City Manager Presents $4.5 Billion City Budget

2021-22 FY proposal earmarks funds for police, parks, homelessness response

City Manager Spencer Cronk presents the city budget (Photo by John Anderson)

City Manager Spencer Cronk has proposed a $4.5 billion budget for the city of Austin's 2021-22 fiscal year that allocates $1.2 billion in spending on General Fund programs, like police, parks, and homelessness response. The proposed budget calls for a 3.5% property tax increase, which will not trigger the state law that requires voters to approve tax increases above a certain threshold.

Following the drama that marked last year's budget season, Cronk's proposal is relatively boring. In accordance with new laws signed by Gov. Greg Abbott that punish municipalities that reduce spending on law enforcement agencies, the Austin Police Department's proposed budget for FY 21-22 comes in at around $443 million, which is about $8 million more than what was in the FY 2019-20 budget.

"Be assured that our FY 2021-22 budget proposal is fully compliant with the requirements of the new law," Cronk said July 9 as he presented the budget. "At the same time, you can be confident that we will not abandon our commitment to reimagining public safety, so that every single person in our community feels safe in their home and neighborhood."

Last year, City Council approved a budget that reduced APD's operating budget to about $310 million, marking the launch of a multiyear plan to "reimagine public safety" following a tumultuous summer of protests over police brutality in Austin and around the nation. But the lack of significant outrage surrounding the "re-funding" of APD reflects the true nature of Council's budget vote last year – it was more of an accounting trick than a real reduction in police spending.

In reality, the actual cut amount was about $20 million – not the $130 million figure trumpeted by progressives as a sign of victory and shrieked by conservatives as evidence that Austin liberals were ruining the city. APD functions that account for the $130 million – most notably the Forensics Department and the 911 call center – were not eliminated, they were just removed as line items from the APD budget and tacked onto other departments.

Now, Cronk is proposing to merely move those functions back into APD's budget. Criminal justice advocates, however, are pressing Council to apply for waivers under House Bill 1900, one of the laws that punishes cities for reducing police spending, so that forensics and 911 can remain "decoupled" from APD. Spinning forensics out of APD represents a rare agreement between criminal justice advocates and the Austin Police Association, so it's possible the waiver might be submitted. But its approval would be left to the Office of the Governor's Criminal Justice Division – whose director is an Abbott appointee – so chances of that approval are unclear.

But justice reformers and police backers will certainly clash over funding for the 1,809 police officers included in the CM's budget; there are currently about 1,000 officers at APD, so the department would have around 800 vacant positions. Some of the funding allocated for sworn personnel is instead used to pay officers overtime. The budget also includes funding for two cadet classes at the Austin Police Academy, but the police union is already pushing for a third class.

Spending on homelessness response continues at the "historic" levels established in the FY 19-20 budget, with $65.2 million spread across 13 city departments working to reduce homelessness and manage the public spaces shared between housed and unhoused residents.

As we reported last week, the city and its partners are preparing to give the system a massive funding injection using the one-time funds made available through the American Rescue Plan Act. The money allocated in the city's General Fund budget is separate; it will go toward ongoing operations like street-level outreach, shelter operations, case management services, and housing subsidies.

The city has begun accepting feedback on the budget and Council members are already crafting their own amendments. Final adoption is scheduled for Aug. 11. Expect more coverage from the Chronicle in the coming weeks.

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