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Public safety departments cite $3.5M in unmet needs

Wednesday, April 3, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

At Monday’s Public Safety Commission meeting, commissioners unanimously voted to send a memo to City Council recommending an additional $3.5 million in funding for the 2020 fiscal year. The money would fund initiatives including a $10,000 raise for future police cadets, re-approved funding for the interdepartmental mental health outreach team, a new records management system for the Austin Fire Department, and an additional paramedic response unit.

These programs would require supplemental funding on top of the $730 million that is tentatively approved in the forecast budgets for police, fire and EMS.

While the city manager has instructed city departments to refrain from budgetary increases outside of wages and benefits, even before Austin’s public safety departments added in requests for programs outside of the predefined purview, all of the departments forecast increases to their budgets. A portion of these wage and benefit increases is the result of the Austin Police Department making up for lost ground after not having a contract with the city last year.

APD is anticipating a $15.4 million or 3.7 percent increase. Austin Fire forecast a $5.64 million or 2.8 percent increase. Austin EMS has the smallest increase with a $3.9 million or 4.6 percent need for additional funds.

At least half of each department’s budget is allocated to personnel and all departments are expecting to bring on more staff in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins in October.

Historically, as almost two-thirds of the city’s $1 billion general fund (per 2018 numbers) is funneled into public safety, Commissioner Ed Scruggs wondered aloud what would happen if the state Legislature adopts the bill that would limit Austin’s ability to raise property taxes with an annual 2.5 percent revenue cap. Property taxes supply the main source of revenue for the city’s General Fund.

EMS Chief of Staff Jasper Brown noted that if the bill passes the Legislature, it will be taken into consideration as part of the 2021 fiscal year budgeting process. The departments cannot plan for a change to funding levels until it becomes law.

The question about funding caps threw into stark relief the reality that life in Austin is getting more expensive. Although the Austin Police Department is one of the highest paid in Texas, starting salaries for cadets are low. “Forty thousand, quite frankly, doesn’t cut it,” Austin police union President Ken Casaday told the commission. Although cadets are immediately bumped up to $59,000 upon graduation, comparable cities start cadets-in-training in the $50,000-$60,000 range, which according to Casaday makes competition fierce as police academies are competing for a tight pool of candidates.

Already the police department is short 118 officers, an increase from the 110 open positions reported in January. In its proposed budget, APD forecast funding for 15 additional sworn officers and six civilian employees.

To attract more qualified candidates, Casaday suggested raising cadet salaries to $50,000 starting out, which would require an additional $1.5 million in salary funding. The commission recommended the pay bump in its memo to Council.

Other programs that require funding include the fire department’s records management system, which Assistant Director Ronnelle Paulsen explained is so out of date the software cannot be properly upgraded. The system is crucial to allow firefighters to communicate with their EMS counterparts and produce reports on-scene.

Similarly, the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team was another initiative for which the commission recommended funding. This $1.1 million program has been in place since 2013 and allows for public safety personnel to connect individuals experiencing a psychiatric crisis to the appropriate care centers rather than diverting them to emergency rooms and jails. Although the program received one-time funding by Council last year, it lost its Medicaid waiver in 2018 and remains unfunded going into 2020.

Commissioner Preston Tyree said that when it comes to return on investment, this program is worth keeping on the books. “The payback on this money is pretty good from what I’ve seen,” he said.

Though there are no guarantees that the programs the commission recommended will be funded, the proposed plans will be reviewed at public hearings by Council twice in the upcoming months before being voted on for approval in early fall.

Photo by Austin Kirk made available through a Creative Commons license.

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