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Public Safety Commission weighs in on tight city budget

Monday, May 8, 2017 by Sommer Brugal

In advance of what promises to be a budget process full of tough choices, the Public Safety Commission received a briefing from the Budget Office on Fiscal Year 2017-18 at its meeting May 1. The presentation included information and findings from various city department reviews.

Included in the presentation was a five-year outlook of General Fund Expenditures. Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo explained that these expenditures include things like wages, health insurance cost increases and workers’ compensation increases. According to Van Eenoo, growth related to those types of baseline increases is typically around 4.5 to 5 percent.

Also included in the budget are a number of initiatives City Council would like to see funded. Those initiatives include Austin Public Health and social service contracts, new fire stations and community policing to name a few.

Commissioner Sam Holt expressed interest in where certain funds in the budget were being allocated. He said he’d like to see information on 911 in the communications department. Holt said he was concerned about people getting put on hold in times of emergency.

“Whether it’s the fire unit or the police, I think hearing a computerized dispatcher is somewhat troubling,” said Holt. “So whether we’re short on staffing or otherwise, we need to take a look at that and fill those vacancies.”

Commissioner Kim Rossmo echoed concerns related to the city’s emergency services. He was curious to know why basic expenditures didn’t include a per capita increase for such services.

“Conservatively, Austin’s population will increase 10 to 12 percent (in the next few years), so without the corresponding 10 to 12 percent (increase) in the resources available for emergency services, that’s going to result in a reduction in the quality of service,” he said.

Rossmo said that discrepancy would also result in the lack of follow-through on issues that cost taxpayers more money in the end. Still, though, Van Eenoo said per capita increases aren’t something the city has implemented in the past. He said they instead look at actual workload needs and police department requests.

According to Van Eenoo, the current state legislature is considering a rollback tax calculation, or the highest tax rate allowed under state law without potentially triggering a rollback election, from 8 percent growth to 5 percent growth. Doing so, he said, would produce much lower revenue.

When asked if the city would need to make certain cuts to the Health and Human Services Department should the state move forward with the rollback, Van Eenoo said significant cuts to the budget can’t happen without cutting public safety and personnel.

Tony Marquardt, president of the Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services Employee Association, warned against those cuts.

Marquardt said scaling back funds for the Health and Human Services Department is the last thing Council should approve. He said the department provides essential services to maintain order in the city. Instead, Marquardt said Council should better define its Health and Human Services strategy by investing in specific outcomes.

He cited critical health indicators from recent Travis County Health and Human Services data to support his claim. He stated the data predicts cancer and diabetes are the leading causes of death in the Travis County area.

“From the data, we know cancer is not something that is an education talking point, and it won’t change our call volume in the current population,” Marquardt said. “But (where) we can make a difference, actually, is preventable deaths in children.” He said Austin-Travis County EMS directly contributes to supporting the latter.

So if the commission is looking at which department best suits categories such as Health and Human Services, Marquardt said, Council should seek to define what departments could provide those services, or outcomes, in order to invest appropriately.

Individual city departments will soon move forward to begin working on their individual budgets, which are due to the Budget Office on June 2. Van Eenoo said the final budget readings are scheduled for mid-September. A few work sessions and a public hearing will take place over the summer.

The Public Safety Commission briefing was a follow-up to a presentation made to Council last month. As Van Eenoo explained, Council has called for a number of department reviews. “(Council) knew FY 2018 was going to be a tight budget,” he said. Council’s decision to complete department reviews, Van Eenoo said, was based on those predictions.

“(Council) wanted to see if there were any opportunities within our departments’ existing budgets to rethink how departments are operating and if there were any opportunities to un-fund some programs in order to fund different programs,” he said.

Van Eenoo said all departments have already gone through that review process with Council.

The Budget Office has held the two of three policy work sessions. The final meeting is slated for this month. Council will take policy topics it identified during those reviews and dive deeper into specific policy areas at each of those meetings.

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