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Council delves into public safety, economic growth budgets

Thursday, August 19, 2010 by Michael Kanin

All three of the City of Austin’s public safety departments have asked for budget increases that would include funding for new sworn officers. The money, which would come from the city’s general fund, totals nearly $20 million more than the Police, Fire, and EMS sections asked for in 2010.


That news came as the City Council held the first of its departmental budget work sessions. There, they also heard from the offices of Planning and Development Review and Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services (EGRSO). The latter was publicly facing the full body for the first time since news broke that the Electric Utility Commission rejected Austin Energy’s 2011 budget on the grounds that the utility could no longer afford to be its primary source of funding (see In Fact Daily, Aug. 18).


In addition to other duties, the Economic Growth department works out incentives designed to bring business to Austin.


Council Member Bill Spelman immediately zeroed in on the increase in public safety personnel. “We’re … talking in this budget about increasing public safety funding by six-and-a-half percent, and the primary cost driver in all three cases is more people,” he said. “So I’ve got one question for all three of you … can you explain to me how it is that (this increase) is going to make us safer, and about how much safer can we expect to be?”


The heads of each agency each gave lengthy answers. EMS Director Ernie Rodriguez said that the 30 new paramedics he asked for would allow his department to shift personnel around in such a way that they’d be able to prevent an increase in their response time. As a bonus, Rodriguez added that more Austin paramedics would allow Travis County to better position its EMS squads, which would bring down the county’s response time.


Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr told Spelman that the increases would allow her department to operate more safely and efficiently. “A crew of four (on a ladder truck) can be 25 percent more effective than a crew of three,” she said.


Currently, the Austin Fire Department staffs only two of its five ladder trucks with a four-person crew. It would use its 10 new firefighters, in part, to bring another of those vehicles up to that number.


For his part, Police Chief Art Acevedo could be bringing on a total of 98 new officers. Forty-eight of those would come from an increase in his draw on the general fund. He indicated that some of those positions would be used to hire new detectives. “One of our challenges right now is … (our detectives) have got a tremendous case file and we’re looking at starting (to relieve) that next year,” he said. “By doing that we anticipate increasing our clearance rate and bringing criminals to justice … (That) obviously will have an impact on crime.”


Acevedo also said that he’d use the personnel to bolster the department’s community policing efforts.


Spelman seemed less than convinced by the answers he got from the chiefs. “I need to look carefully at what they are telling us,” he told In Fact Daily after the work session. “They had justifications for everything they were doing, and I got a sense that it wasn’t going to be just more of the same. But I still need to look at the details to decide how much we can justify and where.”


Early in his presentation, the director of the city’s economic growth office, Kevin Johns, appeared to be setting himself up for a defense of his budget. Just after his introduction, Johns clicked on to a slide featuring a lopsided pie chart that illustrated the relative size of Austin Energy’s contribution to his budget. He frankly explained the graphic and then offered his read of the situation.


“As a footnote,” he said, “(our) projects generate $45 million a year to Austin Energy’s bottom-line revenues.”


The utility is currently slated to contribute $9.9 million to Johns’ proposed $10.2 million fiscal year 2011 budget.


This all raised questions for Council Member Sheryl Cole. “One of the most complex, challenging things that I believe this Council will have to do is deal with the financial stability of Austin Energy,” she said.


“We definitely need to approach (economic development funding) from a comprehensive perspective, and there’s no question that the economic development is critical to (the) financial needs of the city,” she later added. “(But) at the same time we made a commitment to renewable energy and affordability and we have to keep that in mind as we make representations to the public. So I would like to just see us get together and talk about a long-term plan to address both issues from both departments.”


After the hearing, Cole told In Fact Daily that, though she didn’t question the figures that Johns had presented as his department’s contribution to Austin Energy’s bottom line, they weren’t really “the heart of the issue.”


“We don’t evaluate departments that way,” she said. “We’ve made a different type of plan for Austin Energy and I think we need to think about those in terms of our future rate case, our climate protection plan, our generation plan, and the legislature.”


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez told In Fact Daily he was particularly concerned about the sustainability of ERGSO and the need for the city to create more jobs. “I believe we should continue to do economic development and try to retain and get jobs,“ he said. “Is there a formula somewhere in the world that is a one-time influx or investment that would create a model that pays for itself? EGRSO is not self-sustainable, and (we need) some type of program somewhere that creates a self-sustainable model.”


Mayor Lee Leffingwell, meanwhile, said he would support changing the way EGRSO is funded in future years but said he thought it was too late to change it this year, adding, “But I think for the long term we do need to think about it and I think we will be more careful about the things that Austin Energy does fund.”


Council Member Laura Morrison said, “I think that question is going to be asked and investigated. Why does it make sense for Austin Energy to be funding EGRSO and not other (enterprise funds)? Having seen how slowly things move and change in the city structure, I would really be surprised if it happened this year.”


After the meeting Council Member Bill Spelman said that he and his colleagues still have a great deal to discuss when it comes to the budget and that he didn’t want to see the process get too focused or short-sighted. “We talked about public safety and growth services,” he said, “but we didn’t talk about community services. We’ve got a lot of health and human services problems, a lot of parks needs, and a lot of library needs. That didn’t come out in the hearing today and I hope that comes out next week.


“Our job is to allocate our scarce resources among our needs, and right now we’re focusing all of our attention on growth and public safety.”

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