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Public Safety budget discussion wrestles with demands to defund APD

Tuesday, July 21, 2020 by Nina Hernandez

Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo gave the Public Safety Committee a public safety budget overview at its meeting on Monday. Much of the discussion centered around the Austin Police Department budget. Community members and some City Council members have demanded that a portion of the budget be reallocated to other city departments.

“We have some public safety resources built that no longer match the types of public safety needs that the community needs,” Chair Jimmy Flannigan said. “And there are some good reasons for that. But a lot to dig into here.”

The $434.3 million budget will be a slight ($200,000) decrease over the last year. The proposal includes 1,889 sworn employees, which is a decrease of 70.

Grassroots Leadership, one of the organizations demanding a reduction in APD’s budget, said City Manager Spencer Cronk “ignored our demands” in his proposed budget. The group’s petition asks Cronk to defund the department by half and divert those funds to public health, anti-displacement efforts and the city’s Equity Office.

“I’m certainly willing to do more than what is in the manager’s proposed budget, but I’m also not looking at this as an annual debate,” said Flannigan. “We need to figure out what is the series of budget (choices) we can plan moving forward. It would be great for us and the public to know that we’re going to come back in November and do more, and that we’re going to come back in February and do more.”

In his presentation, Van Eenoo explained that the Budget Office starts a new budget with the past fiscal year as a base. To that the office adds, for instance, this year’s Council-mandated 2 percent wage increase, which accounts for $5.5 million. On top of that, the department anticipated adding 30 officers this next fiscal year. Those two things added around $8 million to the police budget before Council made a decision to reexamine the budget.

“That’s the math to how you get to a $200,000 reduction,” Van Eenoo said.

Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano said the management team is currently working on a report to Council that will outline what the city can change and what will take a more careful review in order to avoid legal challenges. That report is due in August.

“We want to shift from punitive enforcement to protect, support and comply,” Flannigan said. “And there are ideas that can shift how we manage safety on our roads, that might benefit from the Transportation Department being an equal voice in that conversation that maybe they aren’t now.”

Van Eenoo also gave the committee an overview of the proposed budgets for Austin Code, Municipal Court, Emergency Medical Services, and the Austin Fire Department. Cronk is proposing a $26.9 million budget (down $0.3 million from last year) for Code, a $34.5 million budget for Municipal Court (up $1.5 million from last year), a $96.9 million budget for Emergency Medical Services (up $3.8 million from last year), and a $214.9 million budget for AFD (up $14.2 million from last year).

“As I’m thinking about reimagining public safety, for me that also goes well beyond police,” Council Member Alison Alter said. “I think we have some opportunities to make sure that we are delivering the best quality services to our community.”

She said she’s working on an amendment that would create a chief medical officer at the city, which would merge the city’s health authority and medical officer. She hopes it would be accessible to a broader swath of Austinites.

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said she was “troubled” that the city isn’t giving its first responders hazard pay. Arellano said that the city has received feedback from the Austin EMS Association on that issue and is having a follow-up meeting with the association to discuss the issue.

The Fire Department’s budget increase is due to an increase of sworn (21) and civilian (six) positions. Sixteen of those sworn positions are for the fire side of the Travis Country station due to open soon.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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