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Council members, APD disagree with some audit findings

Wednesday, March 26, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Several members of the City Council and Austin Police officials have reacted sharply to an auditor’s suggestion that the city should not merge all of its public safety functions into one agency.  An audit of the city’s public safety agencies reviewed Tuesday includes more than 100 recommendations on improving police functions and reducing costs.

 

City Auditor Stephen Morgan presented MGT of America’s public safety audit to the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee. The item that upset some Council members came from the conclusion reached by the consulting firm MGT on the plan to merge the city’s Aviation Police, Parks Police, and City Marshals into APD.

 

Although the Council voted last fall to go ahead with that consolidation, the assessment conducted by MGT concluded that “consolidating the PSEM (Public Safety and Emergency Management) police functions with APD would create organizational challenges, result in increased costs, and not be consistent with the practices of cities surveyed as part of this project. Given the challenges and costs identified, PSEM police functions should not be consolidated with APD.”

 

Council Member Lee Leffingwell, who supports the consolidation, was upset that MGT had recommended against it. “They shouldn’t have made a recommendation using cost figures that were obviously out of date and incorrect,” he said. MGT used figures from 2006, not the most recent data from 2007 reflecting the city’s current law-enforcement costs. “I think the data we have developed in house are in the ball park data on how much this is going to cost. We have a $600 million General Fund budget with about 65 percent going to public safety and here we’re talking about a $2 million impact. That’s $400 million for public safety and $2 million out of $400 million.”

 

Representatives of the audit team said on Tuesday that the differences between the 2006 and 2007 figures would not be enough to substantially change MGT’s recommendation. As for the use of the 2006 data, “that is the information we had available at the time,” Project Manager Suzanne Bradford with MGT said. “The resolution (supporting consolidation) was not until late 2007 when our analysis for the report was substantially complete. You sort of have a moving target…change is going on left and right. To complete our analysis, we had to take what was there at the time and use that. Otherwise, we would still not be finished.”

 

Council Member Sheryl Cole, who serves on the Audit and Finance Committee, seemed to accept that explanation. “The PSEM recommendation was only a portion of the audit, so I think the rest of the recommendations about the Police Department need to be considered,” Cole said. “With respect to the difference in the numbers that we had for 2006 as opposed to 2007 and 2008, one of the things (Bradford) said was that many of their recommendations would still be the same despite changing numbers. I think we need to pay attention to that.”

 

Leffingwell, however, was not convinced. “Based on today’s testimony, I have serious questions about the validity of that report and serious questions about spending $315,000 on it,” he said. Operating multiple policing agencies carried risks that were not calculated by the auditors, he argued, “like a lawsuit we could lose because we have different standards of training, different standards of hiring and promotion for these groups than we have for APD,” he said. “A big part of my decision to go forward with this (consolidation) is…not only is it more efficient, and I believe safer for the people in this city, but it potentially involves a great deal of risk with the system as we have it now. “

 

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo also disagreed with the MGT recommendation on consolidation. While the department does support the vast majority of MGT’s recommendations, the Chief said, “when we took a look at the original 2006 proposal, we thought it was not appropriate. In 2007, we took a look at it again.” Since the costs for the most recent proposal were lower, including using Park Rangers for some patrol functions instead of sworn officers, the Chief said it would be effective to merge the different departments into APD.

 

“It is not good business practice to have three police departments or two police departments in a city. We don’t have two fire departments, we don’t have two EMS departments,” he said. “We have one for all parts of the city.”

 

The Chief also said the department did not concur with MGT’s assessment that the department’s helicopter was not a cost-effective use of APD funds. MGT recommended working with other government agencies to handle the calls in which the helicopter currently provides air support. “From my perspective, air operations is critical to command and control, it is critical to scene management, and ultimately to keep people safe,” Acevedo said.

 

One other high profile recommendation in the MGT report is to grant the Office of the Police Monitor the power to subpoena documents. Since any changes to the duties of the Police Monitor would have to be worked out through the upcoming meet-and-confer negotiations with the Austin Police Association, MGT suggested that the City Manager appoint a committee to further study the issue, make recommendations back to the City Manager, who could then provide appropriate direction to the city’s negotiation team.

 

Police Monitor Cliff Brown said on Tuesday that his office had not sought out that recommendation from MGT. “A lot of people get scared when they hear ‘subpoena power’ But I think what they’re recommending doesn’t fundamentally change the model of oversight we have here,” he said. “It’s not a request that we become an investigatory body.”

 

Council Members on the Audit and Finance Committee did not vote to officially accept the report during Tuesday’s meeting. They cited the short amount of time they had been given to review the document, which runs more than 500 pages, and postponed official action on the report until next month’s meeting. The entire report is available on-line at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/auditor/downloads/summary_audit_report_ps.pdf.

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