Point Austin: Three Cheers for Spelman
Council member makes his final pitch for sane police spending
The dust hasn't settled yet on the City Council's FY 2015 budget deliberations, and it's too early to draw large conclusions. The city is bigger, the budget is larger, and prosperity comes with a price tag – rising population coupled with rising equity in our houses translates to a higher property tax sting (even as the rate continued to decline). As I wrote elsewhere ("City Council: All This, and Bull Creek Too," Sept. 12), Council's two days of budget adoption discussions had a partly arithmetical, partly theatrical quality, as the members worked diligently through their budget adjustments and Mayor Lee Leffingwell repeated his pattern of the last couple of years of objecting to any additional spending, preferring instead to apply any perceived overage (a bookkeeping phenomenon in any case) to lowering the tax rate. Finally, he voted against the entire budget on the same grounds, and lost that vote as well, 6-1.
Leffingwell won on one vote, however, and that was Council Member Bill Spelman's annual attempt to rein in (to a degree) the growth of the Austin Police Department budget. The APD was requesting 59 new officers (along with 38 additional civilian support staff). Spelman proposed that the request be reduced to the 46 officers expected to be assigned to actual patrol work. He pointed out that based on the department's own data, the overall workload on officers had not increased sufficiently to justify all 59 hires (the original request, in the spring, had been for 126). Chief Art Acevedo stepped forward to defend the request, and only CM Laura Morrison chose to support Spelman – making the simple point that, if some of that funding could be redirected to social services and crime prevention measures, perhaps the need for future police officers might not be as great.
The mayor duly weighed in on the "sacred duty" of city officials to preserve public safety at all costs (a question not actually in dispute), and nobody else joined Spelman and Morrison; the motion was defeated, 5-2.
I spoke to Spelman afterward, and he was characteristically resigned about the outcome, adding that he is gratified that the APD budget is no longer tied by Council policy to a "2.0 officers per thousand residents" ratio. "Now they have to justify their budget, just like all the other departments," he said. "They just don't have to justify it as well." Spelman might have added: that's in large part due to his dogged attention to the subject over the last several years (see "Point Austin: Finding the Right Ratio," Aug. 23, 2013). He's actually a published authority on the subject of police staffing – his longtime research interest at UT's LBJ School and elsewhere, including on behalf of police departments – and he hastened to add that he "strongly supports" the police department and believes that APD "person to person ... has the best cops in the United States. We just have too many of them."
He also noted the obvious about Tuesday's vote – four incumbent Council members are running either for mayor or re-election – and that they would be inviting a campaign pummeling if they could be portrayed as "voting against public safety." He and Morrison are stepping down in January, so it is undoubtedly easier for them right now to question police funding – but the two of them have carried this burden before, and they should be thanked for persisting to the end at this generally thankless task.
Spelman also acknowledged that his perspective on police staffing represents a minority view, and not only on Council. Leffingwell is right that "public safety" routinely polls as Austinites' highest priority, both in general and on the survey of residents city staff annually brings to the dais. As we approach the fall election, I've spent enough time watching candidate forums to know that there remains fervent public support both to cut taxes and to hire more police officers – with candidates (and voters) apparently seeing no contradiction in the two positions.
Yet "public safety" (police, fire, EMS) will consume 70% of next year's $854 million GF budget (even excluding municipal courts), with APD alone representing 42%. Parks and libraries (generally cut first in lean times) together consume 13%; and Health and Human Services (contributing at least partly to "public safety") is another 6%. That's quite nearly everything – and it also bears emphasis that the public safety portion continues to grow, a trend that is literally unsustainable.
Unless, of course, we're prepared eventually to spend our money on police, fire, and emergency services, and nothing else. Failing that, Spelman's hoping that come 2015, at least some of the incoming Council members will realize that while public safety might be a sacred public obligation, public safety spending is not necessarily a sacred cow. If he has indeed succeeded, as a Council member, in keeping that conversation open and open-minded, he will have done Austin an irreplaceable service.
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