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Public Safety Commission postpones budget recommendation, calls emergency meeting

Friday, May 8, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Budget recommendations from boards and commissions are due to city departments at the end of May. However, the Public Safety Commission did not feel there was ample review time since its April meeting was canceled, so commissioners postponed their recommendation on May 4 in favor of calling a special meeting within the next two weeks.

“This is the first time I’m seeing any real numbers,” Commissioner Daniela Nuñez said. “There just has to be more conversation before I feel comfortable taking a position.”

Commissioners expressed concern at the Austin Police Department’s request for 30 additional officers for $9.6 million in personnel costs. Those additions will bring the total number of vacancies to fill up to 192. APD is requesting a total of an additional $12.3 million for its 2021 budget.

“We do have a very aggressive timeline to be fully staffed by the spring of 2021,” Assistant Chief Troy Gay said. He told the commission the department’s request for 30 more officers was in line with the four-year staffing plan that was approved two years ago by Council. The plan called for augmenting the police force by 30 additional officers each year during that period.

There are currently 1,959 officers on the force, according to Gay.

Commissioner Chris Harris noted the vacancy numbers did not account for monthly attrition on the force, which Gay said “has increased a little bit.”

Several commissioners said they needed additional information on staffing needs and attrition rates at APD before they can make a recommendation to approve the police department’s request for additional staff.

However, APD was not the only department whose budget was not approved by the Public Safety Commission. The commission also postponed its decision to recommend budgets for both the Austin Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services.

Austin Fire is proposing to augment its budget by $14.3 million for 2021 to implement the recently approved Wildland-Urban Interface Code, fund overtime and increase the salaries of firefighters by 2 percent.

The city’s EMS department is looking to increase its budget by $2.9 million. Most of this increase comes from costs associated with personnel, including adding 12 full-time staff to a Travis County station.

All three departments said they developed their budgets with the expectation that the additional departmental expenditures made during the Covid-19 crisis will be reimbursed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We don’t have an enormous impact to our budget right now due to those federal funds that are expected,” said Michelle Schmidt, APD’s financial services manager.

Commissioner Harris said he felt that although the pandemic had not altered the budget requests from the departments, the city needs to consider the effects of this crisis when approving departmental requests for 2021.

“Where we really lack funding and investment is in areas of public health,” he said. “I wouldn’t in good conscience further increase (personnel budgets).”

The Public Safety Commission will schedule another meeting in May to discuss the budgetary requests and offer its recommendation.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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