interested in the position, former City Council Candidate Gregg Knaupe will not be a candidate for the Texas House seat being vacated by Dist. 47 State Rep. Terry Keel. Knaupe has told friends he wants more time to watch his two young sons grow up . . . Maybe a candidate . . . Jason Earle, the son of District Attorney Ronnie Earle, has told fellow Democrats he may throw his hat in the ring. His sister, Elisabeth Earle, is J udge of Travis County Court at Law #7 . . . Aspiring to the sky . . . In Fact Daily revealed yesterday that Schlosser Development’s David Vitanza was proposing to purchase city property to aid in the redevelopment of properties at Third and Bowie streets, close to the Office Max. Vitanza is hoping to swap that land to developers Perry Lorenz, Robert Barnstone, Diana Zuniga and Larry Warshaw to give his property more parking. That group wants to build a 36-story condominium tower on Third Street also. The height they are seeking would require DMU-CURE zoning . . . Appointments . . .The Council appointed Mandy Dealey to the Planning Commission yesterday by consensus and Council Member Raul Alvarez reappointed John-Michael Cortez. . . The Council also reappointed John Donisi, Joseph Martinez and J anis Pinnelli to the Zoning and Platting Commission. . . Council Member Lee Leffingwell reappointed Karin Ascot and Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas reappointed Rodney Ahart to the Environmental Board. . . Bruce Nadig was appointed and Dorothy Richter was reappointed as alternates to the Board of Adjustment by consensus. . . Leffingwell appointed Grace Hsieh and Alvarez reappointed Karen Strnad to the Resource Management Commission. . . Council Member Brewster McCracken reappointed Karen Friese to the Water and Wastewater Commission. . . Gerard Acuña, chair of the Solid Waste Advisory Commission, won reappointment . . . The Council also reappointed Jeb Boyt, Jeff Francell and Linda Guerrero to the Parks and Recreation Board . . Jean Mather and Patti Hansen were reappointed by consensus to the Historic Landmark Commission. . . Some firms make the grade—one fails . . .The Hispanic Bar Association and the Austin Black Lawyers Association released their annual report card on minority hiring by Austin’s 25 largest law firms yesterday. Eight firms were recognized as excelling or making great progress, including Bickerstaff, Heath, Smiley, Pollan, Kever and McDaniel; Locke Liddell & Sapp; Andrews Kurth; DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary; Jenkins & Gilchrist; Winstead Sechrest & Minick; Strasburger & Price and Thompson & Knight. . .The group also gave one law firm an F— DuBois, Bryant, Campbell & Schwartz. Both Council Member McCracken and Henry Gilmore, a member of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority Board, belong to the firm. Gilmore, an African-American, has joined the firm this year but the minority group lawyers said hiring one minority out of eight new lawyers was insufficient. As an associate, McCracken would not have hiring authority. . . Meetings . . . The Public Communication and Outreach Subcommittee of the Bond Election Advisory Committee meets at 10:30am in Room 3005 at City Hall. . .No other meetings are scheduled on the last Friday of the month. . . . Special Election . . . The Round Rock City Council is expected to announce a Nov. 8 special election to fill a vacancy in Place 6. Council Member Gary Coe resigned earlier this month to run for Place 4 on the Williamson County Commission. That seat is currently held by Frankie Limmer. Filing will take place between Aug. 16 and Sept. 16, with early voting from Oct. 24 to Nov. 4 . . . Josie’s back . . . A friendly familiar face returns to County Judge Sam Biscoe’s office, albeit temporarily. Josie Zavala, who retired three years ago, is returning to work in Biscoe’s office for a brief time, filling in while Biscoe seeks a replacement for Cheryl Aker, who has moved out of town.

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