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How many cops do we want and at what cost?

Thursday, September 9, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Reporters and promoters of Proposition A have been using two officers per 1,000 Austin residents to describe the police staffing required if the proposition wins voter approval on Nov. 2. But that number may be insufficient, according to calculations done by Austin Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo.

Van Eenoo looked at four key provisions of the proposed ordinance, which seeks to provide two officers for every 1,000 residents and ensure that all front-line officers maintain “not less than 35 percent community engagement time.” In addition, the new law would require no fewer than three fully enrolled cadet classes until staffing at the department returns to “the levels prescribed in the 2019-2020 city budget.”

The proposal is on the ballot as a result of a petition drive by Save Austin Now.

Based on Van Eenoo’s analysis, the lowest projected cost of implementing the ordinance came to $271.5 million over five years, with an average annual cost of $54.3 million. In the higher-cost scenario, Van Eenoo estimated a five-year cost of $598.8 million, or about $119.8 million a year. The large difference between the higher-cost and the lower-cost projections is “driven primarily by differences in the number of new officers that would be needed to meet the requirements of the petition,” he said.

As Van Eenoo explained, several provisions add to the cost of maintaining two officers per 1,000 citizens. The ordinance requires that officers participate in an extra 40 hours of mandatory continuing education each year “with an emphasis on training outside a classroom setting that will equip the officers to handle evolving, fluid, dangerous situations and enhance their own safety and that of the public.”

Additional cost drivers include providing more incentives in the form of payments or extra compensatory time. Those include increases in the current payments for officers who are proficient in one of the five most common non-English languages spoken in Austin: Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Hindi.

In the lower-cost scenario, Van Eenoo figures a $50 monthly increase in the existing language stipend, bringing that stipend to $100 a month. In the higher-cost scenario, Van Eenoo suggests raising the language stipend to $225 a month.

In addition, the ordinance would require a monthly stipend for officers who participate in a mentoring program for cadets in the police academy. He suggests $175 per month in the lower-cost scenario and $350 per month in the higher-cost scenario.

Finally, the ordinance requires that officers in good standing who are “eligible for an honorable conduct citation or equivalent” receive extra compensation once every five years: $500 under the lower-cost scenario and $1,000 under the higher-cost scenario.

Van Eenoo wrote, “In developing the estimated costs to meet the requirements of the petition, the Financial Services Department, in collaboration with staff from the Austin Police Department’s Research and Planning unit, created a range dependent upon a variety of variables using a ‘Low Scenario’ and ‘High Scenario.’ One critically important factor to both scenarios is the definition of community engagement time.” He explained that community engagement time is the equivalent of uncommitted time, or time not spent responding to calls for service. If community engagement time were treated differently, he said, the cost of implementing the petition “would be significantly greater than those estimated in this analysis.”

Austin’s population growth was part of the basis for Van Eenoo’s calculations. Under the lower-cost scenario, the annual population growth is estimated at 1 percent and the annual wage growth is also projected at 1 percent. Under the higher-cost scenario, Austin’s population is projected to grow at 2 percent per year and the annual wage growth is expected to be 2 percent.

The vacancy rate would be about the same, 6.3 percent per year. Other factors, including the construction of either one new police substation or three new substations, would depend on Austin’s growth.

According to the 2020 census, the city’s population grew by 21 percent to 961,855 over the last decade, or roughly 2 percent per year. Given what we know about the city’s continued growth, the higher-cost scenario looks more likely if Van Eenoo’s calculations are correct.

The Austin Monitor reached out to Save Austin Now leader Matt Mackowiak for comment, but had not heard back as of press time.

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