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Public safety looms over city budget talks

Wednesday, July 28, 2021 by Jo Clifton

The plea for more staff at Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services has reached City Council’s ears. The majority of Council members expressed a desire at Tuesday’s work session to increase that funding for next year, as requested by Selena Xie, EMS association president. However, that request, along with others, would probably fall by the wayside if the Save Austin Now petition passes and Austin is forced to hire hundreds more police officers.

Council Member Alison Alter noted that a study of Fire Department and EMS use is in its final stages and she hoped to get some “high-level recommendations” from it before the budget is complete. Alter and Council members Mackenzie Kelly, Kathie Tovo, Paige Ellis, Greg Casar and Mayor Steve Adler all expressed a desire to beef up EMS funding.

Declining numbers of staff at the city’s 911 call center is another public safety concern. Alter, Kelly and Tovo pointed to the high turnover rate at the call center as highlighted in a recent KXAN report. Alter and Tovo both asked that City Manager Spencer Cronk come back next week and explain why he had not brought the problem to their attention and why there isn’t more money slated for the issue in next year’s budget.

Kelly said she had personally visited the 911 call center, implying that her colleagues had not. Tovo let her know that was not the case, saying she too had been there and that she thought a number of other Council members had as well. Adler said much the same thing, noting his own visit and that of his fellow Council members.

Council members Ann Kitchen and Vanessa Fuentes said they are interested in helping people displaced by Project Connect and Fuentes said the city needs to increase its investment in community health workers. This was the first in-person Council meeting for Fuentes since her election last November.

Casar started his remarks by saying some detectives in the Internal Affairs Division of the Austin Police Department might be reassigned to do regular detective work, while investigators in the Office of Civil Rights might investigate some internal affairs complaints. He said he wanted to talk to city staff to find out whether such an idea was ready for a broader Council conversation. He noted that given the current hot real estate market, the city might not be able to purchase a family violence shelter with the funding projected for this year.

Save Austin Now’s petition, if validated, would put an ordinance on the November ballot requiring the city to hire two officers per 1,000 residents, perhaps adding as many as 500 more officers to the force.

Casar said, “I assume if the petition is verified we will be taking a vote on whether to adopt the petition or not. I would like a range of how many police officers the petition would mandate us hiring. … The numbers I see circulating are in the 400-500 range … and I think we should take that into consideration as we work on this budget. It sounds like what we’re struggling to get done here is (adding) maybe four public health workers or 12 park rangers or nine medics for downtown or a dozen firefighters. Obviously, this would make that impossible if we were mandated to hire several hundred, up to 500 more police officers. Next year I support having police academies in this year’s budget. We’ll have more police officers, but also more firefighters and new EMS,” and 911 call takers.

Equity Austin, which opposes the referendum, later released a statement from Adler and Casar, in which the mayor said, “Today I asked the city manager to address the impact of the group’s petition on our city’s services. We must understand the budget implications of this petition to make the best choices for our community. Directing the City Council to hire additional police officers at this time could result in layoffs in other departments. We also need more public health professionals, firefighters, park rangers, and EMS to keep our community safe.”

In the news release, Casar added, “This difficult budget would be impossible if this Republican Party proposal passed, forcing the hiring of potentially 500 police officers. Austin’s budget will add more officers, but we should not be slashing our parks, libraries and other safety services in the process.”

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