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Audit shows rapid rise in city’s public safety costs

Wednesday, June 18, 2008 by Austin Monitor

A City Auditor’s report said Austin’s public safety costs are growing at a rate almost three times that of several other comparable cities, giving Council Members Brewster McCracken and Lee Leffingwell—who both site on the Council Audit and Finance Committee—an issue to argue over while addressing Channel 6 cameras on Tuesday. 

 

While the committee vote on accepting the report was unanimous, members of the committee drew different conclusions from the report and its data.

 

In addition to adding new language reflecting the Council’s decision to consolidate the Parks Police, Airport Police, and City Marshals within APD, the revised audit report also presented new data on the growth of per capita spending on police operations over a nine-year period. The auditors then compared that growth to per-capita police spending in six other cities.

 

“The indication is that Austin police expenditures grew faster than expenditures for peer cities over the time frame 1997 to 2007. While per capita costs for Austin grew by 84 percent, other cities’ per capita costs grew by 20 percent to 34 percent,” said Patrick Johnson with the Office of the City Auditor.

 

For Council Member Brewster McCracken, those two points of data were cause for concern. “This per capita number is meaningful in that if we’re going up triple our peer cities cost and salary growth, I think that’s concerning,” he said. “That is an alarm bell that we are on an unsustainable track in salary growth…which is a good thing to know as we enter union negotiations.”

 

McCracken cautioned that Austin could wind up like New York or Philadelphia, which have both been forced to turn to outside help to deal with budget crises. Since the audit report clearly showed the growth of APD’s budget racing ahead of the growth in the city’s tax revenues, he said, “then that’s something that we probably need to be working with the union on to make sure we don’t have a Philadelphia or New York situation, where we promise more than the taxpayers can bear in salary percentage increases.”

 

However, Council Member Lee Leffingwell had a different take on the numbers. He concurred with the assessment offered by Assistant Police Chief David Carter, who pointed out that the study period coincided with a period of significant growth in Austin’s population. “The City of Austin has changed dramatically from 1997, from basically being a capital and college town to a major metropolitan area,” Chief Carter said.

 

“When you look at that increase…it’s not about per capita expenditure, you’re looking at growth in the department over that period of time.” He also pointed to the Council’s decision in the 1990’s to move to a ratio of 2.0 officers per 1,000 of population and the inclusion of the city’s crime lab and 9-1-1 call center within the budget for APD. Other cities, Carter said, frequently group those operations under other budget headings.

 

“What you’re saying that we’ve seen is a police department in transition…from one type of policing in 1997 to a quite different approach in 2006,” Council Member Leffingwell concluded. “So, going forward is going to be a more meaningful way to look at it. I think before we really jump to any conclusions about how meaningful this statistic is…we need to know what’s behind it and we need to make sure that we’re looking at apples-to-apples.” He also indicated that he was confident the department was already taking steps to reduce costs. “On this police audit report, there are 123 recommendations, 107 have been accepted by management….most have already been implemented,” he said. “I think that’s going to be a big part of our cost savings in the future.”

 

Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley, who chairs the Audit and Finance Committee, noted that comparisons to other cities always contain uncertainties. “When you try to compare your city with another city it is really, really hard…because no two cities do things exactly the same,” she told In Fact Daily. As an example, she pointed out that some cities assign record keeping functions to the Library Department, while in Austin the City Clerk handles those functions. So, she said, it’s difficult to ensure that the funding of libraries or police departments is really being compared on an apples-to apples basis.

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