AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a year when Austin community members have made a sustained call for police reform, many eyes are on Austin City Council’s actions this week as the budget adoption process begins Wednesday.
Over the past few days, the council members have synthesized their main ideas and hopes for reform into one central document.
In prior weeks, several council members had made specific proposals to transform policing as well as the Austin Police budget. Other council members have made specific proposals to add funding to areas like Austin Public Health and Austin Travis County EMS.
On Friday, Council members Greg Casar and Natasha-Harper Madison, and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza attempted to plug all of the council’s key ideas into one proposal, which Casar has since distilled into a frequently updated Google document.
Every single council member has been engaging with this proposal and adding amendments to it via a policy-dense discussion on the council message board. (Speaking of which, the best place to do to learn more about the specific amendments each council member has called for is to check the recent posts on the message board).
In the latest version of this proposal, the council would ask that around $150 million dollars be transitioned out of APD in different ways over the course of the next fiscal year.
Of that amount, $23.3 million would be immediately cut from APD and reinvested into other city departments such as ATCEMS, Mental Health Response, and Violence Prevention.
$79.6 million of that $150 million would be freed up through the city manager (over the course of the fiscal year) moving civilian APD functions like forensics services and the 9-1-1 call center into other departments.
It would also include separating some sworn functions like internal affairs and special events out of APD.
$49.2 million of that $150 million would divert dollars over the course of the next year from APD’s budget toward a “Reimagine Public Safety Fund” which would be available to pay for “alternative forms of public safety and community support.”
The $23.3 million could be immediately transitioned out of APD starting October 1 (the start of the new fiscal year) if council approves this budget, several council staffers explained.
The $79.6 million and the $49.2 million amounts will depend on whether city staff is able to roll those goals out during the course of this fiscal year.
In its current version, the proposal would set aside the funds for APD for the entire fiscal year but would call on the city manager to not spend the APD budget allocated for the second half of FY 21 until the council provides approval in the Spring. This comes from a proposal initially from Harper-Madison and supported by Mayor Steve Adler which asks that council meet again in six months to check in on the progress of these public safety reforms before the APD funding for the second half of the fiscal year is rolled out.
While City Manager Spencer Cronk has indicated that many of the changes council is calling for will require budget amendments and updates throughout the year and into the future, it is unclear if the council’s proposal to only approve six months of APD funding at a time is legal.
A city spokesperson tells KXAN Tuesday “these issues are being looked at.”
How many cadet classes will be paused?
One potential area of tension in this budget surrounds how long APD cadet classes should be suspended for.
An APD spokesperson explained to KXAN Tuesday that the department will not know the status of the November cadet class until the budget is finalized this week. As of right now, the spokesperson said, the APD is 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 means that 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.
However, the initial proposal from Casar, Garza, and Harper-Madison calls for canceling November 2020, March 2021, and June 2021 APD cadet classes — which they believe would free up around $13 million through both one-time and recurring savings.
However, a joint statement Monday evening written by Mayor Adler (who says that Council members Kathie Tovo, Alison Alter and Harper-Madison agree with his position) reads, “we are supportive of using the full funding from cutting all three classes to invest in other areas of public safety, but we also believe we should not rule out the possibility that one or two of those classes might still yet begin in FY21 depending on factors such as having a revised curriculum successfully completed and an appropriate recruitment program available.”
Pausing APD cadet classes further is something that APD Chief Brian Manley has cautioned against.
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 that 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,” Flannigan said, referring to Manley’s language as “fear mongering.”
Garza 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 noted at the meeting last week, saying that Manley’s comments were making her “lose hope.”
Harper-Madison said at last week’s meeting that she wants to continue to explore what it would look like to not have 2021 cadet classes.
To Manley’s points about the threats he believes pausing cadet classes would pose to public safety, 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.
Budget approval looks likely
While no council votes have been taken yet, so far Garza, Casar, Harper-Madison, Flannigan, Renteria, Pool, and Kitchen have all indicated on the council message board that they would support the proposal as written — which would accomplish the seven votes necessary to pass the budget.
Comments from Council Member Ellis on the message board also indicate that she would likely support this proposal.
The statement from Mayor Adler Monday indicates that he, as well as Council Member Tovo and Council Member Alter, would likely support the proposal as well, as long as the possibility remains open that the March or June 2021 cadet class might be able to proceed if the new curriculum is ready by that time.
Changes to the city manager’s proposed budget
The initial budget proposed by Cronk calls for taking $11.3 million from APD to allocate into other departments and services.
Last fiscal year, APD operated with a roughly $434 million budget.
Earlier this year, in April, the city proposed $445 million for APD for FY 2020-21. After the protests and council resolutions calling for police reform, the latest proposed budget for APD is now at $434 million, reflecting the $11.3 million reallocations.
That means Cronk’s proposed APD’s FY21 budget is around $151,000 less than APD’s proposed FY20 budget.
As the council has directed, the FY21 budget will 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.”
Cronk has explained that doing so would eliminate nearly 100 sworn positions from the initial FY21 budget forecast, but would not impact the current number of sworn personnel APD has.
In a post to the council message board Tuesday evening, Casar proposed using this council proposal (rather than Cronk’s proposed budget) as the starting point for the council’s budget discussions Wednesday. Casar noted that any part of this proposal can still be debated or changed. He also said he knows there is unity among the council on “addressing safety, justice, quality of life, and civil rights with this budget.”
As of this writing, Mayor Pro Tem Garza, Council Member Ann Kitchen, and Council Member Leslie Pool have all responded that they support using this proposal council has been working on as the starting point for the council’s budget discussions Wednesday.
“I am proud to be a member of this council as we pull together to reimagine public safety, and advance civil rights and justice in a way that elevates the voices in our community that have, for too long, gone unheard,” Pool wrote on the message board.
If the proposal the council is working from now is passed, the council would immediately remove $23.3 million from Cronk’s proposed $434 million APD FY21 budget. This would include the potential to transition an additional $126.8 million into other areas during the course of the year — provided that city staff is able to accomplish that.
While public safety and policing have garnered the most attention this budget cycle, there are plenty of other areas of the budget council can amend as well, and council members have proposed a host of amendments and riders which will be discussed starting Wednesday when the budget adoption process begins.
Of the $23 million in the council proposal called to be immediately reallocated from APD into other departments, council members have proposed amendments that would spread that funding between a range or programs including COVID-19 response for Austin Travis County EMS. Mental Health Response, creating a City Office of Violence Prevention, Permanent Supportive Housing, Victims Services, Substance Use Continuum of Care, food Access, abortion access, park and trail support, the Homeless Outreach Street Team, and Austin Public Health.