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Personnel costs, needs drive public safety FY2013 budgets

Friday, April 20, 2012 by Michael Kanin

City budget officials project an estimated $24.5 million in unmet departmental needs for the FY2013 budget. The city’s three public safety agencies, which collectively report roughly $15 million in unmet needs, account for more than half of that figure.


That fact is in keeping with two basic budgetary facts about the city’s public safety entities: That they account for most of the city’s expenses, and that personnel costs drive the bulk of the Police, Fire, and EMS budgets. Indeed, much of what Austin’s public safety agencies asked for that stretched beyond current financing would go toward more employees.


Council members heard the word officially Wednesday, during their first full day of presentations about next year’s budget. Initial projections seem to illustrate an improving fiscal picture for the city but management is still projecting the need for a property tax increase (See In Fact Daily, April 18, 2012).


During the proceedings, Council Member Bill Spelman stayed away from the topic of the Austin Police Department’s long-standing 2.0 officer-per-1,000-residents ratio. Last year, Spelman invited a fair bit of controversy with the mere suggestion of a study that could challenge those figures.


Instead, Spelman honed in on the idea that new civilian hires could free up sworn APD officers for other needs. “Would it be fair to say that if you had…more (civilian) staff that you’re asking for here, that the work of the sworn staff would be more effective?” Spelman asked.


APD Chief of Staff David Carter, who did the briefing, affirmed Spelman’s thoughts. “I would certainly hope so,” Carter said. “If you’re using (sworn officers) for non-sworn functions you’re certainly not getting what you hired them for; you’re not getting the bang for the buck, so to speak.”


That Spelman didn’t address the controversial 2.0 issue doesn’t mean that it won’t come up later. It remains early in the budget process, and Spelman is facing a May election. Should he win back his Place 5 seat, Spelman would have plenty of time to address the APD ratio issue. By waiting he could also benefit from the results of a study currently underway that will look at the APD’s hiring practices.


Carter’s list of unmet needs features 10 items that add up to a total of $5.56 million. The bulk of these requests address some sort of staffing need. Those range from the fiscal replacement of positions currently funded by expiring grants to the nearly $2 million in unmet civilian support staff hires addressed by Spelman.


Austin/Travis County EMS chief Ernie Rodriguez also brought a host of unmet needs. These include $1.76 million for the replacement of outdated cardiac monitors, and roughly $3 million for two 24-hour units to service county needs in the Pflugerville and Austin Colony areas.


Austin Fire Department Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr’s list of unmet needs was the cheapest of the three. Her list includes $288,000 for three prevention engineers that would help the city “meet increased demand” for planning and development review cases. Kerr also called for $417,000 to pay for four prevention lieutenants who would help evaluate the safety of venues for the city’s growing list of events.

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