KXAN ‘Ballot Breakdown’ town hall: Austin propositions, TX constitutional amendments

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — As we near the start of early voting for the Nov. 2 election, KXAN hosted a “Ballot Breakdown” virtual town hall on Wednesday, Oct. 13 to answer viewer questions.

The town hall covered Austin’s Proposition A (related to police staffing) and Proposition B (parkland trade), as well as the eight state constitutional amendments before voters.

Early voting begins Oct. 18.

Proposition B

State law requires voter approval for any sale of public squares or parks. KXAN reporter Tahera Rahman said that, if passed, the measure would allow the city a call for proposals so it could swap nine acres along South Lakeshore Boulevard with 48 acres of waterfront land adjacent to a city park.

Grow Austin Parks is a political action group in support of Proposition B. City filings report the PAC is nearly entirely funded by Oracle America, located next door to the parkland that would be traded if the measure is passed.

If Prop B passes, Grow Austin Parks said Oracle already has a bid for that land to present to the city if the measure is approved by voters.

“It’s very difficult, historically, to allocate green space or green space and park lands for our low income, minority communities,” said Paul Saldana, a support of Prop B. “I see this maybe as another win-win situation opportunity.”

Whichever bidder receives city approval, the entity will acquire the costs of a new maintenance facility for the parks, as well as partially fund the removal of the maintenance building at Fiesta Gardens.

“This particular property has been very important to our Mexican American community here in the barrio because this is where we come to celebrate quinceaneras, weddings,” he said.

However, not all are in favor of the proposal.

“The tragedy is how east Austin is lead to believe that their only way out is to give up something very precious for somebody else when there is money and has been money in the reserve that we all vote for and paid for,” said Martha P. Cotera, a resident in opposition of Prop B.

In 2018, Austin voters passed $149 million in funding for acquisitions and improvements, including for spots in east Austin.

Only 19% of that $149 million has been used so far from the 2018 bond. Why is this proposition being called a swap rather than a land purchase?

Council Member Paige Ellis said it’s because of the “full package deal” nature of the item. She said any time the city would let go of any sort of parkland, it would have to be “for a really good reason.”

“In this particular case, the situation is that we would love all of these three items that are on the ballot to be met by someone,” she said. “It would still go through a public bidding process and we think this is a really good opportunity to acquire parkland on the eastside.”

How did you come up with the 48 acre number for the land you want to add to our park space?

This piece of property has been eyed for some time, especially from city parks, said Austin City Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria. He said they knew it would complete the John Trevino Park, adding it’s a beautiful part of Austin that has been misused as a “dump ground” for years.

“I always believed that it’s been an injustice and we need to correct that and really recapture that,” he said.

Constitutional amendments

Texas voters will have a say on eight constitutional amendments this November, ranging from homestead tax exemptions to prohibiting governments from placing limitations on religious services. Here is an amendment-by-amendment breakdown.

Proposition 1

A plan to allow professional sports team charitable foundations of organizations sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association or the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association to conduct raffles at rodeo venues also needs voter approval to pass.

Proposition 2

Texas voters will also have a chance to decide whether to support authorizing counties to issue bonds to pay for transportation and infrastructure projects in blighted areas. The plan also stops counties from allocating more than 65% of annual property tax revenue increases to repay the bonds and also stops counties from using the bond money to build a toll road.

Proposition 3

One of the changes would prohibit government entities from enacting rules to limit religious services or organizations. This was passed by state policymakers as a response to some communities shutting churches down to avoid crowds gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Proposition 4

Two judiciary-related measures will appear on the ballot as well. One would update the eligibility requirement for Texas Supreme Court justices, a judge of the court of criminal appeals, a justice of a court of appeals and a district judge. Candidates for those judicial seats would need to be Texas residents and U.S. citizens. Candidates for state supreme court, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals or an appeals court would need 10 years of experiences as a practicing lawyer or judge of a state or county court and candidates for district court would need 8 years of experience. Candidates whose license to practice law was revoked or suspended would be disqualified from office. These rules would apply to appointed or elected officials who assume their role after Jan. 1, 2025.

Proposition 5

The other judicial change would authorize the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct to investigate complaints against candidates running for state judicial office, just as it can do for current judicial officeholders.

Proposition 6

Another pandemic-inspired proposal would establish a right for people living in nursing homes or residents of assisted living facilities to designate an essential caregiver who cannot be barred from visiting in person.

Proposition 7

Another change would allow the state to extend a homestead limitation on school district ad valorem taxes for surviving spouses of disabled individuals if the spouse is 55.

Proposition 8

measure to allow homestead tax exemption for surviving spouses of military members killed or fatally injured in the line of duty will also appear on the ballot. The constitution currently allows the exemption for spouses of members of the armed forces who are killed in action, but the expanded language would incorporate military members who die in military training or other military duties.

Proposition A

If passed, Prop A would require the city to add additional officers, mandate more time spent on community policing and provide pay incentives to minority staffers to help diversify the police force.

APD officials have referenced a staffing shortage for years, particularly since 2015. Austin City Council approved a police budget of $443 million for the current fiscal year, the largest police budget yet.

If Prop A passes, how long do you believe it would take to reach the 2 officers per thousand resident ratio?

Commander Baker has served at APD for a little over 27 years, he said. If passed, he said the time it takes to achieve that ratio is dependent on the number of academy classes — full and modified — funded and successfully held.

Is that on top of the $443 Million dollars council budgeted for APD for the fiscal year that started October 1st? And where do you see that money coming from?

Council Member Kelly said it’s up to council to determine where priorities are. She cited substantial funds allocated to homelessness crisis response and social services.

She said there needs to be additional staffing provided to the police department, which wasn’t addressed in the current budget, she added.

She added council needs to prioritize what’s important and what isn’t if Prop A is passed and reallocate funding accordingly.

For communities that lack resources, Kelly said it’s important to turn to community police and create a more proactive relationship with all populations.

Prop A would require officers to spend 35% of their time doing community policing.
Commander Baker, would a mandate like that make your job easier or harder?

Baker said through building relationships via community engagement time, crime rates decrease and root causes of issues are more readily addressed.

Proponents of Prop A have argued police response times are too long and cases are not receiving enough attention because APD is understaffed. What data do you have to support the claim that response times are down and case closure rates have stagnated?

Baker agreed response times are up and cited a lack of resources available for officers trying to get to a scene in a timely manner. He pointed to a burglary resulted $20,000 in damages on South Lamar Boulevard this past weekend, and said it’s impacting the quality of service APD is able to provide for the community.

2019’s SB 2 won’t allow tax revenue to grow more than 3.5% in a normal year… and this year’s HB 1900 would penalize Austin for any reduction to the police budget year over year. So how will we pay for Prop A, if it passes?

Mayor Steve Adler said the only way to pay for it is to cut things already included in the budget. The Legislature also required the city to reallocate more funding to the police budget, more than the city has ever previously spent.

Public safety is 70% of the city’s budget, he said. He pointed to Kelly’s comments critiquing spending on homelessness services and social services.

“What a horrible thing that would be,” he said.

With funding restored to the city’s budget, why is this funding conversation still occurring?

Adler said there are 200 funded positions still open and available that need to be filled. He said the city will have to find the money on top of spending more than other cities do per capita on their police budgets.

Where will we see funding cuts?

Spelman said he’s been through two recessions with the city and said this cost proposal will cause recession-like impacts on the city. Some items will be frozen while others will be cut, and he said parks and libraries usually take the brunt of damages first.

How do police staffing correlate with crime rates?

Some cities have a high number of police officers per 1,000 residents, but Spelman said there won’t be a substantial change in crime despite an uptick in officers.

What works to reduce crime, and what should the alternative to Prop A be?

Adler said he supports Chief Joseph Chacon’s efforts to remove more illegal guns from the streets. He said Austin is in the top four safest cities in the country and the city needs to “keep doing what we’re doing, but do it better.”

He said cities from across the country come to Austin to see what they’re doing right.

What specific social services, departments would see cuts if Prop A passes?

Almost 70% of the general budget is being spent on public safety, Adler said. He said at least some of these new costs need to be cut from the public safety budget, but with limitations from the state on cutting from police budgets, that would leave fire and EMS to receive these budget reductions.

During recessions, cities historically turn to pools and parks to alleviate some funding.

A conversation with Chief Chacon

“This is kind of a pivotal moment for policing in this country,” he said, beginning his discussion on his new role as head of APD.

Building trust, community

On his vision for APD’s future, he said connecting with the community and building trust is vital for building up the legitimacy of the department in the eyes of its constituents.

He said APD officers treating residents with “dignity and respect” will help build up its integrity and encourage more people to call 911 or engagement with law enforcement.

He said changing cultures takes times but he is encouraged by the changes already happening. He added the department is looking for those “with a heart of service” to help make proactive differences in the community and keep residents safe.

Diversifying cadet classes

The current academy is the most diverse cadet class in history, he said, with 60% minority cadets and a large number of women, as well. Chacon said retention-wise, recruiting locally helps to increase the efficiency over time.

The department has had officers eligible for retirement make commitment to several more years with the department while the cadet classes ramp back up. Department-wise, he said the recruitment unit is the most diverse within APD.

What are the biggest challenges facing APD?

Currently, Chacon said the biggest challenge facing APD is on two fronts, beginning with staffing. He cited increased call times and acknowledged the dangers that pose for residents’ safety.

He also added the department needs to continue to listen and be responsive to community feedback, both within the academy and during day-to-day practices by APD.

Do more officers lead to fewer violent crimes committed?

On homicides, Chacon said one of the best deterrents for crime is increased, visible officers present. If it takes longer for officers to respond to calls, he said that can impact violent crime levels and subsequent responses.

Austin has seen a marked increase in gun violence, homicides and aggravated assaults, he confirmed.

Rerouting 911 calls to 311

On the pivot from 911 to 311, he said there’s some confusion on what the change means.

He said the department had already been referring people to 311 for certain call types and had been doing so prior to Oct. 1. Certain calls require just a report and not a physical officer on-site to investigate, he said, given its lower priority status. He said the department will evaluate if statements or evidence collections are required on a case-by-case basis.

Regarding any changes in call response times since the pivot, he said the short-term data shows response times have improved since this pivot, but Chacon acknowledged less than two weeks’ worth of data isn’t enough to build a clear indication and more collections are required.

Addressing Sixth Street violence levels

Sixth Street has seen a pronounced increase in crime, and the Safer Sixth Street Initiative — including better lighting and other police resources — are being worked on to assist with mitigating crime in the downtown entertainment district.

The popularity of Austin’s downtown entertainment district has drawn larger crowds in recent years, but he said one of the issues is the limited ability to fully staff shifts. He said he needs to keep both his officers and the public safe.

“Staffing is really a pressing issue for us,” he said.

Shifting narratives

He added the last few years have been tough on the police industry amid protests and messaging that policing is broken.

“I think that people sometimes forget how wonderful the police officers that serve Austin are and they do a great job day in and day out,” he added.

On officer accountability, trust and legitimacy are at the center of department discussions, he said. When considering personnel changes, he said he wants to be as transparent as possible with the public and increase that dialogue and trust.

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