The Department of Irresponsible, Unconfirmed Rumor

Is the city facing a secret crunch this budget?

It's that time again: Budget season at the city of Austin is right around the corner. City Council's scheduled to get their budget forecast next meeting, the big picture that gives them a sense of the parameters the city's facing this fiscal year. And herein lies today irresponsible, unconfirmed rumor: whispers that the city's potentially facing a budget shortfall. Could this be what the scare-stories on police overtime earlier this year were priming us for? No way to tell for sure now. If you hear anything in the hallways, drop a line to wells@austinchronicle.com.

In other budget news, former council candidate, small business advocate, and avowed fiscal conservative Carl Tepper has penned many a jeremiad to make funds for graffiti removal a priority in the upcoming budget. (How the hell that squares with his hair-away-from-Libertarian principles has us stumped, but, you know, whatever.) Yet in the ensuing round of council-directed emails cc'd far and wide that ultimately landed in our inbox, Texas Monthly Publisher Mike Levy uses Toby Futrell's response to Tepper to bemoan the city's search for a new police chief. Hell, even we're amazed by his ability to get from X to Y on this one, but you gotta give credit where it's due.

You tell us: What should the city prioritize this budget?

Levy's letter after the jump.

------- Original Message --------
Subject: RE: Graffiti...Response to the city manager's e-mail (below)
Date: Wed, 25 Apr 2007 08:08:34 -0500
From: Michael R. Levy

This is great that the City Manager has the graffiti problem on her radar screen. I have no doubt that this defacement of our city bothers her, and the members of the Council, as much if not more than it does us. (And you'll note that her e-mail is time stamped around 10 pm at night. I don't think she has ever worked 40 or even 50 hours in one week.)

But I believe "Reporting" graffiti after the fact, and "fast response" should be secondary.

Having enough cops on the street to catch/deter so-called graffiti artists and other "Broken Windows" offenses should be primary.

People are offended, and have less confidence in their local government, when they see these defacements before they are removed, assuming they can be removed since the "artists" have been quite inventive in finding paint and acid that cannot be totally removed.

As proven in New York and in other cities, a focus on "Broken Windows" offenses has an impact on more serious offenses. This requires an adequate number of patrol officers on the streets, whose increased presence will impact not only "Broken Windows" offenses such as graffiti, but also residential burglaries, traffic violations (too many fatalities and serious injury accidents on Austin's streets), etc. The Council has set as a goal 2.0 cops per thousand population. Right now Austin is at around 1.5, especially with the retirements coming up. (Counting airport and park police obviously makes no sense.) Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Fort Worth have between 2.5 and 3.5 officers per thousand population. The patrol shifts now have as a goal 80% authorized staffing. Why not 100%? And the area commanders will tell you that even if they reached 100% staffing, they would still be way short to reach the community's needs. Given Austin's size and geography, I think Austin is 400 cops short for a city with our population and geography. Until we get there, "Broken Windows" crimes will only escalate, and community policing will continue to be a myth.

What's really scary right now is the search process for the new chief. I'm told that the City spent only $18,000 on a so-called search firm. But well-respected headhunters in Austin say that to find "the best of the best" candidates for a job that oversees such a large budget and workforce would usually demand a fee of $50,000 to $100,000 because the headhunters would not simply run ads but would spend an enormous amount of time recruiting great people and convincing them that they should be candidates for the APD chief's job. By definition the "best of the best" are not reading help wanted ads in the International Association of Chiefs of Police Journal. They are happy where they are. And none the candidates who have somehow floated to the finalists' list exactly inspire confidence, especially when you read how each candidate's background is described in the Statesman. In other words, "You gets for what you pays and you pays for what you gets."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

City Council, Toby Futrell, Budget, Carl Tepper, Mike Levy

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