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Police association proposes SXSW funding fix

Tuesday, October 27, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Although it is an economic driver for the city, South by Southwest imposes significant demands on the Austin Police Department, which pulls many of its personnel away from normal duties to cover the event every year. The Austin Police Association is now proposing a fix for next year’s festival, due to take place in mid-March, that it hopes will help mitigate those impacts.

Austin Police Association Appointed Vice President Andrew Romero told the City Council Public Safety Committee on Monday that he hopes the city will allocate $1.5 million from the police department’s budget for the past fiscal year into a special fund that would fund overtime for police officers who volunteer to work South by Southwest and concurrent events next spring.

Without the additional funding for police overtime, it is likely that the police department would manage the festivities in the same way that it has in the recent past, by pulling personnel – including detectives, district representatives and metro tactical teams – away from their normal tasks. Austin Police Department Chief of Staff Brian Manley explained how this has worked in years past.

“We actually assign detectives away from their regularly scheduled duties investigating cases, and instead they’re assigned to work the South by Southwest event,” Manley told the committee. This year, he noted, police department personnel committed 15,788 work hours to managing the event.

“I know that you all have raised concerns before, as have others, regarding the reassignment of personnel away from their traditional duties to staff this event, but we don’t have any other way of staffing an event that would pose such a significant draw on our resources other than to reassign personnel, unless we were to do it through overtime, and we don’t have the funds to do that through overtime,” said Manley.

Romero told the committee that he recently had a discussion with Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo, who projected that the police department’s costs in Fiscal Year 2014-2015, which ended on Sept. 30, will be about $2 million less than what Council budgeted last year. Rather than allow the excess funds to roll over into the city’s budget reserves, Romero said, the city should create the new fund and use it if necessary. The Austin Monitor attempted to reach the Budget Office to confirm the projection but was unable to do so after business hours.

Although he could not confirm the figure, Assistant City Manager Ray Arellano, who oversees the police department, clarified with the Monitor that any current projections won’t become official until January, when the city will “close the books” on the previous budget.

Manley told the Monitor that his staff has had initial discussions with the police association to discuss a longer-term proposal that would involve contract negotiations to solve some of the issues related to covering South by Southwest and the events that occur around it.

“We were waiting until we got through the budget season to actually engage in those conversations. And now that we’ve just completed going through the budget session, we were about to engage in those discussions, and the police association also brought this issue before the committee today as far as a different approach from the one that we were initially working,” Manley said.

Romero told the committee that the police association also wants to move forward with the larger discussion. However, he said he has presented the short-term solution as a stop-gap measure out of concern over whether long-term contract changes can be approved early enough to give the police department adequate preparation time for South by Southwest and surrounding events.

Regardless of what ultimately occurs, the committee members present made it clear that they wanted city staff to talk with the police association over the coming weeks about both proposals and to discuss the results at the next committee meeting. Council Member Don Zimmerman, who chairs the committee, said that meeting would take place on Nov. 30.

Council Member Greg Casar was not present.

Both Arellano and Manley said that they planned to move forward with discussions with the police association over the coming weeks.

“I believe there was a uniform commitment in there that we were going to at least get together and discuss, but what the solution will look like for the 2016 event, I don’t know yet,” said Manley.

If it chooses to act on the police association’s proposal, Council will have to pass a budget amendment.

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