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Police, fire, EMS looking for ways to cut budgets

Thursday, May 15, 2008 by Austin Monitor

The heads of Austin’s public safety departments are scouring their budgets for potential cost savings and keeping a close eye on expenses as the City Council searches for ways to close a projected $20 million gap between revenues and expenses next year. However, because the biggest expenses for police, fire, and EMS are personnel, it is too early to predict in detail those departments’ budget needs for the 2008-09 fiscal year.


Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo told the Council during its Wednesday work session that changes in APD’s procedures for scheduling overtime have already yielded significant results for the current fiscal year. “We’re doing a better job of managing this very precious resource,” Acevedo said. “We have put $1.4 million on the table we will be able to give back to the city.”


The department previously had a requirement to maintain an 80 percent staffing level in each sector, and would call in off-duty officers to work overtime if there was a staffing shortage due to officers out on vacation or sick leave. The department dropped that requirement, and Acevedo says officers are now called in on a case-by-case basis. In addition, higher-ranking officers such as detectives are being used to handle patrol duties in some cases instead of bringing in officers on overtime.


“We are running this department like a business, but we’re also stewards of the people’s dollar,” the Chief said.


More than 90 percent of APD’s budget is devoted to personnel and benefits. In addition to the ongoing Meet and Confer negotiations with the Austin Police Association, the department will also be growing with the consolidation of the Public Safety and Emergency Management officers into APD. The budget impact of both of those factors, the Chief said, had yet to be determined.


That focus on containing costs extends to the department’s motor vehicle fleet. “We are now in the process of conducting a fleet analysis, because fleet management is part of the job,” he said. “You will probably see our fleet reduced this year.” Department officials are even encouraging officers not to leave their vehicles idling in an effort to save on gasoline costs.


Fuel costs are also a major factor in the Austin Fire Department. Both fire and EMS are seeking to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles when appropriate, but officials with those departments told the Council that many of their specialized vehicles required the use of diesel fuel. In some cases, however, the department is able to run those vehicles on bio-diesel.


AFD is also looking at partnering with some new residential projects downtown to locate fire-fighting and life-saving equipment for firefighters. Existing downtown fire stations, said Acting Chief Jim Evans, were build decades ago and are not always ideally suited for current fire-fighting apparatus.


“As we continue to purchase new apparatus that require them to be a little bit larger, then we come in to space limitations,” he said. Alternatives could include reserving space in new development downtown for fire or EMS stations, or placing key medical equipment in special areas in new high-rise buildings so that firefighters or EMS personnel have less gear to carry when they respond to a call.


“Station 1 is crowded. I think we have the appropriate amount of personnel and equipment downtown to handle the needs right now, but I think if we had an opportunity to shift some of those to the west side of Congress Avenue, that might help,” said Council Member Mike Martinez, a former firefighter. “I think we have a very unique opportunity with the Green water treatment plant redevelopment that is being bid right now. Maybe one of the public benefits is a public safety facility or structure that could handle a smaller apparatus or even an ambulance.” He requested a report on other cities that have fire stations built into residential high-rise projects.


For Austin-Travis County EMS, Director Ernie Rodriguez is focusing on cost-containment measures in the short-term and reviewing options for increasing revenue in the medium-to-long term. “We want to start to review our revenue streams… and look at new, innovative solutions like subscriptions programs for EMS. Long-range…then the hard question comes. How can we use some of those revenue streams to reduce the overall costs of EMS and the burden on the taxpayer?”


Rodriguez had been directed to review subscription programs by City Manager Marc Ott. In a subscription-based model, residents who choose to participate pay an up-front or monthly fee for membership in the EMS program. “When EMS does respond, they are either billed at a discounted rate or the bill is only sent to the insurance company,” Rodriguez explained. “Most of the time, the size of a bill exceeds the amount that an insurance company is willing to pay. So we bill the difference, the unpaid portion, back to the citizen. In a subscription model, we accept pay from the insurance company and write off the amount normally billed to the citizen.”


Subscribers to the program benefit by avoiding large EMS bills that can come from an emergency trip to the hospital in an ambulance. “For a small up-front fee, it caps their costs,” Rodriguez said.  The EMS service benefits from a guaranteed stream of revenue. “One community I talked to generated $950,000 for EMS,” Rodriguez said. “They’re gaining some dollars up front from their community. In exchange citizens are able to control their out of pocket expenses for EMS.”

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