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Council members spar over police staffing at budget briefing

Thursday, July 28, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

City Council members got their first look at the proposed FY2011-12 budget yesterday, a budget City Manager Marc Ott said “reflects the priorities and values of the Council, of staff, and the community.” (See In Fact Daily, July 27, 2012.) Of course, values and priorities are a matter of opinion, and the next several weeks should be full of pushing and pulling as the city moves toward a mid-September vote on the budget.


Judging by yesterday’s special meeting, one issue that will be hotly debated over the coming months is funding the Police Department, particularly as it pertains to the number of sworn officers on the payroll. According to Budget Office Director Ed van Eenoo, citizens and stakeholders have consistently said that public safety is their number one priority.


The proposed budget the Budget Office presented yesterday reflects that sentiment. 


The proposed budget totals $2.8 billion dollars, including $690.2 million for the General Fund. The vast majority of that money — $447.1 million, or 65 percent – will go toward Public Safety, and more than half of that number, $267.1 million, will go to fund the Police Department.


That includes money for 49 new officers, the number required to keep the city at its mandated ratio of 2 officers per 1000 citizens. At Wednesday’s meeting, Council Member Bill Spelman, an expert on police issues, expressed some skepticism that the 2-per-1000 ratio is absolutely necessary to maintaining the city’s low crime rate.


Spelman asked Assistant City Manager for Public Safety Services Mike McDonald if there is data showing a connection between police staffing numbers and crime rates, traffic safety, etc.


McDonald, who came to city management from APD, responded that such data is dependent on individual communities. For instance, he said, cities like Austin and San Diego maintain relatively low crime rates despite having low police-to-population ratios. Washington D.C., on the other hand, has nearly five sworn officers per 1000 citizens yet is riddled with crime.


“There is no absolute,” said McDonald. “Safety in the community is a combination of things. It has to do with community tolerance – we have a very engaged community here in Austin – so it’s not just about police efforts; it’s about the community efforts as well that impact how safe this community is.”


Spelman agreed and said such data could justify taking another look at the current ratio mandate and reallocating some of the Police Department’s funds.


“Given that we have a mandate to get to 2 per 1000,” said Spelman, “and given that APD is the primary cost driver in the General Fund and the need for more officers, it seems to me that it might be a good time to revisit that policy and provide additional flexibility to the police chief and the Budget Office to reallocate some of that General Fund – for example, from sworn officers to civilians – given the widespread understanding that we’re having trouble answering all our 911 calls. We might have an opportunity for increasing the number of crime scene technicians. It seems like a good time to revisit that policy and come up with a new one that provides a little more flexibility.”


But Mayor Lee Leffingwell said he would have a hard time imagining a scenario under which he would vote to decrease the number of police officers on the street.


“For me, as I’ve said during more difficult budget cycles than this, public safety is, as a city, our number one priority,” said Leffingwell. “We are a very safe city, and the reason that we are a safe city is because we have devoted the resources to making the city safe. If we no longer devote the resources, we run the risk of not being a safe city. And so I would be very reluctant – I would say the bar would be very high for me to want to ever consider revisiting that ratio.”


Yesterday being only the first of several discussions Council will be having on the budget over the next months, no one else made a comment on the police staffing issue, but after the meeting, Council Member Mike Martinez told In Fact Daily that he, like the mayor, would be “totally against” reconsidering the policy on 2 officers per 1000 — unless, he said, Council and APD want to consider adding officers.


City management also proposed an increase of 2.5 cents, from $0.4571 to $0.4823 per $100 valuation. The Budget Office had been anticipating a 3-cent increase, but staff was able to decrease the rate after higher-than-expected sales tax revenue this year.


Council will hold budget work sessions on August 17 and 24, followed by a public hearing on the budget, the proposed tax rate, and water and wastewater rates on August 25 and a public hearing on just the budget and the tax rate on Sept. 1. Then, from September 12-14, Council will conduct its budget approval readings and consider adoption of the new tax rate.

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