Monday, June 8, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Council’s APD grant vote: What happened

After listening to nearly seven hours of heartbreaking testimony from Austinites traumatized by police violence during protests the last week of May, City Council took a vote approving more funds for the Austin Police Department.

On its surface, the $430,685 grant was not connected to the protests; the money will go toward funding an auto theft program. But it was scheduled for approval on Thursday’s agenda, making it an early target for those seeking to reduce the amount that the city spends on public safety.

In the most recent city budget, the Austin Police Department accounted for about 40 percent of the city’s General Fund. The current APD budget is about $441.5 million.

As it was the first and only vote on police funding Council has taken since protests turned violent, the grant took on a larger significance for many who called upon Council to reject the money during Thursday’s public testimony.

“Do not approve anything that puts more money into the hands of APD,” said David Johnson, who identified himself as part of Grassroots Leadership. “I would rather you throw the money into a dumpster than give it to APD, because at least I’m not worried about a dumpster killing myself or my son.”

Instead, Council members voted 7-4 in favor of the grant, with Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council members Greg Casar, Natasha Harper-Madison and Jimmy Flannigan voting in opposition. Those who voted in favor faced immediate backlash from the public, prompting Mayor Steve Adler to explain his reasoning on Facebook on Friday evening.

“The symbolism of a ‘no’ vote is not lost on me; but I also know that during the budget process, we’ll be looking for every half-million we can find,” Adler wrote. “Yesterday I voted to accept a nearly half-million grant to help pay for APD staffing. Because I believe there will be some spending on police personnel (even as we decide how much and for what purpose), if we didn’t take the money, we’d have to otherwise fund that personnel cost from money elsewhere in our budget.”

In fact, the vote did not create any new expense for the city. The $173,182 in city matching dollars will come from the salaries of those working on the car theft project, and that money was already allocated in this year’s budget. That did not sway the votes of the four Council members who voted against the grant.

“We are just at this moment right now we are going to have to start making incredibly tough decisions,” Garza said. “I’ve talked about how symbolism is important in our jobs.

“Tonight, I can’t support passing this after hearing from the community,” she said.

Casar echoed her sentiments, saying, “If it’s a critical function, I think we can support it within our budget. And I think this sends an important message.”

Council members Pio Renteria and Paige Ellis both cited high instances of car theft and burglaries in their districts, with Ellis saying her car was broken into last November.

“While I completely know that we need to be looking at the different aspects of police financing, I don’t know that vehicle theft is exactly where I would begin,” Ellis said. “I wanted people to know it was just because it hits close to home to me, that my own car was broken into and I needed to have it fingerprinted. So I understand the need for this in my community for sure.”

Renteria said he continues to hear numerous reports of cars being stolen in the community.

“I mean, if we want to get out here and start doing these crazy things of defunding everything that is good for Austin, then y’all can go ahead,” Renteria said. “I’ll just tell people, hey, I tried.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin Police Department: the law enforcement entity for the City of Austin.

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