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Firefighters considering whether to oppose Prop A

Wednesday, September 29, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Austin firefighters are considering whether to oppose Proposition A, a proposal on the Nov. 2 ballot that would require the city of Austin to spend between $54 million and $119 million more on police officers each year, according to Austin’s Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo.

Opponents note that the likely result of such new spending on APD would be elimination of jobs throughout other city departments, including the Austin Fire Department. Members of the Austin Firefighters Association started voting Tuesday on whether to take the unprecedented step of opposing the Austin Police Association’s position. Like APD, the Fire Department is funded through the city’s General Fund.

Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks supports campaigning against the ballot item. He told union members in an email quoted by the Austin American-Statesman, “I am unapologetic for doing my duty, no matter how unpleasant, but I’m not lying when I say I believe that Prop A will likely pass if we do not get involved and I believe that Prop A will have a significant negative impact on your future wages, benefits and working conditions, and therefore your families.”

Although a vote to oppose the proposition could cause hard feelings between Austin Police Association leaders and Nicks, if firefighters do vote to oppose Prop A, they will be in alignment with the city’s civilian employee union AFSCME.

Carol Guthrie, AFSCME business manager, told the Austin Monitor Tuesday, “We strongly believe that if (Prop A) passes there will be cuts to services. There’s no way around it. Of course if you cut services, you cut jobs. We’re doing whatever we can to educate people on what this really does.”

“I did have an opportunity to speak at the firefighters meeting,” she continued. “They think their positions are safe. They’re not safe they’re in the General Fund. Their positions will be cut … I don’t think there’s any way for the city to make up, on the low side $100 million, to fund this thing. The money is not there.” She went on to say that the amount of money the city would be required to spend in order to provide two sworn officers per 1,000 residents, as well as fulfilling the other requirements of the proposed ordinance, would bankrupt the city.

Van Eenoo’s memo points out that the amount the city would be required to spend depends at least in part on population growth. If the city only grows by 1 percent per year, the estimated five-year cumulative cost would be $271.5 million. But if the annual population growth is 2 percent and the city meets the other requirements, including officer uncommitted time, the five-year cost would be close to $600 million with an average annual cost of $119.8 million.

The group that gathered the signatures to put Prop A on the ballot is Save Austin Now. Their spokesman Matt Mackowiak told the Austin Monitor via email, “First responders are always stronger when they are together. The police staffing crisis is directly affecting our firefighters in terms of homeless fires and critical response delays. This vote is the personal mission of AFA’s leader. We do not believe it is supported by most firefighters. Police does not oppose fire initiatives, and I would hope AFA’s membership strongly considers that.”

Voting by firefighters will conclude on Thursday. Nicks said Tuesday that no decision had been made yet on whether to release the results on Thursday or Friday.

The Austin EMS Association is unlikely to take a position on Prop A. Selena Xie, the group’s president, told the Austin Monitor that her union does not usually endorse or reject propositions, adding that they had opposed last year’s proposal to change Austin’s form of government to a “strong mayor” system.

Austin currently employs 1628 police officers, which is 127 fewer than the department had a year ago. Regardless of the passage or failure of Proposition A, APD will be in catch-up mode for some time, though they have a foothold with 80 cadets currently in training . If voters approve the measure, it will still take time to hire and train more officers.

The city has projected a $15 million deficit over the next five years, without passage of Proposition A. Regardless of whether the proposal passes, Council will have to take a rather precarious financial position into account when crafting future budgets for libraries, parks and other popular amenities the city provides.

This story has been corrected with correct staffing numbers after APD initially released incorrect numbers to the Monitor.

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