City Budget: What to Cut?
City Manager Marc Ott delivered a budget development update to City Council this week – a memo outlining some $28.5 million in potential cuts. With a deficit estimated between $11 million and $28 million, dependent on the property tax rate council selects, Ott presented a "menu" of 39 reductions predicated on last fiscal year's round of proposed cuts, totaling $9.3 million. Also included was a list of "unmet service demands" – previously allocated funding for programs and council priorities not yet implemented – totaling $19.2 million and 197.5 new positions. Reductions include suspending the Trail of Lights, eliminating co-sponsorship of special events, reducing pool and library hours, delaying the 2011 police cadet class one year, and converting two fire engines to medical response units. Unmet service demands include cuts to parks and pools maintenance, police positions, council's "four person staffing" resolution on fire engines, Code Compliance, internal departments like Human Resources, and more. The city's first public budget forum will be 6pm Tuesday, June 15, at the Austin Convention Center; submit feedback online at www.cityofaustin.org/citymgr/budget_input.htm. – W.D.
City Budget: What to Add?
Austin's Public Safety Commission passed a motion on June 7 recommending that the city increase staffing in all three public safety departments, which may be at odds with City Manager Marc Ott's belt-tightening mantra (see above). With fiscal concerns in mind, commissioners are recommending that the city hire 100 officers over the next fiscal year, starting with 50 by March 1, 2011. Adding the additional officers would "meet immediate needs," Commissioner Mike Levy told the panel. (According to preliminary crime stats released in April, Austin saw an uptick in crime in 2009, led by a 7.2% increase in property crimes.) The commission emphasized that the city should be aware that up to 400 additional officers may be needed over the next three to four years. It also recommended that the city provide 24-hour staffing for EMS stations at Harris Branch and Harris Ridge. For the Austin Fire Department, the commission recommended adding one new Hazardous Materials/Special Operations unit per year for the next three years, along with the six additional firefighters it would take to staff each new unit. Moreover, AFD needs to add at least one additional firefighter a year for as many years as it takes to make sure there is four-person staffing on existing units. To do that, 15 additional firefighters will be needed. – Jordan Smith
Smile: You're on Crime Camera
In other public safety news, APD Assistant Chief Al Eells told the Public Safety Commission on Monday that all is on track to get new crime surveillance cameras up and running by the end of the year. Right now police say they have community support for cameras to be placed somewhere in the area of Rundberg and I-35 and in the Downtown area. Exact locations are unknown, but previous talk of putting cameras at 12th and Chicon has apparently petered out for now. Eells said a Public Safety Camera Advisory Board – made up of police, lawyers, and tech folks – will oversee the project; Eells said he hopes to get a draft policy covering camera usage to Chief Art Acevedo by the end of June. Not surprisingly, not everyone is thrilled by the camera plan: John Bush of Texans for Accountable Government noted that federal studies of their efficacy is mixed at best. Like Debbie Russell of the Austin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, Bush also has concerns about the cameras infringing on individual privacy rights. While an individual might not have a right to privacy in public, argued Russell, there may be questions about the right to retain anonymity even in public spaces, of particular concern if the cameras will run facial recognition software. Police say they will continue to update the commission as the proposal progresses. – J.S.
Central Texas Cities Growing Up
No place in Central Texas wants to be a bedroom community anymore. Instead, cities now aspire to become complete "live-work-play" destinations – that was the common message delivered by several mayors of midsized cities at a regional mayors forum hosted June 8 by the Real Estate Council of Austin. "Building a city is not just about buildings; it's about people," said San Marcos Mayor Susan Narvaiz, who explained to the developer crowd that her city is adopting a form-based code, diversifying its housing, and implementing a downtown master plan. Cedar Park Mayor Bob Lemon said his city is adding "two pillars of being a destination city": the Cedar Park Center for the Texas Stars hockey team and Schlitterbahn Cedar Park. Jeff Coleman, mayor of fast-growing Pflugerville, said his city's updated 20-year comprehensive plan for mixed-use growth should be adopted within 90 days, while Georgetown Mayor George Garver attested to the power of a historic town square and traditional neighborhoods, with older homes, to attract economic development. "We're looking for growth that's slow enough to manage effectively," he said. Round Rock Mayor Alan McGraw – who organized a Learning From Bigger Cities forum in February after hearing testimony from big city mayors in Washington, D.C., and thinking, "Oh crap, is that really what we have to look forward to?" – had this to add: "Focus on quality." (Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell missed the event, though he has been meeting with Central Texas mayors of late to discuss related connectivity issues.) – Katherine Gregor
Another Aftershock: APD Commander Resigns
The fallout from the May 2009 Austin Police shooting death of Nathaniel Sanders II appears to have claimed another victim with the abrupt resignation last week of Cmdr. Charles Johnson, who rewrote significant portions of the Internal Affairs investigation into the shooting by former Officer Leonardo Quintana. The commander's last day on the job was June 5.
Johnson was the supervisor over IA at the time of the shooting; during the arbitration hearing for former Detective Chris Dunn, who was fired for allegedly inserting his bias into the review of Quintana's actions during the shooting, Johnson testified that he had been concerned about a number of leading questions Dunn and other IA detectives had asked Quintana. Johnson said it was "clear to me early on" that the IA investigators believed that Quintana's "actions were not in violation of policy" and that the detectives conducted their investigation with that result in mind. Where Dunn and his fellow investigators, Lt. Shawn Harkin and Sgt. Andy Westbrook, saw no violations of policy, Johnson did. The IA investigators determined that Quintana had not violated policies related to tactics and training, but Johnson disagreed and rewrote the IA report, concluding that Quintana had failed to act in accordance with his training. (For more on Johnson's conclusions, see "Uncoordinated and Exposed," April 30.)
Why Johnson decided to retire last week is unclear, but sources have suggested that he might have been under pressure to do so because of testimony he gave at Dunn's hearing in April. Johnson testified that he thought not only had Dunn demonstrated bias, but that Harkin, the lead IA investigator on the case, had also injected preconceived notions into the inquiry. Although policy would require Johnson to report his concerns, he told Dunn's attorney that he never said anything to Chief Art Acevedo because he knew Harkin was set to retire. – J.S.
City Close to Naming Sustainability Chief
By the time the public met the city's chief sustainability officer candidates at a meet-and-greet last Thursday, only four finalists were left standing. Semifinalist Brandi Clark Burton took herself out of the running, citing a desire to focus on her family. City Manager Marc Ott and Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards conducted final interviews on Friday, and Ott indicated he'd make a pick that same day – so the offer is probably already out. The CSO is expected to be named within two weeks. The finalists:
Lucia Athens, a senior strategist for CollinsWoerman, a Seattle-based architecture, planning, and interior design firm. She has a master's degree from UT-Austin, helped develop the city of Austin Green Builder Program, led the city of Seattle's green-building program for 10 years, and recently authored the book Building an Emerald City.
Matt Watson, energy policy specialist, Environmental Defense Fund, Washington, D.C. He was aide to former Mayor Will Wynn, with major responsibilities for the Austin Climate Protection Plan and other environmental and sustainability initiatives.
Dennis Murphey, chief environmental officer, city of Kansas City, Mo.
Beth Pratt, director of environmental affairs, Xanterra Parks & Resorts at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. – K.G.