AUSTIN (KXAN) — During a discussion included in KXAN’s “Ballot Breakdown” Wednesday, former Austin City Council Member Bill Spelman forewarned of a “recessionary situation” if Proposition A is passed.

Featured on the upcoming November ballot, Prop A would, among other things, add a few hundred additional officers to the Austin Police Department and expand on community policing initiatives. If approved, Prop A is estimated to cost between $271.5 million and $598.8 million over the next five years.

“I’ve been through two recessions with the city, and this is, more or less, going to have the effect of forcing a recession or recessionary situation on everything in the general fund budget that’s not police,” he said, later adding, “We’ve seen before parks and libraries usually take the brunt of the damage, at least at first.”

But what happened the last time the city endured a substantial financial recession — specifically, during the Great Recession and at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic?

Great Recession spending cuts

The city implemented a $20.1 million mid-year spending reduction in February 2009, during fiscal year 2008-09, in response to the Great Recession. Key financial changes made included capping employees’ pay-for-performance at 2.5% and suspending Austin’s market salary adjustment program.

As part of the city’s FY2010 budget, the city reduced its spending by $31.7 million, with $8.4 million cut from its general fund departmental spending. These general fund cuts included:

  • $1.1 million from Health and Human Services: eliminating 2.5 vacant positions; using grant funds to assist with program costs; operating only one day labor site compared to the traditional two locations
  • $1.0 million from Emergency Medical Services: decreasing the overtime budget; removing two vacant support positions; decreasing budgets for commodities, training stipends
  • $0.7 million from Library: removing seven vacant positions, including three librarians from youth services department; reducing contractual, commodity spending
  • $0.4 million Municipal Court: updating payroll practices for overtime, holiday hours worked; removing two vacant part-time positions and one vacant full-time position; reducing funding for Project Recovery program from $420,000 to $390,000
  • $0.3 million from Fire: Eliminating one vacant administrative position; redeploying five sworn support positions to Combat Operations

COVID-19 pandemic spending cuts

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, adjustments made to the FY2021 budget included postponements of certain city projects, including Austin Transportation Department projects and the Austin Convention Center’s expansion, due to declined parking revenue and hotel tax funding.

In addition to project postponements, other areas of spending cuts included a staff hiring freeze and “the curtailing of discretionary expenditures,” a city spokesperson said in an email.

“A stringent hiring freeze remains in effect and all departments have been directed to curtail discretionary expenditures to the maximum extent possible while still maintaining essential City services,” city documents read.

If Prop A passes, where will funding cuts be made?

While both Spelman and Austin Mayor Steve Adler acknowledged possible impacts to city social services if the proposition is passed, each argued it would be impossible to avoid cutting from public safety funding.

“Public safety is 70% of our budget. Some of it is going to have to come out of that,” Adler said.

When asked if Prop A’s proposed funding is in addition to APD’s current $443 million budget, Austin City Council Member Mackenzie Kelly said it is up to the council to determine its funding priorities. She pointed to city funds allocated to homelessness resources and social services and said those are areas of government spending that “don’t need to be funded by the municipal government.”

“We could rely on our non-government partners to fund those items,” she said. “What we need to do is provide additional staffing to the police department, which was not covered in this budget.”

When asked about potential cuts to public safety funding, she said she found that notion “absurd.”

“I would say that it would be the will of the council to decide if that was where to go, but it would be absurd to me if we would actually cut additional public safety funding.”