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Spelman continues to press police department on budget increases

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

With no attempt at coyness, Council Member Bill Spelman kicked off his questioning about the Austin Police Department budget during last week’s budget work session saying, “This is a ritual, we’ve done it for years – I’ll do it again.”

 

With that, he got right to the point, saying that most of the $23 million increase in next year’s general fund budget is for APD. The city puts that figure at $12.4 million, an increase of 4.2 percent for the department. Overall, APD is projected to consume more than 42 percent of the general fund next year.

 

“The direct expense increase envisioned in this budget for the police department is greater than the direct expense increase for all other general fund departments added together,” said Spelman. “The miscellaneous expenditures for the police department – the stuff which is sort of in drips and drabs that is too small to be counted – is larger than the total increase for any other general fund department.”

 

Included in that figure is an additional 59 officers, and money to pay for officers hired this past year, though Police Chief Art Acevedo said that in a perfect world, they would add 126 positions. Acevedo said that staffing shortfalls had yet to be fully addressed, in a time when the department’s workload continues to increase.

 

Spelman clarified that, as budget discussions continue, he would be looking for a justification of the police department’s budget.

 

During the discussion, City Council members also addressed the viability of using reserve, off duty or non-sworn officers to handle some of the department’s workload for things like special events. Acevedo expressed interest in exploring that option, which could save the city money. He said that he expected to have more information on the idea in the “next couple of months.”

 

Council Member Chris Riley said that was good news that he had been waiting for, and that he hoped it would be ready in time for this budget cycle. Riley noted that there had been complaints about officers manning the barricades at the city’s many special events.

 

“People repeatedly report that they cannot get good information at those barricade situations about detours,” said Riley, who said that the last email complaining about special events officers was from a person that had “asked six different officers and gotten six different answers” for information about how to get around the barricades. All six of the answers proved inaccurate.

 

“That is consistent with my own experience and experiences that I’ve heard from others,” said Riley, who pointed out that an alternative staffing model that included a special events or traffic division could help this issue.

 

Also in process is a proposed “sobriety center” to temporarily house people being held on public intoxication charges, which would give them a chance to “sleep it off,” and put officers back on the streets much more quickly. Acevedo said that they had identified a city-owned location for the center, though it would need remodeling. (This paragraph has been corrected from an earlier version which incorrectly identified the sobriety center.)

 

“Around the city, it seems like every year we just keep adding more hotels, more special events. When you look at the headlines about our economy, more people are moving here than any place else in the country. Our airport arrivals are up every year, every year we break a record. Well, those arrivals come with a workload for the police department,” said Acevedo.

 

Acevedo said that, additionally, the people of Austin are “very demanding” in terms of public safety. He said that having more resources is the primary way that APD could address the city’s biggest public safety concern, which continues to be property crime. He said that putting more officers on the streets could serve as a deterrent to those crimes.

 

“If you leave it out, they are going to come. Kind of like how pigeons know where to go eat – criminals know where to go steal,” said Acevedo. “A lot of property crime is crime of opportunity. When cops are there, opportunity is diminished. But when cops aren’t there, opportunity is also diminished by locking your garage door, having good lighting… we do a lot of educational pieces.”

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