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City budget: Austinites say their piece

Tuesday, September 6, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

In just about a week, City Council will approve its Fiscal Year 2016-2017 budget. After hours of public testimony, it is clear that there are a lot of tough decisions left to make.

Council closed the public comment portion of the budget adoption process at its last meeting and will vote to adopt the new budget on Sept. 12, though it will be able to extend the process to Sept. 13 or 14, if necessary. As of Aug. 30, a number of items remained on Council’s Budget Concept menu, which will continue to be whittled down this week. That document lists more than $65.6 million in potential budget increases and about $14.65 million in potential budget decreases, with a proposed budget of $3.7 billion total.

Thursday’s public testimony was heavy with commentary opposing the budget based on its failure to include funding to address a backlog of sexual assault kits that continue to pile up while the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab remains closed.

Paula Marks, who works at SafePlace’s Eloise House, began the public hearings on the budget by telling Council that she was ashamed to tell traumatized assault victims that, after invasive examinations, it could be several years before the tests – which are often necessary for successful prosecution – come back.

“We just don’t know, because our lab is not functioning correctly,” said Marks. “I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed to tell an already traumatized person who came to us looking for assistance during the most awful chapter of their life that we realistically have no idea when the results will come back.”

She explained that before the lab closed in June, it was able to analyze about 40 cases each month, though they see 50 or 60 rape survivors each month. The lab’s closing has only compounded the problem, and even with the requested funding, it is estimated that it will take another four years to clear the backlog entirely.

“Without these amendments, we will simply never catch up,” said Marks. “The math does not work.”

The many women who spoke on the topic asked Council specifically to approve two budget amendments totaling $1.9 million that were introduced by Council Member Greg Casar. Of that amount, $1.4 million would pay for seven analysts and one supervisor, and $500,000 would pay for the outsourcing of 500 kits.

Ana DeFrates, who serves on the city’s Commission for Women, made it clear that the new funding would not be applied to the existing “old, old backlog” that contained cases from as far back as the 1990s. That backlog, she said, consists of about 3,000 sexual assault cases that would be addressed through a separate grant. The budget amendment would instead address the current backlog – over 1,400 cases, half of which are sexual assault cases – that are a result of the lab being shuttered.

“We’re going to find the money,” said Casar. “We’re going to do it.”

That is not the only money Council was asked to find on Thursday, however.

Members of Austin Interfaith asked for support for a host of programs totaling $3.5 million not currently accounted for in the budget.

Austin Interfaith’s Tom Mendez explained that the organization was asking for several items left out of the budget, including $1.28 million for parent support specialists in schools, $950,000 for after-school programs, $600,000 for Capital IDEA, $500,000 for safety lighting for parks, $147,000 to fund healthy food in corner stores and $42,000 for the VICTORY tutorial program.

“This Council chose to be generous with the wealthy homeowners with the homestead exemption,” said Mendez. “Please do not pay for this generosity on the backs of my neighbors, the working people of this town.”

In terms of suggestions for cuts, there was only one: Several different groups (including two young children) spoke in favor of cutting the proposed $13 million staffing increase in the Austin Police Department’s budget.

One of those advocates, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition’s Kathy Mitchell, asked Council to deny all new staffing for APD – both uniformed and civilian – until the culture of the police department “was walking towards a responsible approach to public safety.” The $13 million saved, she said, could be applied to other services that had been discussed throughout the night.

Requests similar to Mitchell’s came from activist Debbie Russell, the Black Sovereign Nation organization, Communities of Color United and the Austin Justice Coalition. Council Member Don Zimmerman, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said he was sympathetic to the request and interested in talking about the issue more.

Council also heard from members of the African American Resource Advisory Commission, who asked Council to approve the roughly $2.24 million in spending and fee waivers currently on the budget concept menu that they have recommended, and those advocating for recommendations from the Hispanic/Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission, which has about $1.78 million worth of recommendations left on the menu.

Jennifer McPhail of ADAPT Texas asked Council to increase the accessibility of city parks and help regulate affordable housing. She also asked the city to fully fund the Sidewalk Master Plan, or fund the plan as much as possible.

“Most of us who are in the core group of membership have been hit,” said McPhail, “including myself.”

Photo by Images Money made available through a Creative Commons license.

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