The Austin Chronicle

City Hall Hustle: Budget and the Thin Blue Lines

How to pay for cops ... and their mistakes

By Wells Dunbar, July 23, 2010, News

City Council's return to the dais is still a week away – but we're already receiving a preview, deeper than any draft agenda, of what's coming to the dais.

While they convene their first full meeting Thursday, July 29, the fun actually begins the day before, July 28, when they'll be briefed on City Manager Marc Ott's proposed budget – a starting point for setting property taxes and prioritizing services that council can quibble over for the next month until the budget's approved in September. (For a broader look at the budget in context, see "Taking Budget Mountain by Strategy.")

The fiscal preamble actually began last week, with the release of results from the city's online voting, which asked citizens to rank service reductions and add-backs to city departments. The results are, to put it very politely, intriguing.

Some are simply of no help whatsoever. The second most popular proposed cut, with 1,617 votes, was "Eliminate funding for F1 Race." But back on Racetrack Earth, the Formula One racing proposal doesn't have a single city cent appropriated for it; so far, the only subsidy being discussed is some $25 million in the state's Major Events Trust Fund.

Other recommendations seemingly cancel one another out. The top two add-backs propose swelling the police force: Garnering first place was a call to add 35 new police officers (2,273 votes), while in second place was a proposal to add 100 new cops over two years, a charge echoed by members of the Public Safety Commission in a full-page Statesman advertisement a few weeks ago. ("THIS WILL GET US CLOSER TOO WHAT CHIEF ACEVEDO WANTS," reads a comment from the excitable citizen who proposed the program.)

Simultaneously, highly ranked in the opposite column of reductions are proposals to "Reduce sworn overtime by $1,200,000" (1,201 votes, sixth most popular) and "Limit the maximum annual pay out to any patrol officer to $80,000 per year" (1,120 votes, eighth most popular). Considering the overtime is ostensibly earmarked for targeted patrol of high-crime "hot spots," can anyone argue with a straight face that it's better to flood the streets with recruits fresh out of the academy than pay to have more seasoned police prioritize specific areas that need the most help?

Amid the ideologically motivated posts, potential ballot stuffing, and contradictory winners, the results create so much static, it's difficult to tell if other high-ranked results – including much-needed add-backs to the strained library system – genuinely reflect a groundswell of support. Moreover, it illustrates the real lack of options in public safety funding: struggling to make payroll with the police we have now while the Acevedo groupies clamor that we need even more badges.

Settlement or 'Surrender'?

Speaking of which, any dreams that a proposed settlement between the city and the family of Nathaniel San­ders II might bring some closure to the long-running story are in for a rude awakening. The staff-proposed $750,000 settlement with the Sanders family is opposed by the police union (whose interests, understandably, lie first and foremost with their members); Austin Police Association Pres­ident Sgt. Wayne Vincent wrote to council saying, "We were all taken by surprise in learning this surrender was being considered." (For more, see "Police Union to City: Stand Up and Fight.")

However, it's looking less than certain that a majority of council will be on board with the settlement as well, headed to the July 29 meeting for a closed-door executive session and vote. Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez opened the floodgates this week, issuing a statement declaring, "After much thought, it is my belief we should reject the settlement offer recommended by staff." Noting that the "rules of a civil trial permit a broader set of information being available for the court and the public," he continues, "Such a trial would fully vet all of the information that bears on those events that culminated on May 11, 2009 as well as actions that followed." He also argues that "the City should hire an outside lawyer not connected by previous actions of APD, its internal affairs department, the city administration, the Police Review Board, the KeyPoint review or the Travis County District Attorney's offices."

"It could just be the culmination of a yearlong event," Martinez elaborated earlier this week to the Hustle. "It started in the community and ends in the community with a community-based decision of a jury," he continued, also noting that "a settlement is going to gag everyone" (an argument similar to one posited by Vincent). While it remains to be seen what else could be drawn out of a trial, considering the post-David Smith about-face on transparency – which introduced California Highway Patrol Lt. Paul Gol­on­ski's hysterical deconstruction of the KeyPoint report into the mix – at this point, would anyone else be surprised at additional discoveries after draining the swamp? With Martinez opposed to settlement – and fellow colleagues, including the mayor, voicing similar concerns in the media – we may well still find out.

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