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Council adopts public safety initiative to address vacancy concerns

Wednesday, February 23, 2022 by Amy Smith

With staffing challenges at a critical juncture in each of Austin’s three public safety departments, City Council has directed the city manager to build a comprehensive plan to address the shortages.

The ATX Public Safety Vacancy Staffing Plan lays out direction for staffers to identify vacancy challenges and historical trends in each department, outline what each department is doing to fill the vacancies, and provide recommendations and a timeline for implementation, including any budgetary actions. The proposal passed unanimously on consent, with the city manager expected to report back to Council by April 30.

“My goal is to have a transparent process for the city,” said Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, who sponsored the initiative with Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter and Council members Leslie Pool, Paige Ellis, Ann Kitchen and Kathie Tovo. “It’s important for the Council to be aware of the steps necessary to fill these vacancies, which have already been budgeted,” Kelly added.

Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association, spoke in support of the initiative. She said in her 10 years as a medic for ATCEMS, the department has relied on mandatory overtime to staff its ambulances. “Because of Covid-19 in the last year, it’s really caused our medics to reach a breaking point,” Xie said.

Representatives of the Greater Austin Crime Commission also appeared in Council chambers to voice support for the item. “The timing of this resolution is important because all three of our public safety departments are in contract negotiations and those decisions will affect the community for years,” Cary Roberts, the group’s executive director, said. “This resolution signals that city leaders support first responders and are taking staffing problems seriously.”

While the Council directive will play a role in contract negotiations, Pool stressed that the intent is not to meddle in bargaining talks. “Our intent today with the resolution is not to dictate what staffing levels should be negotiated at the bargaining table, but instead we’re ensuring that the labor agreements are negotiated with some context of what the staffing plan would be for the future.”

Across the country, municipalities, medical facilities and businesses large and small have struggled with staffing shortages since the beginning of the pandemic, and the problem doesn’t appear to be resolving itself without higher wages and improved benefits and other incentives. The city of New Orleans is experiencing historically high levels of staffing shortages in its public safety departments, and the mayor is proposing a $15 million one-time fix that would include bonuses for new and current employees as well as pay scale adjustments, according to news reports.

Here in Austin, Austin-Travis County EMS has the highest percentage of vacancies. Of 664 sworn positions, there are 124 vacancies; the Austin Police Department has 222 vacancies out of an authorized force of 1,809; and Austin Fire has 110 vacancies of 1,257 sworn personnel.

Council Member Ellis said she’d like to see comprehensive staffing plans for all city departments, many of which are also struggling to fill positions. Such plans, she said, should also consider incentives or other measures for retaining employees who are taking on additional responsibilities or working overtime to fill the vacancy gaps.

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