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Community groups push for safety, public services in $73.5M budget request

Thursday, April 21, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

More than 30 community groups and service organizations have created a list of recommendations for the next city budget, with 16 proposed expenditures focused around safety and public health totaling $73.5 million.

Details on the Community Investment Budget were released to members of City Council and staff on Wednesday, ahead of budget talks that will carry on through the spring and summer.

The biggest priorities in the package include $19 million to increase wages for city workers, $16 million to increase pay for Emergency Medical Services staff and fill more than 100 open positions, and $15 million in additional rental assistance, shelter for inclement weather and eviction protection. Other items include a guaranteed income pilot program ($7.5 million), improved safety and maintenance in local parks ($5.5 million) and additional funding for workforce development ($2.5 million).

Members of the group, which include leaders from organizations such as Austin Area Urban League, Texas Fair Defense Project and Workers Defense Action Fund, said the city’s increasing cost of living is putting more pressure than ever on vulnerable populations and threatening to reduce the availability of some basic city services, including emergency response.

“With recent appraisals and the cost of living in Austin, the pay for our EMS’ unique and skilled workers is drastically low and barely livable, especially in comparison to their counterparts in the fire and police departments,” said Larry Wallace, a spokesperson for the Urban League who is also a staff member in Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison’s office. “We’re not going to be able to have the high-quality people that our taxpayers deserve to be paying for if we don’t give them competitive rates. This is showing that we need to get a proper fit in each line item … we don’t want taxpayers to not get the services they need even though they’re paying for them.”

Sam Kirsch, spokesperson for the group District 5 for Black Lives, said the coalition came together to bring more attention to concerns around equity and public safety, with the individual groups representing a wide cross-section of voters.

“There’s a need every year with City Council to remind them that they are beholden to their constituents and they need to invest in programs that will uplift Austinites. A lot of the urgency this year has come around the increase in prices, rent hikes, problems with staffing for EMS, the ongoing crisis of homelessness,” Kirsch said. “Lots of these organizations have previously been involved with City Council around this kind of budget stuff, so there is the infrastructure and we know what the different steps are. A lot of this is going to be about bringing together as many people as we can, including welcoming other organizations that want to get involved.”

Terra Tucker, Texas state director for the Alliance for Safety and Justice, said the Community Investment Budget came into form as participants pushed for their most important priorities while trying to present an overall package that would be realistic for Council members weighing a variety of interests and limited dollars. In the end, the $73.5 million represents 6 percent of the city’s current total budget.

“There are a lot of needs out there. We were not arbitrary about the numbers we put in, and we wanted to put the money in that would make a difference but also wanted to try to be realistic with it. We came down to asking for what we need for these very important projects. When you look at it, it’s only 6 percent of the budget, and so there’s still a large percent of the budget that the city has to do the other things it needs to do.”

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