City Hall Hustle: Safety in Numbers

Police and Fire back Leffingwell – at what cost?

For Mike Levy, the train is leaving the station. Or as he might put it in his public-safety parlance, "The ambulance is leaving the ER!"

The former Texas Monthly publisher and Emergency Medical Services call-time watchdog has publicly vacillated over whether to run for mayor for several months now. It seemed as if some resolution might be coming late last week, when he named himself his own campaign treasurer. However, next to "Office Sought," Levy wrote "Mayor, City of Austin (not a candidate)," cementing him still in exploratory purgatory. For a man so keen on response times, the whole thing's stuck in first gear. Levy says he wasn't even sure he needed to file, "but as long as I'm considering the possibility and spending over $500 in a deliberative and methodical process, I figured I'd continue to try to remain a Boy Scout and just file. ... I'm definitely not a 'candidate' for anything, just an ordinary citizen exploring a possibility."

Meanwhile, the declared candidates are accelerating rapidly even in these early weeks of the race. On Tuesday, eager to make up for lost time, Lee Leffing­well, barely a week into his official campaign, announced the endorsement of the Austin Police Association and the Austin Firefighters Association. Lauding Leffingwell as "the son of a firefighter who later became a sheriff's deputy," AFA President Stephen Truesdell said the candidate is "always willing to listen to our issues"; APA President Wayne Vincent similarly described Leffingwell as listening closely to his constituents, particularly with regard to "maintaining adequate resources." The candidate himself described public safety as "consistently the top concern of Austin citizens" and promised the "best equipment, best training, and most importantly, the best people" in the departments' ranks – all of which, of course, cost money.

Public-safety spending, which in the last budget claimed 65% of the city's expenditures, has long been a political hot potato, even if the go-along-to-get-along council members of recent years haven't drawn any real distinctions among themselves over funding. Before the press conference even got under way, mayor pro tem and rival candidate Brewster McCracken stated: "Ensuring the public's safety is one of the Austin City Council's most basic responsibilities, and making sure the public-safety union contracts are fiscally responsible is equally important. While the public-safety unions and I have disagreed on budget issues, I deeply value their members' commitment to our community. As Austin's mayor, I pledge that I will remain independent in tackling our city's budget challenges, and I will be fair to Austinites and all city employees." In response, the Leffingwell camp notes that both council members have voted identically on every common budget.

Pursuing the subject, Leffingwell said he hoped to identify "some efficiencies here, some efficiencies there" in the budget – citing, for instance, an overallowance for fleet fueling, estimated when gas prices were higher, which he thought might save as much as $8 million – but said he's "not going to make any cuts that reduce the levels of service [Police and Fire] provide." As for the promptness of the endorsement – made while Levy continues to mull – Truesdell said, "We need someone we already know, someone we know can be mayor," admitting that the union had held a formal conversation only with Leffingwell. "These are not unknown folks," echoed Vincent. Well, Levy can still hope for an emergency endorsement from the union at EMS.

Meanwhile, She Who Must Be Remembered (Carole Keeton Strayhorn) held a Dickensian budget presser Monday, claiming the poor folks in the Northwest just can't get by after the city bleeds them dry. And just because some of Austin's heavier-hitting political organizations have already weighed in doesn't mean there won't be plenty of time for petty quibbling between the Leffingwell and McCracken camps. The latest round started in earnest with a press release trumpeting McCracken's website relaunch, among other things: "You may have heard that both of Brewster's opponents have chosen to run on the John McCain campaign message: 'a steady hand in troubled times.' Brewster believes we need to expect more of Austin's next mayor than simply trying to hunker down and weather the storm for a few years." Leffingwell adviser Mark Nathan responded that it wasn't "well-intentioned or accurate for the McCracken campaign to compare Lee Leffingwell to John McCain," especially the week of the president's inauguration. Nathan also touts the presence of J.D. Gins, the Obama field director, with the campaign, along with several other Obama-boosting Central Texas Dems. Just as the House Republicans are already testing Obama, trying to gut the Democratic stimulus bill in the name of "bipartisanship," we're in for a long slog ourselves until May.

Yes we can?

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City Councilmunicipal election, City Council, election, Lee Leffingwell, Brewster McCracken

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