Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Wednesday, August 11, 2021 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Last year Austin cut its police budget by millions. A new state law means it’ll likely reverse that move this week.

The same day Austin City Council members voted to reduce the police budget by roughly $150 million, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to make it so cities could never do it again.

“Austin’s decision puts the brave men and women of the Austin Police Department and their families at greater risk, and paves the way for lawlessness. Public safety is job one, and Austin has abandoned that duty,” Abbott wrote in an emailed statement, adding that the Legislature would take it up in the next session.

Lawmakers made good on the governor’s promise earlier this year. In May, Abbott signed into law House Bill 1900, which financially penalizes a city that reduces its police budget. Cities that cut funding could be prohibited from collecting new property tax revenue, raising public utility rates or annexing land.

As Austin politicians prepare to vote on a budget this year, they’re also preparing to refund their police department — fearing the financial consequences of running afoul of the new law.

“We face a significant new challenge in the upcoming fiscal year in the form of HB 1900, a new state law that levies catastrophic fiscal penalties for municipalities that cut police funding year over year,” City Manager Spencer Cronk said last month as he unveiled his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Each year, the city manager drafts a budget and then Council members spend weeks amending and tweaking it before approving a final version, typically in August or September.

“I want to assure you that our FY 22 budget proposal is fully compliant with the new requirements of this law,” Cronk said.

The new state law requires cities to approve police budgets at or above the highest amount in the past two years; in order to avoid financial penalties, Austin has to fund its police department to 2019 levels, or at least $432 million.

On the table is a police department budget totaling roughly $442 million, or nearly 10% of the city’s overall budget. This proposed budget restores about $130 million to police in part by returning divisions to the department that were moved out, including the crime lab.

Some Council members have criticized going too far above this legally required limit. At a budget meeting last week, Council Member Ann Kitchen questioned why the city would fund the police department $10 million over what the law requires since this year’s budget would set a new precedent.

“We do have to remember that we are setting the floor because of HB 1900 with the budget this year,” Kitchen, who represents parts of South Austin, said.

Under the law, cities that want to decrease their police budget compared to years past can apply for a waiver from the state. But a city spokesperson told KUT on Tuesday that the governor’s office has not published guidance on how to submit this kind of request.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin Police Department: the law enforcement entity for the City of Austin.

city budget: The city’s plan for expenditures based on income.

Reimaging Public Safety

Texas Legislature: The state’s legislative governing body composed of the House and Senate.

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