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Police spending proves top concern in first budget comment session

Friday, July 23, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Community members weighed on the city manager’s preliminary budget proposal Thursday before a mostly in-person City Council – the first in-person meeting since the beginning of the pandemic. A vast majority of speakers criticized the proposed police spending, arguing that an increase in the Austin Police Department’s allocation goes against the city’s commitment to reimagine public safety.

City Manager Spencer Cronk’s Fiscal Year 2021-22 budget proposal totals $4.5 billion, an increase of 3.5 percent from last year. Highlights from the proposal include $65.2 million in homelessness spending – the highest amount ever – and money shifted back to APD that Council had decoupled from the department, plus an $8.5 million increase over 2019 levels. The reversal on police spending comes in response to Texas House Bill 1900, which penalizes cities that cut their police budget. 

Speakers representing various social justice groups – Austin Justice Coalition, Undoing White Supremacy Austin, Communities of Color United, among others – urged Council to put only the minimum amount of money required by HB 1900 toward policing, which is effectively equal to the prior year’s police budget.

“I understand that the Legislature has made this budget cycle particularly difficult, but the police budget should only meet the bare requirements and not a penny more,” said Amelia Casas, a policy analyst at the Texas Fair Defense Project.

Joao Paulo Connolly with the Austin Justice Coalition argued that HB 1900 makes it especially important not to increase police spending. “We need to really, really be careful when we talk about … adding more money to the police budget,” Connolly said. “Any amounts added to this budget are permanent.”

Advocates supported other uses for the APD money above what HB 1900 requires. “Shift the additional $8.5 million in the budget for policing over 2019 levels to community initiatives,” said Sabina Ibarrola with Undoing White Supremacy Austin. “Fund public health workers and neighborhood hubs, a universal basic income pilot and equity spending review process.” Trauma recovery centers and initiatives to end food deserts were among the other ideas floated.

Many of the pro-defunding speakers urged Council to follow the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force’s recommendations, which on the whole would radically change policing in the city. Though the city manager proposed $1.9 million toward some of these recommendations, many speakers considered that amount paltry. 

“With only $1.9 million allocated to the recommendations and a record high for the APD budget, the proposed budget really shows a complete departure from that path that we embarked upon,” said Cate Graziani, who worked on the task force. 

A few speakers – all of whom were from the Greater Austin Crime Commission – did support the police budget. Cary Roberts, the group’s executive director, said amidst “challenging times” with higher crime rates and lower response times as a result of an understaffed department, “continuing cadet classes is the most important thing we can do now to address the alarming attrition and staffing crisis.”

Before Council can weigh in on the budget proposal, another round of public comment is set for next Thursday. Council will discuss and adopt the budget Aug. 11-13.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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