Point Austin: Cops Cost Money

We've been plugging the dike with overtime, and the cracks are showing

Point Austin
It's early, but those dull booms you hear in the distance are the first salvos in this year's city budget wars. Not surprisingly, it's the police budget raising the early ruckus – and even less surprisingly, it's the Statesman sounding the alarm. Last month, the daily reported that the Austin Police Department was on a pace to exceed its overtime budget for the year. "Police department spend [sic] 37% of overtime budget in 4 months," read the Feb. 24 headline on Tony Plohetski's story, which helpfully anticipated 10% in excess overtime spending if the rest of the year proceeds "at its current pace." The story did note that the first four months of the fiscal year included January's massive ice storm – an emergency expense not necessarily anticipated in August.

Like most such budget numbers, much depends on who's counting and how. The Statesman has been on an overtime drumbeat since last year, when it suddenly discovered that 70% of the general fund was going to public safety (primarily police and fire departments). Was this a consequence of City Council policy, of city budgeting decisions, or even of the relative reluctance of supposedly liberal Austin to spend money on matters other than cops and firefighters? Hardly: "The uncommonly high public-safety increases during the past five years," deduced the editors last July, "are driven by police and firefighter unions that view the city budget as a candy store" ("Overtime expenses breaking the city bank," July 13, 2006). Apparently, until about 2001, cops and firefighters were an abstemious lot; then for mysterious reasons (those nefarious union goons, I guess) they suddenly got greedy.

In fact, the strain on APD's overtime budget has several threads. In the first place, the recession that followed 9/11 cut hard across the board, and among the austerities imposed at the time was to cut back on hiring, including new officers. But the declared policy goal remained "2.0 officers per thousand" city residents, and simultaneously the city adopted a minimum staffing policy of 80% per shift – that is, if an APD unit dropped below 80% of personnel on a given day (because of vacations, illnesses, or other absences), supervisors had the authority to call in officers on overtime to make up the difference.

Shuffling the Numbers

Not surprisingly, overtime expenses rose, although the expectation has been that new cadet classes would steadily lessen the necessity, and the city cut the anticipated overtime budget for this year by roughly 25%, to $7.1 million – the estimated figure we're now "exceeding." But the department remains about 80 officers short of current capacity (that ever-receding 2.0 per thousand), at least until July, when the latest cadet class graduates – so we can expect at least one more exposé of the overtime "candy store" before budget deliberations resume.

Asked about these numbers, Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald acknowledged that APD's current overtime expenditures are running higher than expected ("about 12 percent above budget"), but he was quick to note that APD spending as a whole is only about 2% above budget. "Overtime is not just an island by itself; overtime is only about 3.6 percent of the entire $197 million APD budget," McDonald said. "So our overall budget is tracking pretty good." He said the department has thus far been able to cover the expense from elsewhere and that he's meeting with all the public-safety administrators "so we can deal with this proactively." He's also anticipating some relief when the current cadet class graduates, to be followed immediately by another class, and says the city's goal is to reach full capacity again some time next year.

McDonald says the staffing strain shows mostly on "second priority" calls – not of crimes in progress but those reported after the fact. "This entire city was stretched thin" during the recession, he noted, but "public safety remains a priority, and we do whatever we need to do to hold that harmless."

Pay Now or Later

The discussion will hardly end there – in response to Plohetski's piece, Council Member Mike Martinez circulated an e-mail commentary, noting that he had raised some of these questions last year during APD budget presentations and that he's still not happy with the answers. In sum, Martinez believes the city lowballed the overtime estimates – "in part, as a response to the Statesman's [July] editorial" – and is now scrambling to make up the difference. "You can't have your cake and eat it too," wrote Martinez. "You can't pat yourself on the back when it's time for recognition and then try to present a budget that is unrealistic during budget season."

Martinez told me that while it's too early to determine how the budget may need to be adjusted, he wants to "start the conversation" now. "Public safety is expensive," he said, and while he supports the 2.0 per thousand goal and the 80% minimum staffing, "we need to be honest about how much that costs." "If we're going to make a commitment to that level of staffing," he concluded, "we need to put a plan forward that gets us to that level." He said he asked for that plan last year – when he saw what he considered to be the unrealistic projection for this year's overtime costs – and that he's yet to receive a satisfactory answer. "At that time we had about 60 vacancies," he said. "Now we've got about 80. ... I believe there's already been a cost of civility and safety, and even fatalities, on our roads. Those are extremely tangible effects."

While it's not at all clear that "X" number of officers equals "Y" amount of safety (that magical "2.0 per thousand" is a discussion for another day), the current policy of plugging the dike with overtime is both expensive and of diminishing returns – better more cops working straight shifts than tired cops working time-and-a-half. "We have to address the vacancy problem," said Austin Police Association President Jim Beck, "because every one of those jobs has a full-time responsibility, right now going unfilled."

Either way – overtime or straight time – it's going to cost us. end story

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Austin City CouncilAustin Police Department, City Council, Austin Police Department, Michael McDonald, Mike Martinez, Austin Police Association, Jim Beck

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