Defund the Police activists staged a protest last week at City Manager Spencer Cronk’s home in South Austin. (photo by Jana Birchum)
The Austin Police Department’s budget will decrease by $8.1 million, or about 1.9% of the $434 million Council allocated to the department last year, according to the city’s budget proposal.
The number falls well short of the $100 million various activist groups have called for, but the city says the proposed cuts are only the first step in a multi-year plan to “reimagine public safety.”
In total, the proposal decreases spending on policing activities by $11.3 million, but $3.2 million of those savings would be reinvested back into the police department; $2.3 million of which would go toward replacing APD’s records management software (a request police officials already made, and that the Public Safety Commission endorsed in May), and $900,000 would be used to improve department training.
Most of the budget decrease will come from cutting about 100 unfilled officer positions. The department currently has about 70 vacant positions that cannot “reasonably be filled” at the moment, and funding for 30 new officers was set aside in last year’s budget, as part of the five-year staffing plan for each public safety agency. Eliminating funding for the 100 positions will net the city about $9.2 million in funding to be reallocated.
About $1.2 million will be saved from delaying the July 2020 cadet class, which was ordered in a resolution passed by Austin City Council on June 11. Another $400,000 will be saved by delaying replacement of the service pistols carried by officers, and $200,000 will be cut by reassigning Austin Center for Events staff to the Development Services Department.
The city’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer and lead budget writer Ed Van Eenoo says detailed plans for how the $11.3 million will be reinvested are under development, but he expects $3 million will be reinvested in the Office of Police Oversight and Equity Office, an effort to rewrite APD’s General Orders, which regulate officer conduct, and to carry out department audits. These recommendations should be ready in time for the Council budget adoption, scheduled for Aug. 12
Additionally, $2.7 million in savings will be diverted to improving emergency mental health response by investing in the city’s contract with Integral Care, allowing the mental health agency to expand the scope of its Emergency Mobile Health Crisis Outreach Team. Part of those savings will also be used to hire seven additional Community Health Paramedics (CHPs), a specialized unit at Austin-Travis County EMS that provides mental and physical healthcare services to some of the community’s most vulnerable residents, like those experiencing homelessness or living with a severe disability.
The seven proposed CHPs add to the seven that were approved in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget; of those, only three positions have been staffed, partly due to a backorder on the vehicles that CHPs use, but also due to COVID-19 sidetracking the effort. Currently, the CHP team consists of 14 people, although they are funded for 19 positions.
With the funding for 11 new CHPs – seen by many, along with MCOT/EMCOT, as critical to any effort to “reimagine public safety” in Austin – the team would grow to 26 new positions. The seven CHPs allocated in FY21 are expected to be internal department transfers that will staff the communications division, where they will help triage 911 calls to determine if a mental health counselor should be sent along with, or instead of, a police officer.
A report examining Austin’s public safety response issued by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute issued last summer emphasized the importance of reforming how 911 calls with a mental health component are processed. APD estimates that about 19% of all 911 calls processed include some kind of mental health component.
Van Eenoo said Cronk will discuss the “reimagining” process and outcomes as he lays out the complete FY21 budget publicly for Council and the community at 2 pm Monday. His presentation will be broadcast live on the city’s ATXN channel in English and Spanish.From here, public input sessions will be held on July 23 and 30, and Council will hold budget work sesions on July 28 and August 4, leading up to the Aug. 12 adoption (as always, three days of deliberations are scheduled but are rarely needed.)
Overall, Van Eenoo told reporters at a briefing Monday morning, the city’s General Fund is expected to remain flat from the previous fiscal year. People “might be surprised by this budget,” Van Eenoo said, “because we’re in the middle of a pandemic and people are expecting a much more austere or severe budget.” He attributed the relative lack of austerity to a number of factors, including a freeze on hiring new city employees which began in March, the city maintaining General Fund emergency reserves of at least 12%, and projections that sales tax revenue – which has declined steeply during the COVID-19 pandemic – will begin to rebound in the next year.
Van Eenoo also explained that the proposed budget does not take advantage of a provision in the state law capping property tax revenue increases at 3.5% that would allow local governments to exceed that cap during a declared disaster. Council could still push for a revenue increase above 3.5%, but they are weighing a separate tax ratification election (TRE) to pay for the Project Connect transit expansion endorsed by both the city and Capital Metro. That “once in a generation” project (in Van Eenoo’s words) could involve a much larger tax increase – a ballpark figure of 11 cents per $100 has been proposed, which would roughly be equivalent to taxpayers’ support of Central Health or Austin Community College – but that would not preclude Council from going to the 8% revenue increase allowed in FY21 and FY22 due to the pandemic.
Despite the modest decrease of only 2.5% in the overall (all funds) budget, funding for cultural and historic preservation programs and the city’s new Live Music Fund will take a big hit. Those programs are mostly funded through taxes on hotel visits, which have plummeted during the pandemic; Van Eenoo projects that, overall, funding for these programs will be cut by about 33%. The Convention Center and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport themselves are relying on their own cash reserves to “be able to manage through this crisis just fine,” in Van Eenoo’s estimation.
In other priorities, the city will maintain the historic investment in reducing homelessness, putting another $60 million toward the goal in FY21. About $16.5 million of that funding will go toward anti-displacement programs that could keep people from falling into homelessness – especially concerning as national surveys show that more than 30% of households missed their housing payment in June – along with a $7.7 million transfer from the Housing Trust Fund also to be used for stabilizing housing status. Another $1.6 million will be set aside to create a new local housing voucher program, while $2.6 million will be invested in cleanups of homelesses encampments throughout the city.
See more on the proposed budget in this week’s print issue on stands and online Thursday.