AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Council voted unanimously to adopt the city’s 2020-21 budget Thursday as amended, setting the course for a fundamental shift in how policing and public safety are carried out in the city. Council had been going through the budget adoption process since Wednesday morning.
The newly approved budget will move around $150 million dollars from the Austin Police Department to other areas of public health and safety over the course of the next year. The new fiscal year starts on October 1, but the budget sets up a framework for rolling out changes to dramatically restructure policing in the city, which will continue incrementally long after that time. The budget will also halt APD cadet classes for the time being as an audit into training materials and efforts to revise curriculum continues.
As movements nationwide — and within Austin — continue to press for racial justice and transformation in policing, many eyes were on the council’s decision.
The changes to the proposed budget happened quickly over the past few days and the specifics of what council did and didn’t approve are being sorted out. Every single council member has been contributing amendments and policy input over the past few days via a policy-dense discussion on the council message board.
City spokespeople confirm the budget council approved mirrors the proposal for removing dollars and duties from Austin Police that council members created over the past few days.
The budget includes $20 million, which will be immediately reallocated from APD (in areas such as cadet funding and overtime) starting October 1 and reinvested in other areas of public health and safety (such as permanent supportive housing, ATCEMS COVID-19 response, and workforce development).
The budget tasks city staff with moving a number of functions previously held under APD (totaling to around $80 million) such as Forensics Services and the 9-1-1 Call Center into other city departments over the next year. These programs would not be cut, just transitioned to other departments besides APD.
The budget also tasks city staff with diverting almost $50 million from the Austin Police Budget to a “Reimagine Safety Fund” over the course of the next year. That fund would then be used to support “alternative forms of public safety and community support.”
“I want to be clear that this budget is not punitive, it is not intended to punish police. We’re going to improve public safety in Austin together. We need — and I welcome — the knowledge, the expertise, and the goodwill that our first responders are going to bring to this process. And one thing I know is that if we do this together, when we do this together, we’re going to reach a much better place.”Austin Mayor Steve Adler
In total, if city staff is able to meet the timeline laid out in the budget, the city will transition $150 million out of the Austin Police Department budget over the course of the next year. City staff have emphasized the “reimagining of public safety” going on in Austin will require additional time and effort this year to complete.
“I think this is without a doubt the most significant change in Austin’s public safety priorities in generations. This was only possible because we are in the midst of a local and national civil rights movement. And it was only possible because city leaders listened, we took democracy really seriously and listened, and unanimously this dais has done something I think we should all feel really proud of. I think we’ve shown that we are shifting away from over-policing our community’s challenges and instead funding community solutions.”Austin City Council Member Greg Casar
Council has directed the city manager to return to council no later than March 2021 to amend the public safety budget again after the public has had more of a chance to weigh in.
“As a result of the budget that was passed earlier today by the mayor and city council, we are going to see some fundamental changes here at the police department, changes I have not seen in my 30 years here. And this will be due to both the budget cuts that were made to the police department as well as the plan that is in place to re-envision and look at how we do policing in the future. “Austin Police Chief Brian Manley at a press briefing August 13 following the council vote adopting the budget
How the budget has changed
The $150 million that would be moved out of APD over the course of the year is a change from the proposed budget City Manager Spencer Cronk presented to council in July.
In April, the city proposed a $445 million budget for APD for FY21. After the protests and council resolutions calling for police reform, the proposed budget for APD which Cronk brought forward in July was reduced to $434 million, reflecting the $11.3 million reallocations into other departments and services.
Last fiscal year, APD operated with a roughly $434 million budget. Cronk’s proposed APD FY21 budget in July was around $151,000 less than APD’s proposed FY20 budget.
Cronk also announced in the July budget proposal that, as the council has directed, the FY21 budget would cut existing APD vacancies that “cannot be reasonably filled within the next year” and will “not add additional officers in FY21 as originally envisioned in the five-year police staffing plan.”
A city spokesperson confirmed for KXAN Thursday the budget approved by city council eliminates 150 vacant police officer positions: 70 vacancies cut in Cronk’s proposed budget plus another 80 vacancies cut by council. As the city manager has noted, these changes will not create a reduction in “boots on the ground” though city staff has acknowledged that through attrition, the department may ultimately see lower staffing levels.
“With the elimination of these positions, the Austin Police Department is projected to begin FY21 with zero unfilled sworn positions,” a city spokesperson explained.
Cadet classes cancelled
A city spokesperson clarified to KXAN that the budget does not include funding for APD cadet classes, meaning that at this point, all APD cadet classes are canceled, including the planned cadet classes for November 2020, March 2021 and June 2021.
However, the council also provided direction for the budget which says that cadets may have an important role in bringing change to the Austin Police Department. While the council agreed to support using the full funding from cutting all three cadet classes to reinvest in other areas of public safety, the council said it also believes “we should not rule out the possibility that one or two of those classes might still yet begin in FY 21 depending on factors such as having a revised curriculum successfully completed and an appropriate recruitment program available. “
The council also noted that future decisions on cadet classes should take into account modified requirements for the police force “as we learn how many police positions are needed as this reimagining work is realized.”
A city spokesperson clarified that the possibility of holding a cadet class in 2021 will depend on a number of factors which the city will reassess throughout the year.
As of earlier this week, APD told KXAN it was still planning for its 144th Cadet Class to start on November 23, 2020.
APD cadet classes have been put on pause following a third-party investigation into alleged racism and homophobia in the department earlier this year, as well as an ongoing audit of training materials at APD’s training academy, which council called for.
APD told KXAN that this audit of APD training videos is not expected to be complete until November 9, which council members say makes it is unlikely new training material can be ready for a November cadet class. There are typically three APD cadet classes in a given year, city staff says.
All the council members seem to be in agreement in calling for the November cadet class to be put on hold.
Pausing APD cadet classes further is something that APD Chief Brian Manley has cautioned against.
At a press conference Thursday following the budget adoption, Manley said that canceling these cadet classes “is not good for us as an agency” and may negatively impact how APD is perceived in police recruiting circles.
But, Manley acknowledges, the budget has already been approved.
“We are where we are,” Manley said at the press conference Thursday, “and we are going to work with cadets that have already moved here.”
He noted that some cadets planning to be in these incoming classes had moved to Austin, and the department will work to talk with these cadets about their employment options.
At a council budget work session last week, Manley said, “if we were to follow through with some of these proposals with the delay of cadet classes, I do believe this really represents one of the greatest threats to the safety of our community.”
Manley told the council that if all three cadet classes were canceled, he believes the department would see vacancy levels by January 2022 that would leave the department staffed to the level it was staffed at back in 2012.
“The staffing implications of not moving forward with hiring would be significant on many fronts,” Manley said. “We already do not meet our goals for response times on our priority zero, priority one, calls — which is a critical performance measure for us.”
At that budget work session, Austin’s Chief Deputy Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo said if all three cadet classes were cut, there would be 80 vacant positions and a combined savings for the city of $10 million.
Van Eeenoo noted that these cuts to cadet classes would result in “savings” for the city, but also “consequences.”
Last week, council members did not appear heartened to hear Manley’s pushback against pausing further cadet classes.
“I am tired of dealing with department heads who fight council,” Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said, referring to Manley’s language as “fear-mongering.”
Mayor Pro Tem DeliaGarza said that Manley’s cautions against cutting cadet classes “makes so many assumptions that we would keep everything the same.”
“We have a whole year, more than a full year until January of 2022,” Garza said at the meeting last week, saying that Manley’s comments were making her “lose hope.”
To Manley’s points about the threats he believes pausing cadet classes would pose to public safety, Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison challenged him, asking what the cost would be of not making these dramatic changes to policing.
“What is the cost of continuing to put people in positions of power who take lives?” she asked. “Some of these things you can’t quantify. You can’t quantify the value of a life, you can’t quantify the value of the manifestation of the trauma people go through when they have law enforcement officers who engage in misconduct.”
“We could avoid that by at the very beginning having the kind of department that doesn’t attract people that will engage in misconduct,” Harper-Madison continued.
The road to fundamental changes
As demonstrations and calls for police reform have picked up around the country over the past few months following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis Police, similar momentum has picked up in Austin. Protests and rallies have continued on Austin’s streets following Floyd’s death and also in protest of Mike Ramos’ death in Austin. Since late spring, people have been attending council meetings (which are now entirely virtual due to the pandemic) in sustained numbers to speak at the council’s virtual meetings.
The city says, according to transcripts from the budget hearings last year, 45 people signed up to speak on the first day of budget public hearings last year and 160 people signed up on the second day of public hearings.
On the first day of budget public hearings this year, nearly 300 people spoke and around 400 people were signed up to speak during the second day of hearings. For public comment on the proposed budget Wednesday, more than 250 people signed up to speak. The most popular topic for these speakers, by far, was the funding for and role of the Austin Police Department. While there have certainly been speakers at these meetings who opposed making cuts to police funding, the vast majority of contributions to public testimony during this budget have been calls to reallocate funding from policing to other areas.
Corby Jastrow, president Greater Austin Crime Commission explained that while his organization is supportive of this budget’s inclusion of funding for things such as community health paramedics and mental health support, GACC is concerned about how this budget will impact staffing at APD.
GACC has been around since 1997 and aims to support Central Texas first responders.
Regarding the cuts to vacant positions and the paused cadet classes, Jastrow said, “we’re very concerned about this because Austin continues to grow in population, we continue to win big awards, Tesla’s in town, and reducing our public safety, our police force is very concerning to us.”
He noted that there will be 50 APD cadets graduating in October from the February cadet class
In the months to come, he said GACC will take a detailed look at “how training and reform and police operations are done all over the United States.”
Jastrow said GACC will be part of the “reimagining public safety” conversations that are ongoing.
“We look forward to being part of the transition period and we look forward to being part of the continued conversation about our future cadet class,” he said.
Meanwhile, Chas Moore, executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition referred to the council’s budget decision as “the first of many victories for this next year.”
“And we are just getting started,” Moore continued. “Structural change is hard. Ending racism is even harder. We are fighting long-established interests, and our voices and engagement are required in this transformation of our collective values.”
Austin Justice Coalition has been front and center in the effort to call for public safety reform in Austin. AJC specifically called for $100 million to be reallocated from the APD budget to other areas and other groups including Grassroots Leadership have called for reducing the police department’s budget by 50%.
“The $20-plus million in immediate divestment is of course less than we hoped council could cut,” said Kathy Mitchell of Just Liberty. “But it was enough to fund a big expansion of EMS services, fully fund alternative first responders for mental health-related calls, provide much-needed shelter for victims of family violence, increase homeless services, offer programs to support people trying to reintegrate after incarceration, add new violence prevention services and give harm reduction a chance to help people struggling with addiction, and I expect many Austinites will want to have a party the day that downtown police headquarters finally comes down.”
Updates from the budget discussion
August 13, 11:00 a.m.
Council votes unanimously to approve the FY 21 budget as amended as well as the fees and fines to be charged by the city during the year
Council Member Greg Casar said after this vote, “unanimously this dais has done something I think we should be really proud of.”
“I think we are showing we are shifting away from over-policing and instead funding solutions,” Casar said.
“We know we have a really long way to go,” he added, referring to the changes to public safety the community has been calling for.
Council resumes budget adoption discussions starting with remaining riders and fee-related items left to be discussed.
Council approved an amendment from Council Member Alison Alter to create an office of the Chief Medical Officer. After working out some details with city staff, Alter explained that Austin Public Health is supportive of this measure.
Council also approves a proposal from Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison to increase golf fees to reduce Golf Enterprise Fund Deficit following an amendment to that proposal.
August 12, 10 p.m.
After a full day of looking through the new budget, Austin City Council members decided to recess until Thursday morning.
Austin Police Chief Brian Manley spoke in response to questions from Council Member Tovo about APD’s Community partnerships budget.
Manley explained that of the community partnership programs that the APD Explorers program and the Police Activities League program (PAL) are the only programs that have uniformed, commissioned officers.
The current council proposal calls for “decoupling” APD’s community partnership programs, meaning that these programs would still exist, but they would be separated to another department besides APD over the course of the next year.
Council discussion of budget adoption has resumed after a dinner break. Both the changes proposed by City staff and those outlined by the council’s joint proposal and compiled into a Google document are part of the “base motion” which is the starting point of the budget deliberations.
City staff has created their own spreadsheet to track both the changes city staff have proposed alongside the ones council members are calling for.
Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo explained to the council that the proposal at this point factors in the amendments from council and would cancel the November 2020, March 2021, and June 2021 APD cadet classes. Van Eenoo also said this budget as it is proposed would reduce APD’s overtime budget by $2.8 million.
Council goes on break until 6:15 p.m. When they return, they will discuss different budget riders proposed by each council member.
“I really appreciate all the work that’s been done over time to get to the place that we’re going with this budget,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. ” I know that it’s been a real significant issue in the community with real great community participation.”
“We’re in the search here, I think collectively, of finding what I think the best balance is with respect to sworn officers and preventative care and figuring out how to get people in the right place, ” Adler continued. “This is not something that is about vilifying or attacking police officers and I just want to make that real clear.”
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan also said, “this has really been a co-created process for all of us and I think that’s where we’re heading today.”
Building on the mayor’s comments Flannigan said that the conversation council has is not about villifying anyone. He noted that there are police district representatives in his district who are doing really great work.
“I’m excited we’re all on the same page” Flannigan said.
Council Member Greg Casar added, “despite all the hurt and despite our history, of the thousands of people who have called into these council meetings, people aren’t calling for vengeance, they are calling for change.”
“At the heart of it we are talking about how to keep people safe and that is what we have prioritized,” Casar said.
Austin City Council is considering using the joint proposal from Austin City Council members (which has been synthesized into a Google document by Council Member Casar) as the “base motion” or starting point for council budget discussions.
Council discusses that this budget will include the installation of Juneteenth as a holiday for non-sworn city employees.
Austin City Council receives a presentation from city staff on the proposed FY21 budget including a few budget amendments city staff has made
All public speakers have finished making their comments. Council also voted to unanimously approve Items 14 and 15 related to Project Connect. Council has not yet voted on Item 9 which would approve a tax rate election in November to fund Project Connect. Council has also not yet voted on Item 10 which would set up a special election for a transportation bond. Council will take those items up after the current budget discussion.
Public speakers continue with more speakers commenting in person from the Palmer Event Center.
District 9 resident Katie Drackert asked the council “approximately how many hours of testimony do you need?”
“How many Black and Brown lives must be lost for you to get into ‘good trouble?'” she asked.
District 9 resident Scott McNearney said he wants to see at least 25% of APD’s budget reinvested into housing and human services. He also called for Austin Police Chief Brian Manley’s removal.
District 5 resident Maggie Brookshire said she supports the proposal Casar has synthesized onto a Google document. She said she supports defunding APD by at least 200 million and seeing the next three APD cadet classes cancelled saying that would be, “the very least that council could agree to do.”
“Please take these steps I have mentioned and reinvest in vital community services,” Brookshire said.
District 3 Resident Carrie Bickley said she is for approving this budget if council approves the proposals set forward by Council Member Casar, Council Member Harper-Madison, and Mayor Pro Tem Garza. Bickley also read a translation of another testimony from a Spanish-speaking community member which stated, “we have a great need of support with housing because of the crisis we are going through right now.”
Carlota Garcia of Our Lady Guadalupe Catholic Church told the council that she believes “for a model of community policing to work, it must be local and supported by the community and APD.”
After a break, public comment on the budget adoption process is continuing. Mayor Adler said there are around 150 speakers remaining, a process which should take around two and a half hours.
Council appears to be in agreement on using the proposal synthesized Council Member Casar and contributed to by all council members as the “base motion” for their budget discussion.
The first batch of speakers calling in on the phone line has completed. Council is taking a lunch break until 1 p.m., at which point more public speakers will pick back up.
Chas Moore, executive director of Austin Justice Coalition, told council “I admire you all for taking such a historic step in the right direction.”
Cary Roberts of the Greater Austin Crime Commission said while his organization supports reform, he cautioned council against making cuts to the police department.
“When most people call 9-1-1, they need a police officer,” Roberts said. “Let’s not take that trust for granted and let’s not take our police for granted.”
Budget adoption discussion starts with public speakers.
While the meeting is being held virtually, it began with around 30 speakers who spoke in person at the Palmer Events Center. Each speaker has one minute to speak.
While Council Member Ann Kitchen suggested an end time of today’s discussions at 8 p.m., Austin Mayor Steve Adler said staff had advised they leave the day open to see how the discussion progresses.
Leaders of organizations like Just Liberty and Austin Justice Coalition who have called for reallocating $100 million from Austin Police to other areas say that they support the council’s current proposal and implores the council to continue on this path despite any voices of opposition they may face.