Point Austin: Budget Frenzy

It ain't where they live, it's how we treat them

Point Austin
Catching up on the news after a few days out of town, I was suddenly struck by a previously unknown municipal crisis. No, not the diminishing number of unoccupied intersections for the chronically homeless to work for change; not the legendary intransigence of city planners to synchronize the street lights so that suburban commuters can drive Downtown at highway speeds without ever having to touch their brakes; no, not even the lamentable reluctance of national sportswriters to give the Cajun-killing Longhorns the respect that they are due.

On the contrary, as the folks down at the Statesman – aka the Bat Cave on Town Lake – have so courageously revealed, I'm talking about the failure of so many of our most trusted city servants, the police officers and firefighters, to live within the Austin city limits. As the editors of that esteemed publication have heroically pointed out, ad nauseam for the last 10 days, two out of three Austin police officers and six out of 10 Austin firefighters choose to live elsewhere than in the city where they work. And in the ringing prose for which they are justifiably renowned, the editorial board declared Sunday, "We believe it's time to take a bolder step and try residency requirements for new officers and firefighters."

There you have it. Like me, you were probably unaware of this Foreboding Cloud of Trouble right here in River City, but with their usual acumen the Statesman editors have gotten to the heart of the matter, recommended "a bolder step," and come down firmly on the side of keeping the boys and girls in blue down on the municipal farm. For argument, the editors had to do their usual statistical fudging – noting vaguely that the police "came in last" in a citizen satisfaction survey without acknowledging that all city services, including police, scored well – but hey, it's city budget time, and fudging the numbers is very much in season.

Penny Wise Guys

In fact, it was difficult to review these alarming reports without wondering whether the real subject was not residency at all, but, in the midst of the City Council budget debate, city pay scales. Soon enough, the editors were reciting the current Mantra of McCracken: "If left unchecked, public safety expenses, including police, fire and emergency medical services, will break the budget in the near future and gobble up libraries, parks, enforcement of city codes and street repairs," they warned gloomily, adding, "Yet police and firefighters have shown little sensitivity to the plight of Austin taxpayers." Since the cops are currently in mid-contract, I presume that means the firefighters now negotiating with the city, in order to demonstrate their community bona fides to the Statesman editors, should throw in the towel and agree to whatever Toby Futrell is offering. Then could they live wherever they want?

I hasten to add that I'm grateful to the daily's stats crunchers (not to mention the curiously quick-responding city Open Records staff) for revealing that so many of the city's finest live elsewhere. I even agree that the council should adopt policies that encourage city employees to live in town; the daily is indeed right that folks who live here have a greater stake here, and consequently a stronger sense of mutual interdependence. Moreover, as somebody who considers my daily five-minute commute irksome, I find it utterly mystifying that anyone at all would want to live in Halletsville – or Midlothian, for God's sake – and work in Austin. But to each his own, and his Chevron bill.

But forgive me if I sense no grand local groundswell that the home addresses of police and firefighters are now a major public issue, along with, say, how do we pay for public safety, and all the city services we need, when both the federal and state governments are abdicating their responsibilities while forcing more and more unavoidable expenses downward onto municipalities? And forgive me again, if I balk at "fiscal responsibility" lectures from an editorial board that couldn't applaud loudly or quickly enough at throwing $60 million (just for city starters) at the Samsung Corp., if its extremely absentee landlords would only condescend to extract many millions more in our neighborhood.

Last I checked, the chief beneficiaries of those "incentives" (i.e., legalized public bribery) don't live anywhere near Austin, nor even Midlothian, but commute to their offices from the suburbs of Seoul. At that distance, no doubt their sensitivity to the plight of Austin taxpayers is very finely tuned.

A Little Respect

Budget time doth make madmen of us all, and I don't envy the council members trying annually to stretch limited finances to cover a multitude of needs. But we have just been treated to two consecutive City Council meetings during which city employees – first (using a bogus negotiating distinction) "public safety" firefighters and then "non-public safety" employees – were made to appear publicly like the city's redheaded stepchildren, or more precisely, like impudent beggars. And that wouldn't be quite so outrageous, except that these tense exchanges between the city workers and the council members who employ them followed immediately on the heels of a $60 million incentive package vote (pro forma and unanimous) for Samsung, during which perfunctory discussion the very same council members engaged in a group-groveling competition, featuring everything but slapping big wet kisses on the coddled corporate behinds. (Maybe that will be in Samsung's next incentive request, after New York takes its best shot.)

Budget hearings are about money, no doubt. But they are also about something else, as succinctly expressed last week by city employee and American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees member Jeffrey Thornton, defending the union's budget proposal and its simple request for consultation rights, as already accorded to "public safety" employees. "All we are asking from our council members is respect," declared Thornton. "And just show us, show us, that we are a priority to the city." It hardly seems too much to ask.

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City government, Austin American-Statesman, Brewster McCracken, Toby Futrell, Samsung Corp., firefighters, police officers, Jeffrey Thornton, it's how we treat them

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