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Council debates police staffing

Friday, March 23, 2018 by Jack Craver

At the first City Council meeting following the end of the recent bombings, Council members spent nearly two hours debating a largely symbolic resolution about police staffing.

Originally, explained Council Member Ellen Troxclair, the resolution was meant to simply convey Council’s commitment to filling a number of vacant police positions in the upcoming budget.

“I’m hearing from my community consistently that they want more police officers,” she explained.

The resolution that she and several other Council members brought forward instructed city staff to develop a new five-year staffing plan for the Police Department as well as to “expedite” the filling of any vacant officer positions with any “existing funding.”

Out of a force of roughly 1,900, APD currently has 69 vacancies, including 12 community policing positions that Council authorized in last year’s budget but did not provide funding to fill.

Furthermore, there are no available cops to hire, since APD officers have to go through the Austin Police Academy first. The next academy class won’t start until October and will not graduate until April of 2019.

“There’s nothing we can do to fill those positions this year,” explained Deputy Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo.

What the department can do, he said, is boost its street presence through overtime.

The department has quite a bit of money on hand from budget savings. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo repeatedly pointed out that Manley has the authority to use that money to fill vacant positions.

Noting that the city has still not managed to work out a new contract with the Austin Police Association, Tovo said she was concerned that committing more money to fund new positions might take money off the table that could come into use during contract negotiations. Indeed, part of the reason the APD has more money on hand than anticipated is because Council declined to approve a proposed union contract in December that included pay raises for officers.

Financial staff and Council Member Greg Casar, however, responded that it is not good practice to fill permanent positions with temporary budget savings.

“If there is recurring budget savings, then you can hire someone. If there is one-time budget savings, you cannot, or should not,” said Casar.

He later added that the resolution “can’t actually add any new (officers) before we pass the budget.”

Mayor Steve Adler and other Council members countered that the point of the resolution was to signal that more police are coming.

“We’re trying to send a very strong statement to the public,” said Adler.

“What is important for today is that we make our intention as Council abundantly clear that we’re funding those positions,” said Council Member Ann Kitchen.

Tovo offered an amendment that replaced the call to fill the vacancies with slightly different language. It directed the city manager to use any budget savings that were not set aside for contract negotiations to fill the positions.

The amendment was rejected, with only Casar and Council members Delia Garza and Pio Renteria joining her in support.

Troxclair was flummoxed by the length of the debate over a resolution that was largely symbolic.

“I think most of us are on the same page, and I don’t understand why it’s gotten so complicated,” she said.

Garza said that the debate was distracting from Council’s real goal, which should be to ratify a contract with the police union and deciding what officers should be paid.

“I don’t know why we’re having this conversation,” she said. “This changes nothing.”

The resolution was ultimately approved unanimously, with Council Member Leslie Pool absent.

This story has been corrected to clarify the intent of Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo’s amendmendment. Photo by genlocair made available through a Creative Commons license.

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