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Greg Casar: 2020 was the ‘hardest year’

Tuesday, January 5, 2021 by Jo Clifton

“I was wrong,” Council Member Greg Casar said. He was recalling his observations of 2017, the first year of the Trump presidency. At the time, he’d called it “a hellish year” – but that was before he knew what a hellish year was really like. It’s a year of pandemic, made worse by an economic crisis, which generally has hit lower-income people and people of color hardest.

This time it’s no exaggeration to say that the past year has been “the hardest year for my constituents and for the community,” he told the Austin Monitor. He gives his fellow Council members high marks for their efforts to alleviate the effects of Covid-19 and the shuttering of many businesses, which resulted in the loss of a multitude of jobs in Austin and nationwide.

Casar had considered running for the state Senate seat vacated by longtime Austin Democrat Kirk Watson, but decided against the run. As it turns out, Casar was already in a pivotal position to make a difference for Austinites. He said, “This year the job of being in local government has been more important than ever.”

Casar recently announced that he wanted to expand his role on Council by serving as mayor pro tem. As of this writing, he may or may not have the votes necessary to get elected by his colleagues since Council members Alison Alter and Natasha Harper-Madison are also vying for the post. Council will not be voting on this position at its inauguration ceremony Wednesday but will wait until Jan. 25 or 27.

Casar cited three big issues for 2020, aside from the pandemic: The beginning of large-scale reforms at the Austin Police Department, the continuing homelessness crisis and Project Connect’s election victory.

Of the first two, Casar said, “Homelessness and policing are two of those really hard issues where the status quo of the past isn’t acceptable, but the present isn’t acceptable either.” He acknowledges that there are deep divisions in the community over policing and alleviating homelessness.

“Based on the contentious election we’ve gone through locally,” in districts 6 and 10, “it’s clear we can’t go backward,” he said. But the city must move forward on police reform and housing the homeless, he said, adding that he believes “many people have the same goal but we have to find a new and better way to get people to come along with us to get to the goal.”

One of the arguments advocates have over policing is when to move forward with a new police cadet class. APD has seen an unusually high attrition rate in 2020, and having new cadets would be the beginning of increasing the department’s ranks. But in late 2019, after hearing from previous cadets about the racism and negativity in their training, Council decided to cancel upcoming cadet classes until there was a new curriculum.

Casar said he was expecting a report on those changes by the end of December. “I don’t think they’ve been moving with the urgency to make those changes that people would expect,” he said, adding that cadet classes could start “as soon as we see real progress.”

Looking back at summer’s budget process, Casar said he was pleased with the decisions he and his colleagues made about transferring APD funds into other areas to help Austinites in crisis.

“Local government needs to think of alternatives in our community that go beyond policing, especially if you want to make the community more safe. That conversation has existed at City Hall but we’ve never truly made investments in those alternatives in really significant ways. And I think this year’s budget pushed us to begin that process. So I think we are beginning to make important changes and we are in the challenging spot of being in the midst of that transition,” he said.

Casar anticipates a strenuous process in writing next year’s budget. He expects it to include “delivering alternative services to the community, such as mental health services, more family violence shelters and substance abuse treatment programs, as well as a lot more housing for the homeless.”

As a result of reducing this year’s police budget and reinvesting it in other areas, he said, the forensics lab will have scientific leadership instead of police officers. In addition, increasing the number of community health care medics from 12 to 32 by the end of this budget year will allow that team to respond to more 911 calls.

Casar was particularly pleased by the public’s acceptance of Project Connect, which won approval from 59 percent of voters in November. He said he believed that adding $300 million in anti-displacement funding for people living in and around future rail lines gave many Austinites an extra reason to vote for the project.

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