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Safety, transit planning among priorities at start of budget input sessions

Thursday, May 17, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

If the opinions expressed during the second of the city’s 11 community budget input sessions is any indication, City Council members will be considering sizable shifts in public safety resources later this summer before adoption of the city’s next $3.9 billion budget.

In an interactive session that saw feedback offered digitally by attendees and those watching online, respondents expressed a desire to commit less of the general fund budget to police and public safety. Nearly 60 percent of those who answered a question about the appropriateness of the city’s level of safety spending said less money needs to be spent in that category, with a majority saying fair administration of justice is their biggest concern related to safety overall.

That feedback plays into the city’s ongoing work on the Austin Police Department contract and plans for its five-year staffing levels, with the city considering a move to community policing that could require either an increase in the staffing budget or a significant shift in how officers are deployed.

“Discussion is ongoing in the community moving toward a model where we have law enforcement interacting with community and in our schools,” Mayor Steve Adler said during the session at Austin Central Library. “We’ve done studies, and each has suggested that we should do that by increasing the number of officers dedicated to that function. There are lots of questions associated with that. Exactly what is a community policing model? How do we measure if it’s successful? If we move to that model does that mean we take officers from other areas in general? Should we be invested in social service programs that might prevent some of the problems before they begin?”

Adler’s citywide forum Tuesday followed this weekend’s session in District 1, and talks are scheduled in the rest of the districts in the coming weeks as city staff works on the first draft of the budget that Council will focus on after the July recess. Attendees at the sessions will be asked to define their biggest concern within six budget areas – economic opportunity and affordability, mobility, safety, health and environment, culture and lifelong learning, and the effectiveness of government for citizens – that are connected to the general fund portion of the budget.

Adler, City Manager Spencer Cronk and Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo took care to explain that Council’s new strategic planning process makes the input from community sessions important in setting the priorities for how the city allocates budget dollars, marking change from past budgets that emphasized traditional metrics such as annual department growth and long-determined staffing levels.

“This will be a fundamental shift in how we present the budget, how we talk about the budget priorities,” Van Eenoo said. “Our 1,500-page budget document is going to look totally different for people who like to follow the process. What we’ve done tonight is totally different from what we’ve done in the past.”

Answering questions about operations such as Austin Energy and Austin Resource Recovery, Van Eenoo explained how those “enterprise” departments are funded separately from the general fund through monthly fees paid by residents, and thus were separate issues from Tuesday’s discussion. And while he acknowledged concerns about issues such as open space spending, permitting and planning difficulties, and the role of CodeNEXT in shaping the city’s future property tax structures, he said much of the focus in the coming sessions will be on more discretionary spending questions.

“The general fund is the one that has a tug of war among priorities,” Van Eenoo said. “That’s why we tend to focus a lot of our time on the general fund operating budget, because money we end up spending on public safety is money we can’t spend on parks and rec and libraries. That’s why it’s so important to understand community priorities related to that pot of money.”

Also on the minds of respondents was how the city will grapple with traffic and transportation issues in the coming years. That’s another issue largely detached from general fund expenditures because large-scale projects require capital funds, but Adler said planning for the future of Austin’s growth will become an even bigger priority in the next five years.

“It’s hard for me to imagine a city growing as fast as Austin is – there’s a million people in the city and we’re projected to be at 2 million by 2040,” he said. “To me we need a way to move great numbers of people around quickly. It’s hard to imagine a system for that that doesn’t include urban rail.”

Photo by pictures of money made available through a Creative Commons license.

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