Austin Police Funding Restored; Is It Too Much, or Not Enough?
The 2020 city budget finds itself coming full circle
Last July, as anger with the Austin Police Department washed over the city's budget deliberations, the big question was: How low can APD funding go? In this year's budget season, the script has been flipped back to what was asked in the 20 years prior: How much will APD's budget grow, in real terms, and is that too much or not enough?
City Manager Spencer Cronk proposes a $133 million year-over-year increase in APD funding in his fiscal year 2022 budget, but most of that growth is not "real"; it comes from returning civilian-driven departments, particularly Forensics and Emergency Communications (the combined 911 call center), to the APD budget from which they'd been "decoupled" in recent months. House Bill 1900, signed amid much ceremony by Gov. Greg Abbott on June 1, imposes financial penalties on cities that reduce police spending and for now has forced Cronk's hand.
Under that law – which takes effect Sept. 1, after the City Council adopts the budget in August but before FY 22 begins Oct. 1 – APD's budget this year has to be at least $432 million; otherwise, the state can siphon off Austin's sales tax revenue and prevent it from increasing property taxes or utility rates. The statute would also not only prevent Austin from annexing any territory until it made APD whole, but would require the city to hold disannexation elections in each area annexed in the last 30 years.
However, for all its "back the blue" theatrics, HB 1900 allows the governor's office to simply waive all these consequences should it choose. Some advocates, like Sukyi McMahon with the Austin Justice Coalition, hope that Council will push Cronk to seek a waiver, as the new law allows, so Forensics and Emergency Communications can remain decoupled. Such a waiver would also lower the threshold at which the city would have to fund APD in order to remain HB 1900-compliant in FY 23 and beyond.
McMahon said making those departments and their functions independent of the police was a victory for justice advocates and all Austinites. Survivors of sexual violence, wounded further by APD's egregious failures at its DNA crime lab, pushed with others to decouple Forensics and, over time, move it out of city government entirely as a stand-alone agency that would be better run and more trusted. Likewise, moving 911 dispatch from APD was called for in a 2019 report on how Austin could improve emergency response to mental crises; a decoupled department could better utilize alternatives to policing in such situations, including Emergency Medical Services and newly created mental health first response teams.
"The same arguments for removing those functions that made sense last year still make sense today," McMahon told us. "We shifted the way we thought about public safety last year thanks to a coalition of organizers and community members. We must hold on to that progress."
It Wouldn’t Hurt to Ask
As far as Forensics goes, McMahon and AJC are joined by the usual adversary of Austin's justice advocates, Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday. While he wants the 911 call center recoupled with APD – in his view, separating them in recent months has led to communication breakdowns already – Casaday has supported an independent Forensics Department since before the protests and crises of 2020, and he tells us he, too, would like Cronk to seek an HB 1900 waiver for that purpose. Regardless of where Forensics is budgeted, plans to organize it under civilian control outside the APD chain of command have not changed. (In the interim, the Texas Department of Public Safety will operate APD's lab facilities.)
How Cronk would actually request a waiver is anybody's guess. The law says a "defunding municipality" must request such an approval before its budget is adopted, yet the law will not have taken effect at that point. While HB 1900 contains two-year "lookback" language that puts Austin on the hook this year anyway, it simply says the Criminal Justice Division of the Office of the Governor "shall adopt rules establishing the criteria" for waivers, with no deadline. Those rules cannot, at least technically, be retroactive to before the law's effective date, under the state Administrative Procedures Act; that law requires at least 30 days for public comment after the proposed rules are published in the Texas Register, and can also require public hearings.
The city has not heard anything from the CJD about when or how to make a waiver request. When asked if Cronk intended to do so, a city spokesperson sent the following statement: "The City Manager has indicated his intent to submit a proposed budget to the Council that is 'fully compliant' with HB 1900. The specific details of that budget are still under review and subject to change at this time."
More Money, More Cops
Aside from the recouplings, how much real money is being added to APD's budget? And aside from the specifics of HB 1900, is it enough funding, or not, or indeed too much?
Cronk's budget increases funding for "neighborhood-based policing" – the term used for patrol officers – by about $49 million from FY 21, to fund 1,809 sworn officer positions and at least two "reimagined" cadet classes at Austin's police academy to fill them. The added money fills current vacancies but doesn't add new positions. Law enforcement supporters such as the Greater Austin Crime Commission say that's not enough to make up for APD's increased rate of attrition in the past year, during which 233 sworn staff, including 109 patrol officers, have retired or resigned.
"We are going to have to get creative," GACC Executive Director Cary Roberts told us. "Continuing an aggressive recruitment process will help, but in the past year the city was projecting losing seven [patrol] officers a month." Instead, it's been twice that, and in the absence of more funding beyond what Cronk has restored, "We need to slow the attrition rate."
Last year's "reimagining" budget had eliminated 150 unfilled sworn staff positions to get to that 1,809 number, along with delaying four cadet classes and trimming the sworn overtime budget. That freed up $25.6 million in savings that would have been recurring had HB 1900 not been adopted; along with nearly $6 million in one-time cuts, that money went to fund a host of alternatives to policing, including the aforementioned mental health first response, the city's new Civil Rights Office and Office of Violence Prevention, substance use care, enhancements at EMS and Austin Public Health, and new homelessness services (see sidebar).
Cronk's FY 22 proposal continues to fund much of this – about $29 million – even as it restores APD's budget to hire more new officers. In his budget message to Council, the manager writes that while he's delivered a spending plan that complies with HB 1900, "I want to likewise assure you that we will not abandon our commitment to reimagining public safety, so that every person in this community feels safe in their home and neighborhood. My pledge is that we will move this important work forward, while complying with the state's requirements. It will demand collaboration and innovation – but we can do it." (Emphases his.)
Justice groups, including AJC and Communities of Color United, participated extensively in the work of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, which presented its final recommendations to Council in May, and they think the city should do more now to advance de-policing even with HB 1900 in effect, given that the budget is generally healthy. (Most callers to the first budget public hearing on July 22 echoed this theme repeatedly, outnumbering those backing more APD funding.) The advocates are focused specifically on task force priorities such as a trauma recovery center ($1 million annually), where survivors of violent crime can get help, including therapy and case management, without involving the criminal justice system. They've also called for more investment in community health workers who could respond to 911 calls that don't involve immediate threats to lives or property.
Making those investments and also shoring up APD staffing may be more than Council can squeeze out of this budget in the brief time remaining before voting on adoption Aug. 11-13. According to department records, APD has maintained an annual average of about 132 unfilled sworn positions from 2014 to 2021, with a low of 63 in 2018; the current total of 233 is the peak during that period. Typically, vacancy savings are used to fund overtime, which helps keep patrol assignments at full strength and is also a lucrative bonus for officers, often boosting take-home pay at some ranks to well above $100,000 a year. In the FY 22 budget, APD has $7.8 million available in vacancy savings to use on overtime.
One of the "creative" efforts Roberts refers to is a possible bonus to retirement-eligible sworn staff (with at least 23 years of service) who stay on for another year, or to those in good standing who've resigned in the past two years, upon returning to APD. Anecdotally, as police backers have told it, many officers have left out of frustration with the community and Council's disrespect in the wake of last year's Black Lives Matter protests, to which APD responded with violence that made the "defunding" backlash of the FY 21 budget inevitable.
Other ideas on the table include incentives for officers all over Texas to come to Austin, take the shortened and modified academy training APD offers for already certified peace officers, and get relocation costs and other expenses. In a statement, an APD spokesperson acknowledged the department is exploring such options but said that APD has not yet made a decision on offering incentives.
Casaday reports that the department currently has about 300 people eligible for retirement, which could free up more vacancy savings that could go to such incentives. (The budget also includes what Cronk calls "a significant new annual contribution" of $6 million to the police retirement system, which has been shaky and underwent some legislative surgery in the past session.)
One-Time Funds Anchor Homeless Strategy
General Fund spending to end homelessness remains largely unchanged in the FY 22 budget; most of the big spending planned is from American Rescue Plan Act funds, about $100 million. The ARPA funding is part of an envisioned investment of $300 million or more from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to expand the capacity of Austin's homelessness response system, with ongoing maintenance from the General Fund. Meanwhile, Cronk has earmarked ongoing GF spending of $65.2 million for prevention, crisis response, housing stabilization, and cleanups of places where people live without shelter.
Contrary to expectations from Council and advocates that Cronk would add funding to staff up the Homeless Services Division within Austin Public Health, the FY 22 budget instead reduces its funding, although the change reflects the reassignment of positions within APH rather than an actual decrease. Cronk has also not included ongoing funding for six grant-supported case managers at the Downtown Austin Community Court who, if amendments are not forthcoming, will be let go when those grants expire next July. – Austin Sanders