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Acevedo’s helicopter request brings larger debate on public safety funding

Friday, October 8, 2010 by Michael Kanin

A debate has surfaced among city officials about the usefulness of acquiring three new helicopters for the Austin Police Department. On one side, Police Chief Art Acevedo argues that the units are necessary additions that could help with police enforcement over the broader Austin region. On the other, Council Member Bill Spelman insists that the choppers are costly luxuries.


In the process, larger questions about a steady, hefty increase in the public safety budget over the past 10 years have come to light. According to numbers provided by Spelman’s office, per capita spending for the Austin Fire, EMS, and Police departments has risen by more than 98 percent over the past decade.


It all comes against the backdrop of two high profile incidents involving the police department last week. To some, the University of Texas shooting and the Big Lots robbery illustrate the need for more enforcement.


Indeed, after those incidents, Acevedo said the department needs three more helicopters and was seeking $12 million in federal funds for the new eyes in the sky. Others at City Hall resented the move, which came in a news conference that was held on the heels of the UT shooting, as a politicization of the issue.


The $12 million mark notched by Acevedo includes procurement funding for the three helicopters at roughly $3.25 million each. It also leaves room for the police package for each unit—including thermal imaging and video capabilities—which, coupled with the avionics necessary for the aircraft adds another $250,000 per chopper. The remaining $1.5 million is for some of the maintenance costs, spare parts, and training associated with the vehicles.


But, even if the federal government were willing to buy the choppers, the city would still have a hefty price tag, according to Spelman. He says that, with debt included in the picture, the cost could escalate to closer to $20 million.


Spelman said his numbers came via the office of City Manager Marc Ott. They represent a very early look at total cost projections, which include rough allowances for the number of years the units will be in use.


For fuel and maintenance – including personnel and spare parts – APD Lt. Kurt Rothert said that the cost for each aircraft is roughly $400 per flight hour. Rothert, who runs the aviation unit, says his team flies a total of 80 hours per month, which puts those costs at roughly $384,000 a year.


That number could tick up if more units are acquired. Rothert says that his group is more effective if it is performing a proactive mission. For that, he says, they need to be airborne.


Austin’s budget for public safety has grown by 44.9 percent since 2000 while expenses for the rest of the General Fund have risen by only 1.6 percent, according to figures compiled by Spelman, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.


Austin taxpayers will be spending $528.87 per capita for the upcoming year for police, fire and EMS services; the cost per resident for all other General Fund services, such as libraries, parks, and health and human services, is $365.03. Spelman says spending for all non-public safety services has gone up only $3 in the past decade.


Spelman compared spending by Austin to that of six other peer cities: Portland, Atlanta, Denver, Minneapolis, Raleigh, and Tucson. Three of the six saw a decrease in total public safety spending and none of those cities showed the same kind of increase.


Spelman told In Fact Daily that his study was nothing more than an inquiry. “I’m not arguing anything,” he said. “The reason for doing this was just to see what did our previous budget process result(ed) in. Over an 11-year period, all of our money went into public safety. Most people would look at it and say, we have human service needs, parks needs…(those) should have gone up too.”


Acevedo defends the costs by arguing that the new units would better position not just his department, but those in Hays, Williamson, and Travis Counties as well as the officers in Round Rock. “One of the concepts we’ve been discussing with our (regional) partners is that with at least 3 helicopters…we (could) provide support regionally,” he said.


“But you can’t put the cart before the horse.”


He further argued that once the choppers are acquired, his department could sell-off one of its older units to help defray some of the costs.


As for current readiness, Acevedo said that a Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter that had been used in both of the recent incidents had been redeployed to the U.S.-Mexico border. The two current APD units are grounded for maintenance. “Right now, we have no aircraft for law enforcement in Austin,” he said.  


According to Rothert, should an emergency arise, the EMS-focused StarFlight crew can and does perform law enforcement missions. This can be a costly prospect, however, as that team runs up a bill of nearly $1,000 per flight hour. StarFlight does not charge the City of Austin for such services.


“If we had no helicopters I could say, well, we’ll be able to put an eye on the sky every once in a while,” Spelman said. “(This) is a big deal, but we have two functioning helicopters right now. Adding three more I’m not at all sure is going to add that kind of value to be worth (what we are going to have to pay).”


Embedded in all of this is another argument, this line between crime prevention and crime response. If it comes down to it, Spelman said that he would take “effective prevention over effective response every time.”


“It is always better to prevent a crime from ever being committed,” he added.


Those comments came during a discussion about a recent In Fact Daily whisper that detailed the possibility that the Joint Juvenile Gang Intervention Unit could lose its only civilian caseworker (see In Fact Daily, Oct. 6). That position would run the city about $75,000 a year.


For Council Member Randi Shade, the extra aircraft make sense. “When we rank our needs, I always say parks is no. 1 after the utilities and public safety,” she said. (Public safety is number one, and) “When they call 911 any day of the week, they want to know that they’re going to have an adequate response. Now, are there ways to improve efficiency? I’m sure there are. And I appreciate Council Member Spelman’s questions.”


Mayor Lee Leffingwell said with regard to the cost of public safety, “I think most people would agree that public safety is the top priority. If you’re not safe on the streets and in your homes, the rest doesn’t matter.“ However, he did agree that public safety costs have “have risen disproportionately compared to our revenue.” Part of the reason for that, he said, is paying police officers more than other cities but not hiring in large numbers. “The decision was made before my time that we were going to put our money into quality rather than numbers…hopefully that quality makes up for the lack of the number of officers on the streets.”

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