Beside the Point

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Beside the Point

Reading the city manager's executive summary of the fiscal year 2008 budget, you'll find a lot of large numbers and lofty goals – but none comes much bigger than public safety.

Some agencies we're more familiar with – Emergency Medical Services and Fire – while others less so (Public Safety and Emergency Management, the umbrella grouping of parks, airport police, and the like). No doubt you're acquainted with the centerpiece of public-safety spending, the Austin Police Department, which consumes $220 million – well more than one-third of the $592.2 million general fund. The goals Toby Futrell establishes for the department are no less high: reducing violent crime by more than 2%, "with the goal of Austin ranking among the Top 3 safest major cities in the United States"; cutting property crime by close to 3%; and cutting traffic fatalities – which have already claimed more than 40 lives this year – by a full 5%.

Factor in this year's increase in theft and violent crime (including an unusually high number of murders) and the department's dire need to restore trust within East Austin's African-American community (and the city as a whole), and, well, they've got their work cut out for them. But something unexpected happened this year in the public-safety debate: very little. Maybe it will be a different story today, Aug. 23, when City Council pores over the public-safety budget; maybe the hand-wringing and pearl-clutching over its spiraling cost will begin anew. But minus BTP's disparagement of the head-scratching increase in graffiti cops – priorities, people! – compared to the freaking out over budgets past, this council's been positively comatose on public safety. What gives?

For those who have forgotten, the council's structural problem is the so-called "public safety premium," dictating that whatever bump the rest of the city workforce receives, Police (and EMS and Fire, as successfully negotiated by then-union chief Mike Martinez) haul in that plus 2%. Adopted during a lean, post-boom 2003 – when 2% on top of citywide salary increases added up to, oh, around 2% – it was a tenable system. But as the city slouched out of the downturn, having to make amends with a workforce whose salary it kept flat for two years, the payback has been steep.

Greg Canally, the city's budget officer, doesn't think the premium is solely to blame. The amount consumed by public safety is "not unlike other cities we benchmark against," he says. "I think that's typical. There's an old adage: When you staff a city, hire a police chief, get a volunteer fire chief, and try and find an ambulance." Over time, it's increased "due to [a] variety of factors. It makes up about 65 percent of budget; 10 years ago, it was 50 percent of budget. I would again think that's in line with other Texas cities, as well as nationally."

All coyness aside, the premium weighs heavily on budget considerations – as do hopes to get out from under it. It's no coincidence that Police, EMS, and Fire contracts all expire at the same time, next year – at the start of the FY 09 budget cycle. Canally says the synchronicity was part of the equation, "so you can have negotiations, all of them at the same time, to get a better sense of overall impacts." He's already indulged in a little wishful thinking: In the "gap"-predicting financial forecast earlier this year, there was a projection ditching the current 2% incentive, in favor of an across-the-board 4.5% increase for all city employees, public safety or not. (Still, $11.7 million of the projected $15.9 million increase would go to public safety.) "The assumption is 4.5 percent, knowing in the end it may well end up somewhere lower or higher," Canally says.

Which might explain the lack of hysteria. The 2006 budget featured terrifying graphs showing how public safety was on track to consume the entirety of new spending – dire predictions we're avoiding, as the city hopes to get a handle on contract spending in the upcoming negotiations. Just as the appointment of golden boy (for now) Art Acevedo has begun to redeem a maligned Police Department, is public safety looking to atone for past budget sins?

•••

Aside from the budget discussion, council's got a relatively light agenda today (Thursday). What looks to be a relatively commonplace resolution – item four, approving a contract for a low-cost Mexican airline terminal at Bergstrom – may turn into something more, as the language, like countless other items, gives staff power not only to "negotiate" but "execute" the contract – powers council may begin to push back on. A 10:30am briefing from the Office of the Police Monitor should hopefully prove illuminating, if not nearly as entertaining as the 3pm public hearing to "receive comment on the profile of a new city manager." Well, if memory serves, Betty Dunkerley told the Statesman Austin needs a "magician," while some lobbyist or another said they'd have big shoes to fill. Put those two together, and you've got ... Bozo the city manager? Great for kids' parties and council meetings – to the extent they're distinguishable.

Clown BTP's opinion at wdunbar@austinchronicle.com.


General Fund Spending

Combined, public-safety spending makes up 67.1%, or $397.6 million, of the entire $592.2 million general fund.


Public-Safety Spending, by Department

2007 Amended2008 ProposedIncrease
Police$197.0$220.0$23.0
Fire106.0116.910.9
EMS39.243.03.8
Municipal Court10.211.61.4
Public Safety and Emergency Management5.36.10.8
Public Safety
TOTAL$357.7$397.6$39.9

Police Budget Highlights:

– Seventy-three new sworn positions (patrol, enforcement)

– Four new civilian positions

– Replaces 81 police cars

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Budget, Public Safety, Police, City Manager, City Council, Greg Canally

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