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Library hours survive city manager’s budget cut plan

Friday, February 27, 2009 by Austin Monitor

The public outcry in support of the city’s library system paid off on Thursday, as City Manager Marc Ott laid out his decisions on which steps to take to cut $20 million from the city’s current budget. The final list of actions does not include reducing hours at branch libraries, but does include scaling back overtime in the Austin Fire Department.


“Our initial plan to reduce libraries by $285,000 and branches by 9.5 hours per week…we will not be implementing that recommendation at that time,” Ott said. Thanks to Library Director Brenda Branch leaving open about 10 vacant positions, the city will be able to save approximately $80,000 by using temporary employees.


“This is not a permanent solution, but it will allow the library to sustain current service areas for now,” Ott said. “I can not guarantee that we will not need to reduce hours as part of the 2010 budget development or if we see continued downward trends in revenue this current fiscal year.”


Ott also found about $86,000 in savings in the city’s Purchasing Department. But the biggest change to the menu of options he laid out at the previous Council meeting was in the Austin Fire Department. Originally, AFD had not been asked to make any further cuts, since firefighters are effectively foregoing a pay raise by working without a contract.


The plan presented by Ott on Thursday calls for cutting the overtime budget of AFD by approximately $200,000. While the department has been paying overtime to maintain full staffing levels when firefighters are out sick or on vacation, the new plan will allow command staff to determine when to pay overtime and when to leave shifts un-filled. “This flexible staffing will not impact response times, no stations will be closed, and no units will be out of service,” Ott said.


For firefighters, that means some stations will be staffed with only three personnel instead of four. “We are going back to three-person staffing on select apparatus, depending on the number of people on duty at any given time,” Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr explained.


That change did not sit well with either former firefighter Council Member Mike Martinez or the head of the Austin Firefighters Association. “Obviously, my concerns are that when you reduce staffing in the fire department, not only do firefighters risk further injury, but so do citizens and service is also diminished,” Martinez said. “I don’t buy the argument that going from four to three doesn’t reduce service, it does.” He also said the issue had not been properly discussed by the Council.


“Task force staffing and enhanced task force staffing were resolutions that were adopted by this body by a 7-0 vote,” he said. “So I think that if we’re going to go against a Council directive, it would be appropriate for that item to be brought back to Council.”


Austin Firefighters Association President Stephen Truesdell said that if given the opportunity, the public may have turned out in support of preserving the Fire Department’s budget in the same way it did for the Library Department. “When citizens were given the idea of what cuts may be coming forward, the conversation did not even involve taking firefighters off of fire trucks,” he said. “Putting that into the mix certainly changes your perspective.”


One item that was part of the initial budget-cutting proposal and the final action list was the postponement of a new Austin Police Department cadet class. Originally scheduled to start this spring, the class of between 60 and 80 cadets will not start until the summer or fall, putting most of the expense in next year’s budget.


Prior to the start of Thursday’s Council meeting, Mayoral candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn held a news conference outside of City Hall to blast the proposal. Crime was up, Strayhorn said, “and what is lost on this Council is the fact that it takes 11 months from the first day of cadet training until an officer is ready to start protecting our citizens. These delays will end under my administration.” Although Strayhorn did not say she had consulted with any member of the Police Department about the impact on police services, she said, “I am telling you that delaying this cadet class major, major impacts public safety.”


Police Chief Art Acevedo would prefer to start the new cadet class sooner, rather than later. But he stopped short of saying that a delay would hurt public safety. “I think that postponing the class, obviously, with crime trending upwards does present a challenge of how to do more with less. But at the same time we have to balance the budget…so I understand what the Council and the manager are going through,” he said. “I don’t think the world’s going to end by postponing it. We will do what we always do, which is to rise to the challenge.”


The two current members of the Council running for Mayor both support the manger’s decision to re-schedule the cadet class. “The timing of the cadet class is to coincide with retiring officers being replaced with new officers so we don’t end up in a situation with fewer officers on the street,” said Council Member Lee Leffingwell. “I’ve been assured that the timing of retirements will not reduce the number of officers on the street. If she has facts that I don’t have, I’d welcome her telling me about it.”


Council Member Brewster McCracken, who has made it a point to call for cuts in public safety departments along with other general fund departments, also stood by the decision to postpone the cadet class. “I support the Police Chief and City Manager’s recommendation, and I appreciate the Chief’s commitment to make sure the Police Department shares in the sacrifice made by other employees on the budget cuts,” McCracken said.


Although the cuts announced on Thursday are final, for now, the City Manager warned more cutbacks could be in store based on the state of the economy. To find savings wherever possible, Ott announced plans to conduct an organizational review of every department within the city. “We will be looking for efficiencies and other structural issues. We will be asking ourselves if we are aligned correctly, if our services and programs are effective, and if our departments are organized and resourced in a way that makes sense for the long-term effectiveness to help us achieve our best-managed city goal,” he said. The first to go through the review process is Solid Waste Services.


“We are going to be facing some difficult budget decisions for 2010, which, in essence, we have already begun to talk about,” Ott concluded. But he also predicted the city would successfully emerge from the recession. “I think that the days in front of us are better, and I’m confident that with your support, our future is certainly as bright as we choose to make it.”

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