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City Council denounces Prop A, approves ballot language revealing its cost

Thursday, August 12, 2021 by Elizabeth Pagano

An upcoming proposition that would mandate police staffing could cost the city almost $600 million over the next five years. City Council is trying to drive that reality home with newly adopted ballot language.

If approved by voters on Nov. 2, Proposition A, which is the result of a petition drive by Save Austin Now, would dictate some of the ways that the city manages the police department. According to Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo, the changes would come at a cost of $271.5 million to $598.8 million over the next five years.

Van Eenoo’s calculations, which are detailed in an Aug. 10 memo, sparked immediate concern, which was echoed by Council members as they voted on ballot language for the proposed ordinance.

The average annual cost of $54.3 to $119.8 million, said Council Member Greg Casar, “will just devastate our existing city services.”

“The cost of the ballot item is the entire public library system, 20 EMS stations, 16 fire stations, the entire animal shelter and then on top of that all 22 neighborhood pools and Barton Springs,” he continued, further calculating it could be the equivalent of 1,425 city staff positions. 

Due to a new property tax ceiling imposed by the state Legislature, Van Eenoo has predicted that the city would need to make deep cuts to its existing budget or hold a tax rate election in order to comply with Prop A, as city leaders would be legally bound to do should it pass. 

In a statement released by Save Austin Now, co-founders Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek responded to Van Eenoo’s memo.

“It makes no sense that our elected officials have chosen to allocate $515 million to homelessness over the next three years and raise taxes again this year, while simultaneously arguing that returning to an adequate police staffing level is financially impossible in the face of rising crime,” they wrote. “In a rapidly growing city with a $4.2 billion budget, we can afford public safety.  What we cannot afford is to let this Council run amok any longer.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, Council members took turns expressing their concerns about the proposed ordinance and asking for further clarity on its fiscal impact.

“To have two officers per 1,000 (citizens) employed at all times, we will essentially need to overhire,” Van Eenoo said. He explained the requirement that officers have 35 percent of their time available for community engagement means the city would need to staff about 2.35 officers per 1,000 to ensure the threshold is met without “unacceptable impacts” to emergency response capabilities. Also, there would be the additional costs of added facility capacity, equipment and vehicles. 

“I find this item to be fiscally irresponsible and certainly not a very conservative approach to our municipal budgeting. It ties our hands, financially,” Council Member Leslie Pool said. “If I could vote no on (it) today, I would do that.”

“It’s going to bring chaos. I just cannot believe that this group did not do their homework and filed something like this,” Council Member Pio Renteria said.

The ballot language approved by Council stressed the potential cost of the ordinance. It reads:

Shall an ordinance be approved that, at an estimated cost of $271.5 million – $598.8 million over five years – requires the City to employ at least two police officers per 1,000 residents at all times; requires at least 35 percent of patrol officer time be uncommitted time, otherwise known as community engagement time; requires additional financial incentives for certain officers; requires specific kinds of training for officers and certain public officials and their staffs; and requires there be at least three full-term cadet classes for the department until staffing levels reach a specific level?

During the meeting, Mayor Steve Adler asserted it was not only Council’s right to write their own language for the ballot, it was their duty to reject a caption written by Save Austin Now under state law.

He pointed out that state law, in fact, forbids Council from adopting language that doesn’t present a fair picture or leaves out “key features” to the voters. In this case, Adler said, the original caption omitted the ordinance’s cost, which he called its “the most salient, key feature.” The caption also neglected to mention the required staffing levels or community engagement and training mandates.

Attorney Bill Aleshire confirmed to the Austin Monitor that a lawsuit would be filed on behalf of Petricek to put the original caption on the ballot or invalidate the language approved by Council, saying the action to adopt the new language was in violation of the City Charter.

City Council voted unanimously to approve the ballot language, though Council Member Mackenzie Kelly voted to adopt the proposed ordinance instead of an election.

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