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Public Safety Commission gives EMS a boost, criticizes APD

Tuesday, May 19, 2020 by Jo Clifton

On Monday the city’s Public Safety Commission unanimously recommended an additional $2.3 million for Austin-Travis County EMS to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, while rejecting almost every request from the police department for additional funding.

The commission also voted to recommend $3.8 million for overtime at the Austin Fire Department, $818,000 for an additional cadet training class, $1.6 million for staffing for additional aerial firefighting apparatus, and $225,000 for maintenance of AFD’s records management system.

Selena Xie, president of the ATCEMS employees association, told the commission that the department’s budget had been put together before Covid-19’s appearance in Texas. Since then, everything about how emergency responders deal with people seeking help has changed. For example, she said, all EMS employees must don personal protective equipment if there is a possibility of encountering the virus. That equipment must be removed after each call. After each potential Covid-19 call, medics must decontaminate the ambulance and all equipment. And as the commissioners noted in their resolution, emergency personnel must often shower and change their uniforms before they can be available for another call.

In addition, the department has created a paramedic consult line to provide information to people who think they might have the virus. Xie said using the phone line has kept an extra 1,000 people from unnecessarily going to the emergency room.

She argued that ATCEMS needs six additional clinical specialists to staff the consultation line. She also asked for, and the commission recommended, funding to convert two EMS units from 12 hours a day to 24 hours a day. Those two units serve the South Congress area and the area around Fourth and Chicon streets in East Austin.

Xie said EMS also needs two additional units, one at South First Street and U.S. Highway 290 and one at RM 2222 and North Lamar Boulevard. The commission noted that ATCEMS has the region’s Infectious Disease Response Unit, which has swabbed people in nursing homes as well as construction workers.

Commission Chair Meghan Hollis and Commissioner Rebecca Webber wrote up the lengthy motion to be forwarded to Council.

Commissioners rejected four of five budget amendments from APD, voting in favor of spending $1.5 million to replace the department’s records management system. Hollis, an expert in such systems, told her colleagues the current system is “antiquated, time consuming and … sometimes impossible” to use. She said a state law that took effect last September requires the department to enter certain information into national databases. The current system is inadequate to the task and she urged her colleagues to vote for the item.

APD also requested $5.5 million for new officers to address violent crime, and $1.5 million to increase cadet pay from $40,000 to $50,000 and additional funds for four civilian personnel and money to replace an existing helicopter.

Michelle Schmidt, APD’s chief administrative officer, said the helicopter is 19 years old and is very difficult to find parts for.

In urging fellow commissioners to reject the money for the cadet pay raise, Webber said she and they had originally asked Council to give cadets a raise. She said she could not support the raise because she does not think APD should be doing any recruiting given the scope of changes that should be happening in the department.

Also arguing against giving APD any additional funds, Commissioner Chris Harris said, “You all know that even in normal times I seriously question the link between more police and more safety. And the difference between high- and low-crime areas isn’t the number of police but the resources available to those communities and the relative health and opportunities available to the people in those communities. During this pandemic, the resource and health disparities in our communities have only been amplified. And the safety of poor communities is worse despite the significant decrease in crime over the last couple of months.”

He added, “We don’t know what budgets will look like moving forward, but it is likely that many departments will have to suffer cuts.” Those cuts should not be made to a department like EMS, which is helping the community respond to the crisis, he said, but to one like APD, which has seen fewer service requests and already takes up more than 40 percent of the city budget.

Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, told commissioners, “I’m not disagreeing with anybody on this panel. There are some serious concerns that need to be looked at. However, we do not need to punish people. We’ve already started paying new (police officer) hires $50,000. … Who in the world would come to the city of Austin for $40,000? I’m appalled at some of the things that I’m hearing. You’ve already indicted our academy when we have a Ph.D. professional out there working who has not sounded the alarm on anything. There have been nothing but accusations and nothing’s been proved.”

He concluded, “We’ve already moved people out of parks and lakes, organized crime division, highway enforcement, to move them back to patrol because the department does not want to spend the overtime. … We do realize we won’t be able to hire these 30 bodies this year, but we do believe we will next year. The city made a commitment last year to hire 30 new FTEs every year for the next four years. In my opinion, that needs to be honored.”

Commissioner Rebecca Gonzales was absent from the meeting, which was conducted virtually.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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