Q&A With City Manager Spencer Cronk
In his first sit-down interview with the Chronicle, Austin's CM discusses public safety, the budget, and next steps
On July 14, City Manager Spencer Cronk sat down (virtually of course) with News Editor Mike Clark-Madison and City Hall reporter Austin Sanders for his first Chronicle interview. We discussed Cronk's proposed fiscal year 2021 budget, reimagining public safety, the impact of COVID-19, and the city's ongoing efforts to end homelessness. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Austin Chronicle: Starting with public safety – you didn't have much time to prepare in this budget a response to the events of early June and the Council resolutions. At this point, could you commit to a more defined timeline for your "reimagining" process, or a funding target for the end of that process, before budget adoption? Or is that not the right thing to do at this point?
Spencer Cronk: We've assembled a core team within the city enterprise and we're talking to a number of stakeholders to establish that advisory group which will meet for the first time – kind of a trial run – before the end of the month. That will give us some indication of how much input might be needed for our first recommendations. I've definitely thought about making sure we have at least some budget amendments before the end of the calendar year. Based on the input these stakeholders will be giving us on the areas we outlined – whether it's dispatch or victim services or the forensic lab – within a handful of months we can see what that future state looks like, and how that impacts the budget going forward.
I've characterized this as a budget snapshot in time – we can only do what we can with the information we have at this moment. The two crises – the pandemic and safety – are very much evolutions; we need to continue to adapt and adjust in an ongoing way. Unlike previous years where it does feel like there's one annual budget that we don't touch throughout the year – that playbook is just out the door. We just have to think differently and allow ourselves space for multiple budget amendments throughout the year.
AC: The deliberate co-creation process that you've laid out will help create lasting change in how we do safety, rather than just responding to this moment. Having said that, if Council asks for more cuts to APD's budget, what would your response be?
SC: That's always the process, but I think it will be important to know the impacts of those cuts, so we can appropriately set expectations with our community. I don't want to have any illusions that making cuts wouldn't result in a decrease in services. Maybe that's okay, but we just have to be very clear about what that looks like. So a thoughtful, deliberative discussion about the impact of any future cuts will be an important part of the conversation.
I also hear that we can just move some of those functions outside APD. That's somewhat a process issue, but it's not changing the substantive dialogue that we want about the purpose of those departments, what those functions would be going forward. Is that really changing how we're providing those services, just because they're outside of the department?
AC: How much of this work has already been done by advocates, or by city programs like the Office of Police Oversight? At the public input sessions for this budget, if advocates come in and say, "No, we already told you to cut $100 million or $200 million," is that helpful? What's the best way for people who are not just committed but also schooled on these issues to contribute right now?
SC: Part of these initial discussions [with stakeholders] is level-setting and seeing what is really the low-hanging fruit – where is there community consensus on a better, more just, more equitable path for this type of service? But we just haven't gotten that type of feedback and involved the appropriate stakeholders. For example, the forensics lab is one where I think there's a lot of momentum for moving that outside of the department. But we haven't nailed down what that governance structure would look like, whether it's outside the city [organization], who will be overseeing it, would it require additional funding. I just want to know all the answers before bringing forward a budget amendment.
But that could be done in relatively short order. Some things that have been discussed, where there has been a lot of input, don't need a lot more engagement; there is momentum and we already know what the future state looks like. But there are some logistics or even labor issues around how these employees will be doing their jobs in the future and what that might mean for either the current contract or for civil service roles. We have to just work through all that.
AC: There's such a huge gap between the $100 million or $200 million reduction advocates have been calling for and the $8 million that's in the proposed budget. Even with a timeline for the end of the year, how do you plan to navigate that when tension in the community is already so high with this sense of inaction?
SC: We basically had about 10 days between the Council resolutions and needing to finalize this proposal, so it is just one step, and I've been transparent about that, because the cries from the community are so strong that we need to completely reimagine how we're doing public safety in Austin. What we were able to do was a good faith effort. Based on what was outlined in the resolutions, I think that we accomplished much of that and tried to make sure everything was at least addressed in some way.
But "what public safety needs to be" for the city of Austin is a topic that requires some additional discussion, not only with advocates but with all members of our community. We all have different ideas and different perspectives, and we need to build the trust and have the accountability that we need for the future. That type of dialogue with our residents needs to happen, and we just haven't had the time to do that. Hopefully there's enough buy-in around how we're going to move forward and the fact that we put all our ideas on the table – some of which could be sacred cows, like IA [Internal Affairs], or even the governance of the police department. What would a civilian police commission look like? Other cities have that; is that something Austin wants to explore? There may be a lot of research and ideas, but we need to make sure there's a common understanding. We can say something makes sense, but that has to be co-created with community voices, and we have to recognize and lift up even higher those who are most disproportionately impacted by our public safety institutions. Those voices need to be at the center of the table.
AC: Looking at what was outlined in the Council resolution, what in your mind are the big outstanding items to be addressed?
SC: We won't know until we get further in the process. The resolutions talk about things like audits of the department and reviewing the General Orders – things that require some work, and I don't know what will result from that work. We were able to put in resources to start to address those questions, but we don't know what will play out from that, and if we're resourced appropriately to be able to respond.
AC: You mentioned a civilian police commission, and a big question about reimagining public safety is what department leadership will look like. The resolutions say the whole Council has no confidence in current public safety leadership. Are you expecting to examine that question? There are a lot of ideas going around.
SC: Yes, that's why we put it on the table, and I encourage our community to make sure that all those ideas are out there, and that we can have a robust discussion around what that structure looks like going forward.
AC: Part of reallocating funds from APD is knowing if there's capacity at the other end to actually use them. Simply moving functions out of the department sounds attractive and easy, but are the receiving departments – whether it is Austin Public Health or EMS or the city's partners at Integral Care – ready to pick up that slack at the scale that advocates are calling for?
SC: I'm confident that's the case with the proposals we put forward; we have the resources and bandwidth in those departments to accommodate increases in our EMCOT program [Extended/Mobile Crisis Outreach Team] and, with our mental health services, the full implementation of the Meadows report. But more broadly, again, we don't know what we don't know yet – if we have the appropriate structure in place to accommodate what that future state looks like or what our community expects from public safety. I know there's a lot of expectations for other services to be revamped or redefined, and I'll be honest, I think a lot of those may end up outside the city government; they could be more appropriate for a nonprofit or community organization, or some other entity. And we have to work with those entities to make sure they can accommodate additional requests or calls for service. It is in the weeds, but those are the things that I'm looking forward to having the groups really work on, and then recommend to us the governance, the resources needed, how that service looks moving forward.
AC: Moving from that to COVID-19: You have all this money that you're spending now from relief grant funds that mostly needs to be spent this calendar year. How is that interacting with your budgeting and programming for those services? And have the city's operations changed, or gotten better, after pushing this $250 million through the pipeline?
SC: We think the framework that Council approved contains the appropriate buckets, if you will, for spending the money. And we have enough flexibility from the federal government to be creative and think about using those resources in different ways. Some of that is direct assistance to our residents. Some of that is redoubling our own efforts to reallocate and repurpose our existing resources that are specifically focused on COVID. We're hopeful that we will get out of this, and when we do, individuals will be able to focus on their original jobs and provide those services in a different way.
But one thing that I don't want to lose in this moment, not just with public safety but also COVID, is the opportunity we've had to think very differently about how the city provides services. We are doing so much more work remotely, serving residents and customers in a different way. We are thinking in a much more flexible and adaptable manner than what we had been used to. So I think we will come out of this stronger, more resilient, and more productive. I know that we have learned a lot of lessons from this that we can continue to take advantage of going forward.
AC: In a worst-case scenario, we're still in either pandemic conditions or recession conditions come January of 2021 and there's no federal funding left. What strategies would be available to ease that transition?
SC: In that scenario I think all options need to be on the table – reducing the services that we provide, cutting back on how frequently we do things for the community. We'd need to tap into our reserves. But I would anticipate that we wouldn't be alone in that challenge. Even if we weren't getting federal funding, we will see how other communities are also trying to accommodate their constituents' expectations and needs.
But we will need to have a much more sober discussion with our community about what their expectations for services from city government will be in that scenario. I hope that we're not in that position, but I certainly am starting those discussions with our staff. We've been fortunate; we haven't had to furlough employees and just thinking about, you know, if we don't get any more resources to help shoulder this and we'll continue to say that you're fortunate because we, we haven't had to furlough employees or cut FTEs or reduce the type of services that our community expects. That is happening in other cities, and I've gotten feedback from my colleagues about how they're dealing with that – what kind of communication and outreach they're doing with their residents. We can take some lessons from that.
AC: Moving on to the tax rate. The budget was drafted assuming there would be a 3.5% property tax revenue cap this year, as the Legislature adopted in 2019. But because of COVID-19, the city is allowed to raise that cap back to 8% during the emergency. What happens if Council wants to do that?
SC: I knew these were going to be tight times; we were going to be asking a lot of our residents anyway, and they are already feeling financial strain. I was hopeful that we could still present a budget at 3.5%. We never created another scenario; there isn't an 8% plan on the shelf.
AC: If Council were interested in going to 8%, could you bank that extra revenue in reserves – to address falling off the COVID-19 funding cliff in January, or to fill in for things like parking revenue that are just gone, with no way to get them back?
SC: That would certainly be my preference. If there was a decision by Council to go above 3.5%, I would provide that recommendation. But it's up to them.
AC: In your transmittal message, you said very clearly that Council should feel free to move forward with Project Connect. Are there any caveats there given the budget outlook, or could they, if they wanted to, go ahead and call an election tomorrow? (That election could involve ratifying a separate property tax rate to support transit.)
SC: This is a once-in-a-generation chance to talk about transit investments. There's been a lot of work that's gone into that and that is ongoing. It's really important that our voters and residents weigh in. These next three weeks are going to be very critical; some important decisions will be discussed before the end of the month.
AC: With this budget, the Housing and Planning departments are being merged, and Development Services is preparing to move into its new space with the one-stop shop. Homelessness services are going to be based at Austin Public Health; what steps is the city taking to maintain the momentum toward ending homelessness that was such a big part of last year's budget?
SC: One thing that I value about the team that I've assembled is its orientation toward collaboration; whether through the work on the Land Development Code, or the police contracts, or crises like flooding and the boil-water notice, we've seen all these different departments come together in a very collaborative way.
Homelessness is another example of not just having one area own this, knowing that so many different parts of the city [government] are part of addressing this in a comprehensive way. And we need to include our stakeholders: service providers, philanthropy, and others that need to be at the table. We felt like the appropriate home was in Public Health, but I'm confident we won't lose the strong connections to Housing or the other services that need to be provided for people experiencing homelessness. This is cliche, but the idea of breaking down silos and making sure that people feel comfortable talking to each other and working together across departments – I've seen that play out because of the people that were hired at the executive level.
AC: Last year, there was a lot of hubbub on Council on how much direction to provide to staff on strategies to reduce homelessness. It seems like that's settled. So can you give an update on how the city is progressing?
SC: I think we have a common understanding about our path forward, working with our service providers and really leaning into our partnership with ECHO [the End Community Homelessness Coalition]. We've homed in on the need for more permanent supportive housing and gotten buy-in from the providers and then Council to go after this motel strategy; we need to get these additional units. Even during the pandemic, with some of the facilities we've stood up for people experiencing homelessness [the so-called Protective Lodges], there's a lease purchase option that potentially moves us along that path. I think there's always going to be additional need. Housing has earmarked about $30 million from the 2018 bond for additional [PSH] units. So when opportunities arise we're ready to take advantage. But I also know that if I just buy 500 more units, I need to be able to resource them and have an operations team in place. We're never moving as fast as people want us to, but I do think that we're heading in the right direction and that we have a broader consensus around that strategy.