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Mayor suggests changes to public safety pay

Thursday, May 18, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Paying for Austin’s public safety needs could add more than $75.9 million to the city’s General Fund budget over the next five years – with more than two-thirds of that funding going to the Austin Police Department, according to the city’s preliminary needs assessment. That assessment was part of a budget presentation made to City Council at Wednesday’s budget work session.

To put that in perspective, the current General Fund budget is $971 million.

Mayor Steve Adler did not dispute numbers presented by the financial staff, but he did say that perhaps Austin, which pays its police officers considerably more than the median pay for police officers around the state, does not need to be number one in pay. The same is also true of firefighter pay, he said, pointing out that budget documents indicate that firefighters make 43 to 44 percent more than similarly situated firefighters in other cities.

Austin spends about 68 percent of its General Fund money on public safety. San Antonio spends about 64 percent, and Dallas about 60 percent. However, comparing the budgets of the three cities is not at all apples to apples, as Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo pointed out. Both Dallas and San Antonio, for example, have combined fire and emergency medical services.

Looking at the projection of public safety needs over the next five years and the city’s projected income, it is clear that even going to the 8 percent rollback rate every year, the city will not be able to meet most of those needs. And rumblings at the state Capitol continue about lowering that revenue cap to just 4 or 5 percent. The rollback rate is the tax increase that is allowed without triggering an election.

Adler pointed out that the city will be negotiating contracts with the three public safety labor unions this summer. Negotiations on the police contract began in March. Negotiations with firefighters are expected to begin within the next month, according to Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association. All three contracts are set to expire on September 30, 2017.

Generally in the past, negotiators have reached an agreement with the first group at the bargaining table, perhaps a 1 or 2 percent base wage increase per year plus a generous increase in pay several times during the officer’s service. Then the second and third groups would receive a similar base wage increase in their contracts.

Austin Police Department officers receive a 12 percent salary increase after the first year and a 10 percent increase after two years, putting their salary at $72,681. Police also receive longevity pay of $107 per year of service. Firefighters receive a 9 percent salary increase after each of the first two years and $100 per year of longevity pay. At the end of three years, the average firefighter is paid $66,854.

EMS employees receive considerably less, according to data presented by city staff.

Over the next five years, Austin police say, they need an additional 329 new officers, including 100 detectives to address increased workload in child abuse, sex crimes, robbery, burglary and digital forensics.

Interim Police Chief Brian Manley explained to Council Wednesday that in addition to the sworn positions, the department will need to add 83.5 civilian positions over the next five years. That number includes communications staff, community liaison staff, forensics technicians and staff for victim services, among other things.

The Austin Police Department added 12 positions during the current year, Fiscal Year 2016-17. In addition, Manley said he had taken two corporals from the parks police staff to add to the sex crimes department. He said the sex crime unit would face an increased workload because the city is trying to catch up on its huge backlog of sexual assault kits.

Manley explained that his department is trying to fulfill the recommendations made last year in a study of APD done for the city by the Matrix Consulting Group. Following those recommendations over a five-year period, he said, APD is asking for 66 new officers for FY 2017-18, then for the next year an additional 20 officers, then 18, then 15 and finally 13.

Van Eenoo presented a preliminary cost estimate for police, fire and emergency medical services. In order to “catch-up” with the APD’s community policing needs per the Matrix report, the department will need to add $26.2 million to its budget for the upcoming fiscal year, he said.

That number drops to an additional $6 million in FY 2018-19, $5.8 million in FY 2019-20, $5 million in FY 2020-21 and $11.5 million in FY 2021-22. The big increase between FY 2020-21 and FY 2021-22 is to pay for creation of a new patrol sector.

Van Eenoo’s assessment also showed that the Fire Department needs an additional $4.4 million for the upcoming fiscal year, and smaller amounts going forward. One reason for the increase in the proposed Fire Department budget is the addition of the new Onion Creek Fire Station, which is slated to open by next March.

EMS is projecting the need for an additional $11.9 million over the next five years, with $1.5 million of that projected for the FY 2018 budget.

Adler said that in the past public safety salaries were part of what was “baked in” to the budget before Council had a chance to weigh in. With the contracts being negotiated now and the needs assessments running up against the hard reality of more apparent needs than there are dollars, Adler said he would like to see an additional analysis from the financial staff. He suggested that perhaps Austin would be better served if it paid its public safety employees “at the 90th percentile,” rather than giving them the highest paycheck in the state.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin via YouTube.

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