Public Safety: A Growth Industry

As the city grows, so does the public safety budget

APD: Officers, detectives ... and a copter

Ninety-four percent of the Austin Police Department's revenue comes from the city's general fund (the rest from grants and miscellaneous), and the proposed 2012-13 budget for APD tops $301 million. That money primarily buys personnel – more than 1,700 sworn positions, and more than 600 civilian positions. In all, 57% of operating funds go toward the department's neighborhood-based policing efforts – including all patrol and traffic enforcement functions, among others – which currently involve roughly 1,240 sworn officers. In an effort to address population growth, the APD proposes adding an additional 22 patrol positions in 2013, for a start-up cost of $1.2 million (the budget also includes annualized costs for the 47 positions already added).

Also needed, says APD Chief of Staff David Carter, are detectives to beef up the department's investigative arm – particularly to bolster investigations of property-related crimes. To that end, the department is planning to add to the detective rank (via promotion) 10 current positions over the next budget year, for a cost of just under $200,000; the remaining 12 will be included in the 2013-14 budget.

In addition to the operating budget, the city plans to spend roughly $1 million next year to buy a new helicopter, to be used not only by APD, but also by the fire department and EMS. A new whirlybird has long been on Chief Art Acevedo's wish list, and after several years of lobbying, it looks like the deal is done. (Council previously voted to use $2.6 million in APD capital budget funds for a down payment on the new machine, expected to be delivered by September 2013.) The copter will be outfitted for "multi-mission capability," Acevedo told council – to aid the police by keeping them out of the way of traffic and other obstacles, to give firefighters the ability to douse conflagrations from above, and to allow EMS to drop paramedics into places they might not otherwise be able to reach.

EMS: Plugging the Gaps

Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Service paramedics work very hard – and next year's proposed city budget of $56 million (up 11% over the current budget) offers only minor relief. Specifically, the budget proposes adding six new paramedics to staff a "demand unit" – an ambulance operating 12 hours a day, housed in an already busy station, but able to move around the city to plug service gaps. As it stands, Medic 5, located at Lamar and Koenig, which the new demand unit will call home, is out on calls 70-80% of each shift, a workload that (as the EMS budget synopsis reads) "can be detrimental to paramedics and the patients they serve." When you factor in the paramedics still training to staff the new Mueller medic station (construction should be finished next month), EMS is understaffed by up to 50 paramedics, says Austin-Travis County EMS Association President Tony Marquardt. He continues to advocate for adding to the 2012-13 budget at least one additional demand unit – and six more paramedics – to be housed near Reagan High School, another area of town where the call load is particularly high.

AFD: Trying To Catch Fire

Chief among the highlights of the Austin Fire Department's proposed $144 million budget (roughly 96% of which comes from city general funds) is the addition of $5.1 million in grant money to train 36 new firefighters to achieve four-person staffing on every fire apparatus – a major advance that would allow the department to be more flexible in responding quickly to all manner of fire emergencies, says AFD Chief of Staff Harry Evans.

The department, however, is short an additional 76 positions according to Evans, and it has included $500,000 to cover overtime costs for current staff, and another $150,000 to backfill positions while cadets finish training. In all, two cadet classes – the grant-funded cadets and a second group of 40 – will move through training next year.

Nevertheless, it's what is not in the budget that worries Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks. He's among those advocating for $4.3 million in funding for a new departmental Wildfire Division, which would work to mitigate the city's wildfire risk, increasingly high in West and Northwest Aus­tin. For more on that, see "Wildfire Prevention Waiting for Ignition."

Municipal Courts: No Room at the Inn

The bulk of the work at Austin's municipal court involves class C misdemeanors (fine-only offenses, including traffic citations, city ordinance violations, and red light camera cases). The court expects that next year more than 340,000 new cases will be filed.

The total proposed budget for muni court operations comes to just under $18 million, and notable this year is an anticipated decrease of nearly $2.7 million in traffic fine revenue – based on a "significant" reduction in the number of tickets police have been filing with the court. Court Clerk Rebecca Stark says the current numbers are the lowest she's seen in 12 years – though Austin apparently isn't the only urban center that has seen a drop in traffic tickets. "Other large cities are seeing this too – but don't ask me why," she says, because she simply doesn't know. (The budget summary attributes the decrease to newer technology for confirming insurance and a shift in enforcement priorities.)

Stark will hold open several unfilled positions, but won't be eliminating them altogether. That may eventually help in a small way to reduce overcrowding at the Downtown court, built in 1953. The city has already used bond money to buy a tract on St. Johns at I-35 (formerly a Home Depot), but that's as far as things have gotten. The city is still evaluating the best use of the property, purchased in 2007 with the idea of locating there not only the muni court but also a new APD Northeast Substation – whether that's still in the cards remains to be seen.

Also, the Downtown Austin Community Court, which focuses on quality-of-life ordinance violations in a defined Downtown area, hopes to continue the success it has seen with its Targeted Case Management program for repeat offenders, to reduce (or eliminate) future run-ins with the justice system. The program has been effective for some clients and has successfully partnered with area organizations to get individuals into Foundation Communities housing units. It will add two case manager positions under this year's budget. The goal is to reduce repeat offenses by 72%.

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