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Sheffield: Dissatisfaction with APD overblown

Friday, August 5, 2005 by

Better sampling method means more East Austin residents surveyed

Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield has taken the second look at the City of Austin's Citizen Survey and concluded that the results do not add up to trouble for the Austin Police Department. Some Council members were dismayed last week when city management presented the survey showing APD's falling scores. (See In Fact Daily, July 29, 2005.) For the union chief, however, the question is, “Who and why does somebody have the agenda that highlights negativity about the police department?”

Sheffield acknowledged the downward curve in satisfaction levels, but disagreed with how its been interpreted. “There was no significant altering of the trend, but it was put out there to the public as though there's some huge change here in how people are perceiving the police—and that is not the case. (And if it is,) then you’ve got to say the same thing for EMS and fire.” He added, “There’s an overall trend that relates to the city in general and public safety;” in particular.

When rated on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being the highest, Austin’s police services received an overall score of 2.71 among those who said they had been in contact with APD during the past year. The rating has declined over the past two years, but Sheffield points out that the same is true for fire and emergency medical services.

While APD’s score dropped from 2.96 in 2003 to 2.71 this year, overall satisfaction with the Austin Fire Department dropped from 3.80 in 2003 to 3.58 this year. Ambulance services were rated at 3.55 in 2003 and have fallen slightly to 3.50 in this year's rating. Of course, those numbers are still considerably higher than those of the police department.

In one area, traffic control and enforcement, residents told the survey the police are doing a better job than in years past. The rating climbed from 2.37 to 2.43 between 2003 and 2004 and moved up to 2.49 for 2005. However, there is a big difference between the 1,077 people who responded to the question regarding satisfaction with traffic enforcement and the much smaller number of people who responded to questions about overall satisfaction with APD. That difference is involvement with police on a personal level.

One of the tables in the survey is called “Levels of satisfaction among those who contacted the APD within the last 12 months." The number of persons responding to that part of the survey in 2003 was 284; 322 last year; and 424 this year. The biggest change over the three-year period was amongst those who rated their satisfaction level as "very low." Fewer than 9 percent of those responding two years ago rated the police in the lowest category, but that number had risen to more then 17 percent of those responding this year.

Last week, after hearing the report on the survey, Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas, who served on the police force for 21 years, describe APD’s rating as low and called upon the whole department to take steps to remedy the situation.

Earlier in the day, Council Member Brewster McCracken had asked a lot of questions concerning funding for the police—which takes a giant bite out of the city budget.

Of those responding to the survey, 39 percent indicated that they had had contact with the APD in the last 12 months. The total number of people responding to the survey was 1,097. Of those, 39 percent or 428 people, had the opportunity to answer questions about their overall satisfaction with the police department, the quality of APD’s service and its timeliness. Four of those chose not to answer the questions related to APD, leaving 424 to respond.

Sheffield argues that if the city had randomly selected citizens to answer these satisfaction questions, the police would have done better because any experience with the police—no matter how effective or professional—would leave a negative feeling in the minds of those experiencing it.

A look at the methodology used indicates possible reasons for changes in the responses to the survey.

City Budget Officer Greg Canally and Corporate Budget Manager Shannon Szymczak said they mailed out the 12,000 surveys three weeks before the due date, which was June 10.

Szymczak said the city sent out surveys based on the proportional distribution of the population throughout the zip codes. She noted that in previous years, certain parts of the city had been underrepresented in customer satisfaction surveys. In order to try to remedy that problem they sent out 10,000 surveys based on proportional representation and an extra 2,000 surveys to residents of Northeast and Southeast Austin.

This seems to have boosted the percentage from those parts of town significantly. For example, only 3.9 percent of those responding to the 2004 survey lived in Southeast Austin but 8.5 percent of those responding this year lived there. The same was true in Northeast Austin, with the number more than doubling. At the same time, the percentage of respondents from Northwest and Southwest Austin dropped.

Council begins tax rate conversations

The battle began late last night over the 2005-06 city budget as a divided City Council debated whether to set the preliminary tax rate at the effective tax rate or the higher nominal tax rate. At stake is whether the Council will hold the line on tax bills or add back city services cut during the economic downturn.

The preliminary tax rate is a starting point for the Council to use in its budget deliberations, and it was necessary to set it last night to publish the figure by August 17, in order to comply with the state’s new “ Truth in Taxation” law.

Setting the preliminary rate was the last item on a very long agenda for the Council. Shortly after 11pm, Council Member Jennifer Kim proposed setting the preliminary number at the effective tax rate of 43.20 cents per $100 assessed value, saying that she feels too many people are being priced out of Austin by high taxes.

“Austin has some of the highest tax bills in the state,” she said. “I believe we need to hold the line here and keep taxes from going up. Too many people are being forced to move out of their neighborhood and even out of the city to be able to afford a home. We need to change that.”

The effective tax rate is the rate at which revenues would remain the same, despite any increases in the assessed value of property in the city.

Her motion was immediately countered by Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who made a substitute motion to set the preliminary rate at the nominal tax rate of 44.30 cents.

“Jennifer’s motion would mean that we couldn’t go higher than the effective rate, limiting what we can do,” she said. “I believe we need to set the rate at the nominal rate and work down from there.”

The nominal tax rate is the same rate as the previous year, but raises additional revenues because of the increase in assessed value of properties in the city.

Council Member Brewster McCracken came down squarely behind Dunkerley’s substitute motion.

“For the past three years, we have had to balance this budget on the backs of kids and parks and roads and other needed services because we simply could not pay for them,” he said. “Now we have a chance to begin adding back these programs, and I think this is what we have to do.”

He disagreed with Kim’s assertion that Austin’s tax bills are too high.

“We actually have one of the lower tax bills in Central Texas,” he said. “Cities like Leander, Round Rock, West Lake Hills, Rollingwood and Lakeway all have higher tax bills than we do. We fall in the middle, if not at the bottom, of the pack. We have been rated as one of the fastest growing areas in the nation for about four decades now.

Council Members Raul Alvarez, Lee Leffingwell and Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas all echoed their support for Dunkerley’s substitute motion.

“I think we need as much flexibility as we can get,” said Alvarez. ”Now is not the time to debate what it should be. Let’s select a rate that we know we can come in under. I think this is a year that we need to add back services, especially those close to the hearts of our constituents.”

Mayor Will Wynn was the only other member of the Council to support Kim’s motion.

“The median home in Austin pays higher property taxes than the median home in any other major Texas city,” he said. “Homes in Austin are valued so high that the average homeowner pays a higher bill even though we have the lowest tax rate. That bill is made even higher by county taxes and school districts, most of which are taxing at the maximum rate.”

The Mayor said the worst of the economic problems appear to be over.

“We need to start this budget debate from a position of not raising taxes,” he said. “We need to start with restoring the city workforce, and find more cost-effective ways to make the add backs to our programs. We need to leverage and get more bang for those painfully earned new dollars.”

At one point in the debate, Kim appeared ready to compromise on the effective rate, but McCracken called a point of order that the substitute motion for the nominal tax rate was on the table. The Council voted 5-2 to adopt the nominal rate, with Kim and Wynn on the losing end of the vote.

Earlier in the day, Council members heard budget reviews from the City of Austin’s Community Services Departments—P arks, Libraries, Health and Housing. Those departments were the hardest hit by three years of economic downturn and lean city budgets.

A common theme among the four departments—which comprise 13.3 percent of the city’s general fund—was add backs, restoring programs and personnel cuts made during the last few years. Community Services budgets dropped from $80.9 million in 2002 to $69.6 million in 2004. This year’s request is for $76 million, restoring $5 million in services and adding back 59 full and part-time jobs.

The majority of the add backs were to the city’s libraries, which would get $1.4 million and 41 jobs restored after deep cuts were made in staffing and operating hours over the past three years. Some 33 positions would be used to restore full operating hours to all branch libraries and the Austin History Center.

The Parks and Recreation Department is seeking approximately $315,000 in add backs for five new positions to the Forestry program and four on the Parks Ground Crew. The Forestry staff would be used to cut the response time to cutting brush on blind corners from 19 days to 5 days. The Parks staff would increase the number of parks serviced on a daily basis.

The Health and Human Services department is seeking slightly less than $1 million in add backs to its programs, to add 11 new positions to bolster food inspection, communicable disease programs and the HIV/STD program.

Neighborhood Housing and Community Development did not seek to add back any positions, but did seek a small increase in its budget to replace some of its grant funding lost from the federal government.

Council postpones Walgreens contract

Austin City Council members sent city staff members back to the drawing board yesterday on an amendment to a contract with Walgreens drugs to dispense and manage prescriptions to clients of the city’s Community Care Services clinics. The problem was the wording in the contract on how Walgreens would handle a situation if one of its pharmacists refused—on moral grounds—to fill a prescription for contraceptive products.

Council Member Brewster McCracken led a unanimous Council revolt over the portion of the contract that stated if such occurred Walgreens would fill the prescription with another pharmacist “without undue wait” or allow the patient to go to a different Walgreens.

“That is entirely inadequate,” McCracken said. “We need to protect the citizens of Austin. This contract puts Walgreens under no obligation to have a pharmacist on site, and puts the burden on the patient to find another Walgreens.”

He said there has already been a situation in Texas that he doesn’t want to see repeated in Austin

“A rape survivor was recently refused by three different pharmacies when she was trying to get a prescription filled for a ‘morning-after’ pill,” McCracken said. “We don’t want that happening to any of our citizens. The language is really troubling. We need some contractual protections in here.”

Staff said larger Walgreens always have two pharmacists on duty, but some of the smaller stores only have one during evening hours, so they would have to bring in another pharmacist on such occasions.

Prior to Thursday’s Council Meeting, more than 300 Austinites sent emails to Council members—at the encouragement of Planned Parenthood—asking them to ensure that the contract guaranteed that women could receive contraceptives. (See In Fact Daily, August 4, 2005)

Elaine Carroll with Community Care Services told Council members that language already in the contract states that Walgreens is required to fill all drugs on the clinic’s formulary, and to have a procedure in place if a pharmacist had a moral objection. But it was that proposed procedure that caused the protest.

“We need to go back and get the language right,” said Council Member Betty Dunkerley. “We need to know that Walgreens agrees with our policy. We need a corporate policy statement attached to this contract.”

Council Member Lee Leffingwell said the wording was too vague.

“The way I read the last provision, Walgreens only has to call a pharmacist in within two hours,” he said. “That is unacceptable.”

Leffingwell moved that the Council postpone consideration of the contract amendment for two weeks to have staff take the contract back to Walgreens and change the wording to reflect the city’s policy. The Council approved that motion 7-0.

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

Starting the process over?… Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Jennifer Kim want to reconsider the city’s plan to close two lanes of Riverside Drive between South First Street and Lamar. They sponsored an item on yesterday’s agenda requesting the City Manager to report to the Council on the current cost estimate for construction of Town Lake Park. That includes the cost of reducing Riverside Drive and converting Cesar Chavez to a two-way street. When expansion of the park was originally approved, costs were lower but construction was put on hold due to budget constraints. Some park supporters worked hard to win approval for narrowing Riverside. However, the price tag for that construction would now be more useful in the overall budget for the park. The manager’s report will highlight how much each of these plans would cost … Appointments… Mayor Will Wynn reappointed Tracy Sosa to the Solid Waste Advisory Commission and Laura Raun to the Water and Wastewater Commission. Cheryl Scott-Ryan was reappointed by consensus and Michael Warner by Council Member Lee Leffingwell to the same body. Leffingwell also reappointed Dave Sullivan to the P lanning Commission. Robert Sessa is a new consensus appointment to the Electric Utility Commission. Council Member Raul Alvarez reappointed Frank Fernandez to the EUC. Leffingwell reappointed Randy Walden to the Electric Board. Chip Rosenthal was reappointed by consensus to the Telecommunications Commission. . . How to kill a hearing . . If you want to cut down on a crowd, make ‘em wait a while. Council members postponed a public hearing on the city budget yesterday until after all of it’s zoning hearings. The budget hearing, scheduled for 6pm, got started about 9:50pm, when more than half of those signed up to speak had given up and gone home . . . Meet the lende r. . . On Monday, the City of Austin Small Business Development Program will host its second annual “ Meet the Lender Fair.” The free event, from 5-8:30 pm will be at the Hyatt Regency Austin, 208 Barton Springs Road. It will give business owners the opportunity to meet 40 lenders from a variety of lending institutions. Content experts will be leading four concurrent breakout sessions. To register, call 974-7806 . . . Animal Shelter information . . . Plans for the proposed Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter will be available for review at a special meeting Monday night. The new facility will accept animals from the unincorporated parts of the county and from the cities of Round Rock, Cedar Park, Hutto and Leander. A public meeting will be held to share the proposed design from 6 to 7:30pm, in the training room at the Williamson County Central Maintenance Facility, 3151 S.E. Inner Loop, in Georgetown. . . Free swim at Barton Springs. . This Sunday will be a Free Swim Day at Barton Springs Pool. Austin City Council has passed a resolution declaring Sunday a Free Swim Day to honor the passage of the Save Our Springs Ordinance by the voters of Austin on August 8, 1992 . . . Splash Party Movie Night . . . Want to get in on something really cool? Saturday night is your last chance to take a dip in Deep Eddy Pool and see a movie during the City’s Splash Party Movie Night, family summer tradition in Austin. Tomorrow is the final night of this summer’s series, with “ Shrek 2” showing at dusk. The regular pool entrance fee covers the movie and swimming cost. Deep Eddy Pool is at 401 Deep Eddy Ave., just off Lake Austin Blvd. Call 472-8546 for more information.

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