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City may hire temp officers for SXSW season

Tuesday, November 24, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

As South by Southwest and the whirlwind of events that surround it loom large on the horizon, the city and the Austin Police Association are discussing ways to cover the festival season without pulling many officers away from their duties. One potential fix involves hiring temporary law enforcement from jurisdictions such as Travis County, Round Rock and Cedar Park.

City Council passed a resolution on Thursday directing city staff to present possible funding options in December for additional public safety needs during the “spring festival season,” which includes South by Southwest and officially runs March 10-20 of next year.

“They are primarily for events outside of South by Southwest, because South by (Southwest) does pay for a lot of the security that they need,” Council Member Leslie Pool, a member of the Council Public Safety Committee, told the Austin Monitor on Monday.

“There’s all the other nonsanctioned events that are around town, and in the past, those have pulled officers from their regular assignments and made it mandatory (for them to work the festival),” Pool added.

Brian Manley, chief of staff for the Austin Police Department, explained at a Public Safety Committee meeting in October that APD manages the events by pulling personnel – including detectives, district representatives and metro tactical teams – away from their duties. At that time, he said that the only existing alternative required overtime, for which there was not sufficient funding.

Andrew Romero, appointed vice president for the police association, proposed a solution at that meeting for funding overtime for off-duty APD officers in a way that he hoped would utilize existing funds. The discussion has evolved since then.

“The association and the city’s labor relations group met and discussed an outline, which will now go to a police association vote and to a City Council vote to hopefully remedy this issue,” Romero told the Monitor on Monday.

“The union is conceding the ability for the city, during the spring festival season, to bring in outside jurisdictions,” Romero continued. “In exchange for that, the city has agreed to page out these slots to off-duty APD officers first, before they bring in outside jurisdictions.”

Although Romero said there is still a possibility that some APD officers will be “conscripted” to cover festival events, he said that association leaders feel that the agreement would create a “tiered response to the festival that will hopefully not put all of the burden on APD and do it with overtime monies rather than taking resources out of the community.”

The city is still determining a potential source for those funds, however.

“There was an interest on Council to find funds that were not taxpayer-generated,” said Pool. “In conversations that I had with (Deputy Chief Financial Officer) Ed Van Eenoo, there was a suggestion of the Business Retention and (Enhancement Special Revenue) Fund.”

Pool said that the fund is “not taxpayer money” and noted that an October settlement the city reached with developer White Lodging over a labor dispute related to the construction of the downtown JW Marriott has injected more than $2 million into the fund.

Economic Development Department spokeswoman Melissa Alvarado wrote in an email to the Monitor on Monday that the fund generally consists of temporary use of right-of-way fees, alley vacation sales and license agreement fees that the city projects it will collect within the Business Retention and Enhancement Program.

There is still a way to go before anything is set in stone, however.

City spokesman David Green told the Monitor on Monday that the city does not yet have a cost estimate for the proposed additional public safety personnel that it can release publicly.

Pool said that pulling money from that fund, which currently applies only to downtown stretches of Congress Avenue and East Sixth Street, is just one possible funding solution. Based on the recent Council resolution, city staff will look into others in the coming weeks.

In addition, the police association has to vote to amend its labor contract with the city in order to move forward with such a plan. Romero said the union will hold an election in the next few weeks and will bring the results to Council, which will likely consider the issue in December.

APD spokeswoman Lisa Cortinas told the Monitor in an email on Monday that the department declined to comment on the issue, as it is awaiting a contract amendment from the police association.

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