Council Makes Last-Minute Changes to $4.5 Billion Budget Plan
A budget is born
As the Chronicle went to press Wednesday, Aug. 11, City Council was deep into its deliberations on amendments to Austin's budget for fiscal year 2022. As is customary with budget adoption, Council has scheduled meetings on Aug. 11–13 to give the body time to tweak – but not alter substantially – the budget proposed on July 9 by City Manager Spencer Cronk before voting to approve the $4.5 billion spending plan. The city's fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
Two weeks ago, we dove into the Austin Police Department budget, which continues to receive Council attention. Members' planned amendments would not reduce the $442 million earmarked for APD by Cronk in his proposal. However, a budget rider – which is basically just direction to city staff related to the budget, not legally binding as are riders to the state budget – offered by Council Member Greg Casar would formally instruct Cronk to request a waiver from Gov. Greg Abbott's office to keep the Forensics Department and Emergency Communications Department separate from the APD budget. Those functions were decoupled from APD during the current fiscal year, as Council policy decisions backed by community justice advocates and, in forensics' case, also law enforcement. Now they've been recoupled to bring Austin into compliance with House Bill 1900, the law signed by Abbott on June 1 that punishes cities for "defunding the police." HB 1900 allows for waivers, but the rules for securing them have yet to be determined by Abbott's criminal justice division.
Austin Fire and Emergency Medical Services, also important public safety agencies (though APD's budget is 50% larger than the two combined), may get some boosts through Council amendments. The Loop 360/Davenport fire/EMS station won't be ready to open until FY 23 or later, which frees up $1.5 million in funds that CM Alison Alter has proposed be used on one-time "resilience investments" in fire and EMS, including more training for fire on how to battle wildfires ($300,000) and for EMS on responding to active attacker events like June's mass shooting on Sixth Street ($400,000), as well as upgrades to both departments' equipment ($400,000 each), including improved ballistic vests, some designed to provide a better and safer fit for women medics.
Another Alter amendment takes on staffing, creating three new division chief positions at EMS as well as adding paramedic nurse practitioners and a deputy for Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mark Escott (remember him?). That's a $404,000 item in one-time funding for FY 22, with ongoing funding from adjustments to EMS transport fees and how they're reimbursed. But with 115 vacancies, it's front-line EMS medics, working mandatory overtime, who are feeling the crunch now.
At Council's Aug. 5 work session, interim EMS Chief Jasper Brown told CM Kathie Tovo he needed more staffing for the Downtown area; Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie has advocated for nine positions to staff a Downtown command. "[But] if we were given the positions [in] this fiscal year's budget," Brown said, "I would not be able to staff them." Due to COVID-19 protocols, EMS could not hold full cadet classes for more than a year. A class of 33 cadets will graduate in October; the next is planned for January, but Brown wants to expedite it and the hiring process to fill empty slots that are already funded. A Tovo amendment would earmark $534,000 for new EMS equipment that will allow it to respond faster to Downtown emergencies.
While Council in June directed $100 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds toward ending homelessness in Austin, it will also consider budget amendments to boost the city's own departments engaged in that challenge. Mayor Steve Adler wants to more than double the size of the team led by Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey, tasked with working across all of city government and with other private and public partners. The one-year cost is $842,055; Adler has also proposed a three-year alternative, including 4% annual raises, at $2.6 million. Tovo proposes to extend funding (through FY 23) for six grant-funded case managers at the Downtown Austin Community Court, whose COVID-relief-funded positions would otherwise be eliminated next July. DACC Administrator Peter Valdez told Council Aug. 5 that about 300 people are awaiting services from DACC case managers. Both amendments would use projected increases in sales tax revenue as the pandemic (eventually) recedes to support these services.
Casar has a significantly larger amendment to increase COVID-19 hazard pay stipends for civilian city employees from $500 to $1,000 for full-time staff earning less than $80,000 per year, and from $375 to $750 for part-time staff, and to add stipends for temporary workers who've been at the city since April 1, at a cost of $4.3 million across both General Fund (tax-supported) and enterprise (self-supporting) departments. Adler has also proposed a vaccine incentive for city employees, asking Cronk to develop a plan for later Council approval that would award $100 to all city employees – civilian, sworn, part-time, full-time, and temporary – who can prove they are vaccinated; that would cost $1.7 million.