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Public safety departments present preliminary budget requests

Friday, March 6, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Budget season at the city has already begun for the 2021 fiscal year. In preparation for its deep dive into budget requests from the public safety departments, the Public Safety Commission listened to preliminary budget forecasts at its March 2 meeting.

Even with the looming budget caps imposed by the state Legislature, which limit the annual increase in property tax to 3.5 percent unless voters approve a higher rate, all three public safety departments are requesting budgetary increases of well over 3.5 percent for the upcoming fiscal year.

The Austin Police Department is requesting a $28.8 million, or 6.3 percent, increase in budget, which is driven mainly by personnel costs. Wages for sworn police officers are set by the meet-and-confer agreement between the Austin Police Association and the city and require a 2 percent annual raise for officers.

Michelle Schmidt, the chief administrative officer for APD, told the commission that in addition to the required pay increase, the department is looking to augment the salary for its forensics positions. She said the lack of additional pay for forensics staff will “critically reduce” the department’s ability to recruit and retain forensics personnel.

Similarly, Schmidt said the department wants to bump cadet salaries from $40,000 to $50,000. Although cadets are currently paid $50,000 annually, she said, “This is something we’re paying out of our department budget right now.” APD wants to see that cost shifted from its internal budget to its overall budget.

Other budget items for APD include replacing a 15-year-old records management system and a 19-year-old helicopter, which Schmidt says is difficult to repair as many of its parts are unsupported by the original manufacturer.

Meanwhile, the Austin Fire Department is not looking to initiate any new programs in the 2021 fiscal year. Even so, the department’s operations, which make up 67 percent of the budget, are driving a $17.1 million increase.

“Much of that has to go with the ongoing staffing of those five stations,” said Ronnelle Paulsen, the assistant director of AFD. Five new fire stations will be built in the next several years in areas where response times are significantly slower than departmental goals of eight minutes.

Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, told the commission that this increase is not sufficient, nor does it account for the excessive overtime expenditures AFD has recorded over the past year.

He highlighted a Feb. 7 memo from Fire Chief Joel Baker that described the culprits behind the “unprecedented” spending on overtime: the expansion of critical programs without additional budgeted funding to offset the overall cost; higher rates of sick and injury leave; and compensation for participating on department committees or event attendance.

However, Nicks told the commission, “I believe simply that they did not ask for the amount of budget they should have for the normal operating levels.” He said the Fire Department underbudgeted by 39 percent, or $4.4 million, for last year and that the gap in the upcoming fiscal year will become even more pronounced if it is not corrected.

“We need to go to Council, we need to be honest and we need to say we made a mistake with projected vacancies,” he said. “Instead of doing that, we’re slashing very important safety programs.”

A spokesperson for the Austin Fire Department said that while programs have been adjusted internally, “We have taken measures to ensure safety on incident scenes is not compromised.” Additionally, AFD is working to develop an accurate assessment of the necessary amount of overtime needed in Fiscal Year 2021. The spokesperson said that as the budget is still under development, there are no specific numbers at this time.

The Emergency Medical Services Department is requesting the smallest increase in budget out of the three departments. EMS Assistant Chief Jasper Brown told the commission that EMS is requesting a 3.9 percent or $3.6 million increase to its budget in order to cover wage increases and interfund transfers. He also said the department has $1.1 million in unfunded requests that include adding civilian and billing staff.

When the full budget proposals from the departments return to the Public Safety Commission in April, commissioners will offer their recommendations on budget items before the finalized requests go before Council.

Photo of Bob Nicks courtesy of ATXN.

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