On Budget, Council Agrees to Disagree (Updated)
Spending plan includes $4.6 million in last-minute additions
With so much else on its horizon to vex and divide City Council (can you say land development code?), the special meeting to adopt the fiscal year 2020 city budget went down on Tuesday, Sept. 10, without too much fuss. The two power centers on the dais (captained by Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council Member Greg Casar at one pole, CMs Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen at the other) did end up agreeing to disagree, and also to wait and see, about priorities that will be more sharply contested in the future. In the middle, Mayor Steve Adler, as is his wont, sought consensus, and on the edge, CM Jimmy Flannigan – the lone vote against final adoption – continued to raise concerns about how fast Council aims to spend money in the shadow of next year's looming revenue cap.
In total, Council ended up spending $4.6 million more than had been proposed by City Manager Spencer Cronk in his $4.2 billion FY 2020 spending plan. About $2.5 million of that was offset by higher-than-estimated property tax revenues, which the city's master budgeteer Ed Van Eenoo and his team turned into various amendments; the rest came from Council rejecting Fire Chief Joel Baker's attempt to bump up his staffing with 27 new command technicians.
Baker was the odd man out among the city's public safety chiefs, as Cronk and Van Eenoo allocated much of their new cap space to increase funding, as called for by justice advocates, toward mental health first response – Community Health Paramedics in Emergency Medical Services, training and expert staffing for the 911 call center, and expanding the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team, which works out of the Downtown Austin Community Court. What staff did not do was reduce the budget's appropriation for 30 new police officers to fund these enhancements, which is what the coalition of advocates led by Just Liberty, the Austin Justice Coalition, and others wanted, for policy as well as fiscal reasons: "We still do not know that we need these new officers, or what the 'community policing' work exactly is that we expect them to do," they wrote in a letter to Council on Sept. 5. *
Garza and Casar were unsuccessful in their effort to reduce the new officer positions by four, with Casar noting the city is "trying to get to certain outcomes, not to certain numbers" in community safety. Police Chief Brian Manley acknowledged that APD will likely not hire any new officers in FY 2020, but insisted that he needs the money to pay overtime and the positions on the books to recruit the next cadet class. On his side, the Greater Austin Crime Commission applauded Council's standing firm; president Pete Winstead, echoing Manley, said in a statement that "growth is the No. 1 public safety issue in Austin." This battle will surely continue. *
Other Budget Day largesse included raising pay for the city's open-water lifeguards and more funding for encampment cleanups, abortion support (also championed by Casar and Garza), outreach to ensure a complete count of Austinites in next year's census (an Adler priority), and wildfire mitigation (where CM Alison Alter took point, as her District 10 includes much of the city's interface with the Hill Country). "The budget Council has approved is responsible, innovative and focused on equitable solutions," said Adler in a statement Wednesday morning.
Update: After the adoption of the budget on Sept. 10, advocates acknowledged their success and thanked the council for the mental health first-response funding, as summarized by Just Liberty's Scott Henson at his blog, deferring the staffing conversation for now. Also after the budget adoption, the Chronicle received the following extended statement from the GACC's Winstead: “The Greater Austin Crime Commission commends the Austin City Council’s commitment to public safety by adopting the city manager’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020, which includes 30 new police officers, 38 firefighters, 12 paramedics and additional resources for mental health first response. Growth is the most significant public safety challenge facing Austin. The city council’s support of a multi-year staffing plan is about building capacity to improve community policing, lower response times and reduce crime.”