Beside the Point : A Ton to Chew On

The question of the week: Is there public safety in numbers?

In the age of unbridled Internet filth, you wouldn't be remiss in thinking a Web site called 1 Ton O Fun caters to hardcore chubby-chasers – the type of thing no public official would appear on. But steer your browser over to, and the story is quite different. You'll find a charity-sponsored fitness event where waistline titans like Mark Katz and Rob Balon are leading groups to weight loss goals; 10-plus teams are set on losing 200 lbs. each.

One captain of the newly minted Diet-Coke-and-fruit-salad set is Austin Police Association president Mike Sheffield, who entered with aspirations to "weigh as much going out of the force as I did going in." Never one for understatement, Sheffield's band of 13 exercisers is christened the APA Eaters. A prescient name, because City Council is looking to put the Austin Police Department on a diet – and give their brethren in the park and airport police something to chew on.

Today, council considers Item 59, laying the groundwork for an independent audit of public safety departments – Fire, EMS, constables, park and airport police, and portliest, the APD. The goal, say council members, is to compare APD's practices with those in comparable cities to determine whether the department and the city are following the best, most cost-efficient practices. Sponsored by Brewster McCracken, who has long rang the alarm over rising public safety costs, the study looks to approach the department holistically.

"We need to take a very serious look at our staffing level," co-sponsor Mike Martinez told In Fact Daily, pinpointing the po-po's biggest beef – staffing. No doubt you've seen the ad – paid for by the APA, and plunged into heavy rotation in the midst of budget season – where fuzzy 5-0 prance about like menacing Kabuki cops as an announcer intones that thanks to "city management," Austin's officer staffing is "way below the national average." Indeed, the city's goal of two cops for every 1,000 Austinites falls short of the three-per-1,000 average typically used by cities with more than 250,000 people.

Bearing in mind that the city has trouble meeting even its reduced staffing, Sheffield is wagering he'll like what the audit finds, telling IFD, "The association is pushing for this." Council, no doubt, must wonder whether more cops on the beat will arrest APD's salary hikes and overtime take. With the next round of "meet-and-confer" contract talks between the union and the city coming up in two years, council will be glad to have a framework for negotiations, as members try to craft for the public safety budget what all dieters need – portion control.

But wouldn't you know – like the timeworn holiday mantra, "I'll start my diet tomorrow," the fun's not over just yet. At 2:30 is a briefing on the now-infamous police feasibility study, which might balloon APD up by 100 officers. The Austin Park Police, Airport Police, and our city marshals – gun-totin' peacekeepers all – don't operate under the auspice of APD, but rather form the comparatively small public safety and emergency management departments. The piecemeal oversight across departments – including several questionable incidents under Park Police Chief Darryl Lewis, which recently led to his resignation – left council questioning why the groups weren't incorporated under APD's regimented, accredited training and chain of command. The study gauging the feasibility of doing so returns today, over the shrieks of the Austin American-Statesman's editorial page. Fearful that 100-or-so additional APD officers would bankrupt the city and plunge it into bedlam, we'll find out today whether any potential salary increases would be offset by lowered liability costs.

If that's not enough, the red-and-blue banquet continues with a full vetting of – what else? – the public safety budget. Presentation begins at 11am, with public input scheduled for 6pm. Also up for discussion today – hours and hours of discussion, we're certain – is the proposed bicycle helmet ordinance. With a day like this, here's hoping council has some protective headgear. end story

Michael King's "Point Austin" will return next week.

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city council, city budget, Mike Sheffield, police, Austin Police Association, public safety

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