Austin’s proposed budget: more police, firefighters and medics

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Austin police cadets at their graduation on July 8, 2016 (KXAN Photo_Alicia Inns)_309795

AUSTIN (KXAN) – As expected, Austin’s city manager is going forward with a city police plan to civilianize nearly two dozen positions so more sworn officers can get back on patrol under a community policing model. Police executives unveiled the ‘ask’ at July’s Public Safety Commission meeting and it showed up mostly unchanged in the City of Austin’s proposed budget released Wednesday.

Specifically, 21 positions proposed for civilians include:

  • 2 grant coordinators for Highway Enforcement
  • 1 planner for Emergency Planning and Response
  • 1 public information specialist
  • 1 administrator for Risk Management
  • 5 firearms trainers for the Training Academy
  • 2 business system analysts for Technology
  • 8 crime analysts for Strategic Intelligence

For the 21st new civilian position, four existing part-time positions will be converted to full-time to account for those positions’ increased workload, the proposed budget shows.

So while the proposed budget calls for 12 more sworn staff, the truer number of uniformed officer positions will rise by 33, more in line with the 39 council approved last year.

It’s creative staffing at a time of high vacancy rates.

Austin police faced a vacancy rate of 178 positions prior to the graduation of 37 cadets earlier this month. Future classes such as one set to begin in November will be larger according to the proposed budget, nearing 100. Police executives confirm once that class graduates in July 2017, the vacancy rate could be below 25 on its way to a surplus by the end of next year.

This coming October, another 50 officers are expected to graduate, police records show.

Police are encouraging council members and city manager’s staff to use a community policing model to top up patrol numbers instead of a ratio-based formula. In years past, the city has based its policing numbers on a nationally recognized model of around 2.0 officers per 1,000 population.

The goal this year is to increase the number of officers so those on duty can have more uncommitted time to interact with community members instead of having to bounce from call to call. In July police told the Public Safety Commission uncommitted time was 17 percent in 2015, down from 19 percent the year before. National ideals are as high as 50 percent, police observers say.

Another new public safety expense this coming year: $762,000 to pay for smart phones and wireless service for all police officers who wear body cameras. The body camera contract is on hold however, pending the review of the deal by a District Court judge early next month. Last week, the second place bidder asked for an injunction until its arguments could be made regarding the fairness of the process.

An APD executive has said the iPhone project was being planned prior to the body cam RFP so it’s unclear if this purchase would go forward if the body cam bid has to be redone.

Calling all cars

As for police response times, the city manager is asking council to allow officers to respond to the most urgent calls within eight minutes four seconds, up 19 seconds from this year’s amended goal of 7:45, according to the city’s dashboard measures. This year’s original response time goal was also 8:04.

During June’s presentation to Public Safety Commission, Asst. Chief Brian Manley showed a response time chart indicating in FY2015, total average response time for emergency calls was 6:37, up from 6:24 in FY14.

Calls classified as urgent were answered in 8:42, up from 8:23 in FY14.

Austin Fire vacancy rates continue to challenge

Austin Fire’s proposed budget includes $11 million more funding (to cover higher health insurance costs and wage hikes) and overtime of $3 million in order to cover ongoing vacancies and maintain the city’s mandatory four-person staffing requirement. “In FY 2016-17 AFD will graduate two cadet classes and gain 73 new firefighters. However, sworn vacancies will continue to be a challenge because of increased retirement rates,” wrote Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr in the department’s summary.

KXAN confirmed Wednesday AFD will choose candidates from the 2015 hiring list as well as the priority hire list that came out of the 2014 consent decree from the Department of Justice. Class 119 is set to start next month with Class 120 to follow in October, a spokesperson wrote in an email.

A small number of AFD positions were also shifted to allow for more maintenance inspections of businesses such as daycares. As well, three firefighters are being added to the airport fire station.

More paramedics to the rescue

The proposed FY2016-17 budget also calls for 52 new paramedics to complete a move to 42-hour work weeks in a bid to ease worker fatigue and burn out. $4.9 million will help with those hires as well as cost increases, the budget document shows.

It includes 12 months of funding for 20 Medic I positions, nine months of funding for six Medic I positions and ten Medic II positions, and six months of funding for 16 Medic II positions.

Thursday, July 28 Update: A spokesperson at ATCEMS tells KXAN there are still 45 vacancies among 371 field and communications staff, a rate of about 12 percent. Among Medic II field positions, there are 27 openings as of last week.

An EMS academy is planned for Medic 1 positions starting Oct. 2 with a waiting list of 25 people to draw from. Other promotional exams are set for later this year and January 2017 for open positions. For  the EMS Medic I Communications role, the agency is currently finishing a hiring process for a paid internship for seven that will give those candidates all certification and training for that position, a spokesman wrote in an email. There are currently eight vacancies there among 14 positions.

Don’t expect these budget request numbers to be final. Council will debate each budget item before final approval this fall in time for the beginning of the new fiscal year, in October. Work sessions are planned Wednesdays throughout August with public safety departments on the list Aug 10 and 17.

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