The Austin Chronicle

Council: Public Safety & Their People

Fire stations, police officers, and the money assigned to both

By Nina Hernandez, June 1, 2018, News

Two years ago, a city study identified five parts of the town that needed a fire station, and it shouldn't come as a surprise that we're no closer to getting construction started on them. At least that was true until last Thursday, when City Council approved a resolution directing the city manager to devise a plan to establish interim stations in the two most in-need areas, and to also propose a plan for funding permanent stations as quickly as possible.

Travis Country, Loop 360, Goodnight Ranch, Moore's Crossing, and Canyon Creek are all in need of fire coverage. Response times in those areas don't meet the standards of the Austin Fire Depart­ment, which could put the city at risk of disannexation lawsuits. That's not a liability the city wants to be dealing with, but there's unavoidable delay in getting new stations established; the process can take several years. That's why Delia Garza has championed temporary stations – running about $1-2 million a pop – in Travis Country and Moore's Crossing. There's no guarantee that will happen with the current budget, but it's an improvement that would go a long way toward providing relief to residents in those under-covered areas who incur public safety risks and escalating insurance premiums because response times are so slow.

But the discussion couldn't go on without the usual push-and-pull. Alison Alter argued for a language change that would ask staff to look at the feasibility of putting interim stations at all five at-risk areas, which frustrated Garza, since Alter had just the previous week questioned whether building any interim stations at all would drain resources and ultimately keep the city from building permanent ones. Garza said her original language didn't bar the city manager from looking at providing interim stations to all five locations. However, "The information I've gotten from staff is there's no way they can do the two, so I don't see how it could be reasonable to even think that [City Manager Spencer Cronk] could bring back five temporary station options and there be funding for it," Garza said.

A city spokesperson said Mayor Steve Adler issued Cronk an informal direction to look at a minimum of two interim stations, but to consider that option for all five areas, if possible. Any action will depend on the outcome of the approved plan, before Council in the middle of June. If the city believes it can begin construction on permanent stations within a couple of years (unlikely!), it'll ditch the interim plans altogether and go for more stable brick-and-mortar.

Specialty Pay Strife Continues

Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday has spent the past couple of weeks chiding the city for being "punitive" and not further extending the specialty pay provisions City Council afforded to officers in January. Officers lost those benefits when the meet-and-confer terms Casaday's union agreed to with the city expired. "It truly shows you how much they appreciate the police department," Casaday said, "which is not much at all."

The reason officers aren't currently receiving that "soft pay" isn't because the city declined to offer to extend it. In April, the city's Labor Relations Office put a deal on the table to restore those benefits and give officers a marginal lump sum pay increase. But the APA didn't take the offer because it also included a sick pay reform that they felt constituted a pay cut. As Council's original extension ticked away, Cronk told Casaday by phone that because the union hadn't taken the interim deal, soft pay wouldn't be extended.

Casaday said the decision furthered his belief that Council views APD as a "necessary evil," but members appear unmoved by the rhetoric. Last week Alter, Jimmy Flanni­gan, Ora Houston, Ann Kitchen, and Ellen Troxclair sent out a letter saying they were "very disappointed that the APA declined this offer, effectively denying these benefits to our officers for the foreseeable future," and welcoming the opportunity to continue "good faith negotiations towards a permanent contract that best serves our city." The city and APA don't currently have any upcoming meetings posted to the city clerk.

Time's Up on Manley Process

Today marks the end of the public comment period concerning Brian Manley's candidacy as the permanent chief of Austin Police. After two public interviews – both broadcast on KLRU, ATXN, and social media – the city extended the originally scheduled feedback deadline to hear from more citizens. That's what will help Cronk decide if Manley's the, um, man for the job, or if we need to conduct a national search.

But it's possible the city may have already said its piece. Fewer than 200 people showed up in person to either forum, and only 6,200 watched on KLRU or its Facebook stream. More people show up to see bats fly out from under a bridge in any given summer week. Did citizens not care about the identity of their next chief altogether, or were they simply disinterested in the provided process?

Council’s next regular meeting is on June 14, but it does convene at 10am Saturday, June 2, for a special called meeting on CodeNEXT.

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