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Leffingwell unhappy with revised Public Safety audit

Thursday, May 22, 2008 by Austin Monitor

The City Auditor’s office presented some revisions to a recent audit of the city’s public safety operations to the City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee on Tuesday. While those revisions were made to account for new data at the request of Council Member Lee Leffingwell, he was not fully satisfied with the results.


“I don’t have any problem with the bottom line on this, it’s just the way it’s presented,” Leffingwell said, arguing that comparing the growth of public safety spending to the general fund was not a good measurement. “Is this an apples-to-apples comparison…with other cities, for example? I’m just looking for an apples-to-apples way to actually look at what public safety costs. I’ve suggested that we have a number that reflects the cost to provide public service per capita, and that would be a number it seems like would be apples-to-apples no matter how you looked at it.”


The adjustments dealt with the overall background of the city’s budget included in the audit and also the Council resolution dealing with the consolidation of the city’s different police departments into APD. However, the adjustments did not significantly alter one of the key conclusions of the original audit, which is that APD spending is growing at a faster rate than general fund revenues.


“What we’re trying to in terms of the revenue picture here is to provide essentially the rationale for why we did the project,” said City Auditor Stephen Morgan. “It’s to help show that there’s a need to at least contain some of the cost growth in public safety, specifically police. This simply says that there’s a need to continue to manage that and contain it, and that’s why we had all of the recommendations.”


“The overall message remains that expenditures are growing faster than revenues,” said Patrick Johnson with the Auditor’s office. Over a 12-year span studied for the audit between 1995 and 2007, “Public safety has consistently been a high percentage of tax revenue,” said Johnson. “However, while tax revenue growth was 145 percent, public safety growth was 167 percent. Public safety expenditures as a percent of tax revenue grew from 88.5 percent in 1995 to 96.4 percent in 2007.”


The re-calculations had been performed after Leffingwell and fellow Council Member Mike Martinez pointed out other reasons that growth in public safety spending out-stripped the growth of the general fund, including the Council’s decision to transfer several city functions out of the general fund into enterprise departments. That slowed the growth of the general fund, they said, making the resulting growth in public safety spending appear disproportionately large.


Leffingwell said on Tuesday he was not convinced the new calculations were accurate, either, noting that some changes to the fund he had specifically pointed out were not included in the revisions. “We were looking at it from a revenue perspective to try and show the pressure on the support for the funds, rather than getting into the re-description of the general fund expenses,” explained Assistant City Auditor Taylor Dudley. 


Accounting for each policy change that affected the general fund over the past decade would be a significant undertaking, according to staffers in the Auditor’s office. “I think for us to go back and do a history of the general fund and the changes that have been made would be a new audit project in and of itself,” said Russ Needler.


Council Member Sheryl Cole agreed with Leffingwell’s request for another evaluation of the data. “There were several members of the audit committee who had some concerns about whether we would have an apples-to-apples comparison,” she told In Fact Daily. “Because we take revenues out, the growth would be slower than what it would show on the chart.”


Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley noted that the data discussed by Leffingwell might already be available to the Auditor’s office from previous projects or through other organizations, such as the International City /County Management Association. Council Member Cole cautioned that any comparison to other cities on public safety spending should take into account the crime rate, both in Austin and in the comparison metro areas. “I understand that Austin has one of the lowest murder rates in the country so it wouldn’t be fair to compare it to a city that had one of the highest murder rates,” she told In Fact Daily.


The Auditor’s office will present additional information to the Committee during its next meeting on June 17. The Committee postponed accepting the revisions to the audit report until that time. Council Member Leffingwell also wanted stronger language from the Auditor’s office addressing the issue of consolidation of the various police agencies within APD.


The revisions presented on Tuesday noted that the original recommendation against pursuing that option had been “superseded by the Council resolution directing staff to pursue consolidation”. That language, Leffingwell said, was insufficient. “The Council resolution made the data used in that recommendation invalid, because it changed all the data and they did not take that into consideration,” he said. “I don’t want to have an assessment out there that draws upon data that is invalid.”

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