Battle Over APD Staffing Gets Louder

With early voting underway, campaigns for, against Proposition A heat up

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison speaks at a "No Way on Prop A" event on the first day of early voting, Mon., Oct. 18 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Early voting is underway in the Nov. 2 election, and the campaigns for and against Prop­o­si­tion A have heated up. Here's some of the news from that marquee race on the local ballot.

EMS Union Says “Nope”

The Austin EMS Association political action committee has voted to oppose Prop A. The PAC joins the Austin Firefighters Association PAC and AFSCME Local 1624 in opposing the measure, meaning that the labor groups representing virtually all city employees (other than police officers, who make up more than 10% of the city's 13,500-strong workforce) have come out against the measure.

Earlier, AEMSA President Selena Xie told us her union had intended to stay out of the Prop A fight, but voted to weigh in after considering how the initiative backed by the Austin Police Association and the GOP-affiliated Save Austin Now PAC would impact other city services. (Notably, the EMS and police unions are both members of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, the statewide coalition that has fought police reform at the Legislature for decades.) In a statement, Xie pointed to two recent moves by the Texas Legislature – 2019's Senate Bill 2, which reduced how much property tax revenue cities could bring in without voter approval of the tax rate, and this spring's House Bill 1900, preventing cities from "defunding" police department budgets without prior approval from the governor's office.

"Due to the combined effects of these two state bills," Xie wrote, "we fear Prop A will create an irreversible escalation of police costs that will cannibalize Austin's EMS and other city services for many years to come." Xie noted that the Austin Police Department budget is at its highest level ever, $442 million for fiscal year 2022. Meanwhile, "Austin medics have had great difficulty securing an additional $1-5 million to enhance EMS services, despite the fact we are still many ambulances short of the city's needs, more understaffed than the rest of Austin's public safety departments, and underpaid compared to our Austin public safety colleagues."

Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon (Photo by John Anderson)

Speaking of Price Tags

The cost of Prop A was estimated by Austin Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo in an Aug. 10 memo that has informed much of the subsequent campaign and was added to the ballot language with the blessing of the Texas Supreme Court. That range of $54 million to $120 million annually for five years factors in seven different cost drivers, including the city's annual population and wage growth forecast and the construction of new police stations and training facilities. Due to HB 1900's prohibitions on "defunding the police," some of those costs would become permanent.

Prop A backers protest that Van Eenoo's projections are too dire, though they failed to convince the courts to strike them from the ballot language. (Save Austin Now has declined to explain how it arrived at its own cost estimate, so we have declined to report it until the group shows its work.) But what if the opposite is true? That's the contention of Julio Gonzalez Altamirano, a respected policy wonk who regularly analyzes issues facing City Hall. In a new blog post, Gonzalez takes a critical look at Van Eenoo's assumptions.

Prop A, if passed, would require that APD "at all times" employ 2.0 officers per 1,000 residents, and that those officers have 35% of their work hours available for "community engagement time." Van Eenoo estimates that to meet both of these requirements would actually require a minimum staffing ratio of 2.13 officers per 1,000 residents at his low end, up to 2.35 per 1,000 at his high end; he projects the need to hire between 316 and 680 new officers. However, Van Eenoo assumes a 6.3% vacancy rate among APD sworn staff; currently, it's around 12%, and APA President Ken Casaday has suggested that at the current rate of attrition, it could grow to 18% by the end of 2021.

If APD's vacancy rate hovers around 10%, and to allow for 35% engagement time, Gonzalez writes, the city would need to immediately hire somewhere between 645 and 1,009 officers, in a tightening labor market, and after nearly two years of APD crises that included closing and then "reimagining" its police academy. To accomplish this, Council could agree to raise salaries for new officers, or lower its recruitment standards beneath where "reimagining" would set them. Van Eenoo projected either 1% or 2% wage growth for officers over the five years, which Gonzalez also flags as overly optimistic.

Chacon: Pro or No?

The campaigns for and against Prop A have both said Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon is aligned with their cause. In a statement, the chief told us: "I have taken no stance on Prop A and that has consistently been my response when asked if I support or oppose the measure. I believe this is a matter for the voters to decide." That's consistent with his political and legal responsibilities as chief.

What Chacon has said, giving comfort to both sides, is that staff attrition is the biggest challenge he and APD face, but that a "static" and "arbitrary" staffing ratio – like "2.0 per 1,000" – is not the best path forward. When asked directly at Council during his confirmation hearing Sept. 30, Chacon said such models are "based upon older methodologies" that are now outdated, and that departments should instead be looking at calls for service, geographic distribution, and other "evidence-based, data­-driven" factors. "Going forward, the important thing is that we determine what services our community wants, and then use models we develop to determine exactly how many officers it's going to take to obtain that," Chacon told Council. "I just think that's a smarter way to do business."

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November 2021 General and Special Elections, Proposition A, Austin Firefighters Association, Austin EMS Association, Selena Xie, Texas Legislature, public safety, Austin Police Departmnet, Ed Van Eenoo, Julio Gonzales Altamirano, Austin Police Association, Ken Casaday, Joseph Chacon, Save Austin Now

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