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Community Development Commission to study new uses for police funding

Wednesday, August 26, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

The Community Development Commission has formed a working group to recommend how City Council should make reductions to the Austin Police Department budget, and may move to sign to recent resolutions from three other commissions in support of the budget moves.

At last week’s meeting, the commission discussed the ongoing defunding of APD, which had its budget cut by $20 million and could face additional cuts of up to $150 million in the coming months. Much of that money would be directed toward moving existing programs and departments out from under the control of the police department, with services such as emergency response and housing assistance for the homeless possible targets for new spending.

The police budget changes were widely supported during public comments heard before Council’s vote on its next budget earlier this month. In response, Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will support a bill in next year’s legislative session that would halt increases in property tax revenue to Texas cities that make similar cuts to their police budgets.

The commission’s working group will look at programs such as support services for the newly housed homeless that could benefit from increased funding taken from the police budget. It will also look at recent action by the Human Rights Commission, the LGBTQ Quality of Life Commission and the African American Quality of Life Commission related to the reallocation of police funds.

“I feel like this is right in our alley to decide or make a suggestion on how those funds might be better used and tracked, given the political fallout that’s already starting to happen at the state level with the governor basically saying he’s going to strip funding from cities and remove the ability for cities to raise property taxes if they do reallocate funds from the police department,” Chair Joe Deshotel said.

“While the city is kind of being used as a political punching bag, communities we represent are going to be the most affected and have been the most affected by over-policing of the type that has already happened and could be the beneficiary of any new funds that are moved to some of these social services.”

Commissioner Michael Tolliver at first expressed concern that basic crime response capabilities would be affected by the cuts, but later said communities in need could benefit from increased funding to housing assistance and other programs created to assist vulnerable populations.

“If you look at the budget they’ve proposed, if you took a few million from there and put it into neighborhood housing where we can do fix-ups and everything … the seniors and everyone that is moderate income would be able to withstand the conditions we’re all going through right now,” he said.

Commissioner Cesar Acosta said he supports the working group and the plan to make future recommendations but wants the commission to be more hands-on for major Council votes so input could be offered ahead of the votes.

“Part of the problem I have with creating a resolution or this commission creating a recommendation is that the Council has already voted, and that’s on us for not discussing this sooner or not getting the word out,” he said. “In the future we should try to be more proactive on the Council agenda so we know a little more in advance what Council has on its docket so we can discuss beforehand and could have had the discussion we’re doing now a couple of weeks beforehand.”

Deshotel said roughly 1 percent of APD calls are related to violent crime, and that the current police budget of more than $400 million works out to an average of more than $400 per city resident in police funding. He said his research into other major cities’ police budgets showed none spent more than $300 per resident on law enforcement, and that Council’s decision to decide much of the funding changes over the next six months gives commissions a chance to show how those funds could be better used.

“Once January hits, as the governor has been talking about, the state Legislature is going to bring the hammer and try to bash Austin and the moves that we’re making. That could have a ripple effect across our city and the state if we don’t build the kind of support and change the narrative around what’s happening.”

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