The Austin Chronicle

Funding Public Safety?

The never-ending question

By Nina Hernandez, August 10, 2018, News

As usual, the city's three public safety entities make up the bulk of the General Fund. Between operating and capital budgets, the city will invest $1 billion into that strategic outcome. There is uncertainty in the form of two unratified meet-and-confer agreements with the labor unions representing the Austin Police Department and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services, but the proposed budget includes placeholders to account for the contracts if and when they are approved.

That's not all bad news, though: The contractual limbo has yielded some flexibility in this year's budget, due to the fact that compounding pay increases for the two departments are on hold with the contracts. That, along with the Austin Fire Department reining in its recent proclivity for excess overtime, freed up a few more million in funds.

Though some have called for as many as 50 new cops, the actual plan calls for APD to make space for 33 new police officers (six at the airport), 12 of which were approved but ultimately left unfunded in the last fiscal year. City Manager Spencer Cronk also proposes $119,000 for two new victim services counselors. "While this satisfies some of the immediate needs around community policing, it's critical that we secure a labor agreement before we make decisions about future staffing levels and how they may impact the budget," he said during his Monday presentation.

Despite being stuck in the doghouse last year for its overtime expenditures, AFD became the first – and only – department whose employee union ratified a meet-and-confer agreement this year. Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo said the relatively low wage increases in the five-year agreement – 0.5% in FY 2018-19 and 1% in FY 2020 – are due to Austin firefighters already being among the highest paid in the state. But that doesn't mean we aren't spending any significant dollars on Fire this cycle. The funding plan includes two new stations at Moore's Crossing and Travis Country – two neighborhoods on the outskirts of town that desperately need better coverage – plus personnel and equipment for the new Onion Creek station.

Since the 10-1 Council was sworn in in 2015, the city has increased public safety investment by a cool $107.6 million. That accounts for 85 new sworn positions for EMS and implementation of the 42-hour workweek for field medics; 68 new firefighters; and 83 new police officers. The money also paved the way for improved service delivery at EMS, an expedited timeline for the Moore's Crossing and Travis Country fire stations, as well as a fully staffed forensic lab at APD.

During today's regular meeting, Council plans to hear public input on the proposal before diving in themselves. More than likely, members will hear competing (and oh so familiar) testimony on whether to keep growing the police force or to divert any additional funds to Health & Human Ser­vices. It looks like neither camp will be able to claim a full-fledged victory – par for the course in this enduring philosophical disagreement.

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