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Public safety agencies forecasting tough budget year

Thursday, April 7, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Officials with the city’s three public safety entities are concerned that cuts at the federal level may impact their ability to collect grant money for fiscal year 2012. Austin’s Police, Fire, and EMS departments talked about those issues before the city’s Public Safety Commission last month.


That discussion continued at this week’s meeting. There, officials with the police department’s Victims Services Unit told commissioners that they could lose up to four positions with this year’s budget crunch. Their report prompted a strong resolution from commission Vice Chair Mike Levy, who called on the Austin City Council to absorb those positions into the city’s payroll.


In addition to worries about grant losses, public safety staff also expressed a need for more non-sworn employees. Coupled with the potential of a request to replace a large portion of the police fleet in 2012, the departments’ horizon issues discussion marked a fittingly grim beginning to what looks to be a tough budget season for city management.


The Austin Police Department collects about $12.5 million in federal grant money. “Roughly, our annual budget is around $260 million,” said APD Chief of Staff David Carter. “Close to 93. 95 percent of our annual budget is based on wages and benefits, and so you can see that there’s a fairly small amount of money that’s discretionary – the source for equipment. So we do rely on a lot of those federal grants to take care of some of those large ticket items.”


Carter was also concerned about a lack of support staff. “In the past ten years, while the number of sworn personnel has grown, the number of non-sworn staff remained somewhat flat,” he told the commission.


As for this year’s fleet buy, Carter explained that circumstances could cause a larger-than-normal need for his department. He told the commission that Ford is “basically stopping production” on the car model the department uses. “One of the things that we’re trying to do is … take advantage of the equipment that we have here, and it may be necessary for us to actually try and request more of the vehicles because … we don’t know what the next replacement of this vehicle will be and we think it will be somewhat more expensive.”


Austin Fire Department Chief of Staff Harry Evans said he is concerned about retiring fire fighters. “Fully one-third of our department has reached retirement age or has 20 years of service,” he said. “That’s about 300 folks, if not more.”


Austin/Travis County EMS Chief of Staff James Shamard said he is worried about population growth. “As our service demand will continue to grow, both in the field and in communications, our EMS system both in Austin and Travis County will have to grow with that,” he said.


Austin Police Association President Wayne Vincent and Austin/Travis County EMS Employee Association President Steve Stewart largely agreed with their management counterparts. However Austin Fire Association President Bob Nicks didn’t seem to entirely agree with Evans’ concerns about retiring firefighters.


“That’s not unprecedented,” he said. “Our department has been able to handle 50 or more firefighter (retirements) a year for quite some time, and we still can.” Nicks then called for a strong professional development program.

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