Try out shifting Austin’s budget priorities with new tool from community groups

Racial Justice & Equality Movement

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In different times, the idea of spending free hours combing through city budget priorities might be enough to make people’s eyes glaze over with boredom.

But with momentum building nationally and locally behind efforts to dramatically change funding for policing and other city programs, Austin has seen a great deal of public interest in its budget priorities.

This week, Austin community groups including Austin Justice Coalition, Texas Fair Defense Project, Just Liberty and Texas Appleseed, have launched a new tool called #WeFund which allows members of the public to try their hand at re-prioritizing Austin’s budget, all while trying to keep it balanced.

The tool is hosted on the platform called Balancing Act. The groups behind this effort say it will be a way to collect input from the community on what parts of the budget to prioritize and to “support funding for specific programs and initiatives designed to address community needs and public safety outside of the police department.”

Users trying out this tool will start off being shown the budget allocations for the Fiscal Year 2019-2020 in Austin which had a total of $1.088 billion in the General Fund available to spend. Just shy of 40% of that amount went toward Austin Police Department at $434.5 million. Community groups, including Austin Justice Coalition, have called on city leaders to cut $100 million from APD’s budget for this upcoming fiscal year and to instead spend that money on other community health and safety efforts.

City of Austin staff is in the final stages of compiling the next budget proposal which is scheduled to be presented to the city council on July 13. The city’s budget adoption process happens in August and the approval of the budget is ultimately in the hands of the city council.

Council Member Greg Casar and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza have publicly expressed support for making this $100 million cut, however, Austin Mayor Steve Adler declined to commit to that dollar amount until city leaders see the budget proposal from city staff.

There are other platforms where Austin community members can weigh in on the city’s upcoming budget, the city has created a survey where residents can express their priorities for the fiscal year 2021 budget. However, the groups behind #WeFund note that the city’s budget tool doesn’t allow as much flexibility and doesn’t allow people to suggest as dramatic changes in budget priorities as many are calling for. For example, the city budget survey only allows a reduction of 21.5 million dollars from the Austin Police budget (which, the city budget survey notes, is an amount that would result in a severe reduction in services).

Chas Moore, Executive Director of the Austin Justice Coalition explained that with so many groups calling for a $100 million reduction in APD’s budget, this new #WeFund tool “was in a way for people to really visualize that or to conceptualize that.”

“It gives more room and more freedom for people to be able to play around with the police budget or any of the budget items,” Moore said of the #WeFund too.

The City of Austin’s survey for the public about FY 21 budget priorities allows users to reduce the Austin Police Department budget by up to $21.5 million. Screenshot from June 29, 2019.

The #WeFund tool lets the public test out balancing Austin’s budget with revenue and spending. The budget users first see takes the allocations from the fiscal year 2020 budget and adds a category for a proposed department for Violence Prevention and Survivor Support.

Through an amendment to a resolution passed on June 11 by Austin’s council, Council Member Alison Alter called for the city to consider the creation of this office of Violence Prevention as part of a larger effort to look for areas that currently fall under Austin Police which may be better served by other departments. Alter’s office says she supports the creation of this office and sees it as an important part of “gun violence prevention efforts.”

Using #WeFund

A screenshot from the #WeFund tool showing options to toggle up or down the budget allocation for the proposed Violence Prevention and Survivor Support Department. Screenshot from June 29, 2019.

When starting off with the #WeFund tool, if you toggle $1 million of additional funding into the proposed Department of Violence Prevention, a red banner pops up alerting you that the city is now in deficit and you have to balance the budget elsewhere. From there, users can adjust the budget by changing the way money is spent in other categories. Users cannot change the revenue that fuels this budget: taxes, transfers and “other” revenue.

It’s unclear how exactly the economic fallout of COVID-19 will impact the city’s budget proposal this year, however, it is likely that the pandemic will shape categories represented in this tool in some way.

The city of Austin’s Budget survey for the public notes that as a result of strict measures globally to contain the spread of Coronavirus, “the City anticipates significant reductions in sales taxes, mixed beverage taxes, user fees and fines.” The city can either increase property taxes or increase user fees to raise more revenue to maintain the current level of city services, the survey notes.

The creators of this tool say that it is designed to allow the public to express their priorities for the budget even if the specific dollar amounts available are significantly different from the prior yet.

“#WeFund will allow us to see what public safety really means to the people of Austin,” said Emily Gerrick, managing attorney at Texas Fair Defense Project in a release sent out Monday. “I anticipate that many people want to reallocate significant amounts of funding from APD into alternatives to policing, including into mental health first responders, harm reduction programs, housing, and a new department to prevent violence and actually help survivors.”

Users can submit a budget with a surplus but they cannot submit a budget with a deficit. Once their budget is complete, users can share their selections on social media, with community groups or with elected leaders. The groups who created the tool are asking respondents to share their zip codes to identify what priorities are most important for people living in different parts of the city. Gerrick expects in the next three weeks that initial results from this tool will be available to be shared with city leaders.

Input for the decision-makers

Austin City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan seemed receptive to this tool, saying Monday, “I love seeing new and innovative ways to engage folks in this complicated job of governing the city.”

“Obviously, I think people understand that the complexity is deep and if nothing else seeing how many different departments are funded through a city tax bill is a valuable exercise,” he said.

Flannigan also encouraged community advocates to try creating a similar tool to examine Travis County’s budget when it comes to criminal justice and public safety spending.

On June 11, Austin’s City Council unanimously passed five resolutions related to police reform and racial justice, one of which set the stage to adjust budgeting for police in the FY 21 Budget. While the city manager and city budget leaders told the council they are on board to “reimagine public safety in Austin,” city staff also warned council that because the budget is in its final stages this summer, the city may not be able to make changes quite as dramatic as the council was hoping for.

Gerrick acknowledged that the changes her group and others are calling for in Austin for won’t be a simple fix.

“I think that it is true that this is going to be difficult and we are asking for bold change,” she said. “But everyone is asking for that.”

At recent council meetings where public comment was taken, many speakers weighed in, some calling for defunding the police department, others calling for specific dollar amounts to cut from public safety spending, and still others calling for greater amounts of money to be spent on programs to support services like mental health and social work.

Demonstrators protest police brutality outside the Texas Capitol in Austin on June 7, 2020. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

“Part the reason that we really want to do this is because people right now are, wanting to be very engaged and want to be engaged in what is happening with city budget and what is happening with the Austin Police Department,” Gerrick noted.

“It’s really important, I think, for people to be able to have their voices heard right now, we’re going into the budget cycle in the city of Austin, and I think city council members, City Manager Spencer Cronk, they need to know where the people of Austin want to spend our resources,” she continued.

Austin’s 2020-2021 Fiscal Year Budget

There is, of course, more to creating a city budget than selecting dollar amounts to go with different departments. A city spokesperson explained to KXAN that Austin’s budget process requires things like public input, financial forecasting, council input, juggling legal requirements related to public hearing notices, setting the tax rate and more.

The City of Austin’s fiscal year begins on October 1 and budgeting process happens year-round, the spokesperson explained. In the fall, city departments take a look at their performance, from mid-winter to spring the city looks for a variety of public input on the next year’s budget, in April city staff create a five-year financial forecast to inform the budget, later on in spring departments create their proposed budgets, and then the city manager releases a proposed budget after more review and discussion.

After the proposed budget is presented to council on July 13, the council has a month to review it and call for amendments. The final adoption process for the FY 21 budget is scheduled for August 12 through August 14.

The city spokesperson noted that the city manager’s proposed budget will “move the City in the direction of the priorities that we’ve heard both from the City Council and the community.” The city manager has indicated that he will, as the council has asked him to do, cut existing APD vacancies that “cannot be reasonably filled within the next year” and to “not add additional officers in FY 21 as originally envisioned in the five-year police staffing plan.” City staff has said that doing so would result in the elimination of nearly 100 sworn APD positions, though it will not impact the total number of current sworn positions APD has.

The city spokesperson noted that the coronavirus pandemic is having “a significant impact” on Austin’s budget, with the city projecting a revenue drop of around $180 million in the current fiscal year alone. Back in May, Austin’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo estimated the Fiscal Year 2020 shortfall will be anywhere from $38.3 to $57.6 million, depending on how quickly the economy bounces back.

The city says that high reserve funding and high credit ratings Austin had even prior to the pandemic will help buoy the city financially to a certain extent. City staff say they are “confident in their ability to maintain a structurally sound budget” through things like use of reserves, containing spending, and aggressive pursuit of federal disaster relief funds.

“We are in an economic recession,” City Manager Spencer Cronk noted at the June 11 Council Meeting. “We have not experienced something like this in the last handful of decades.”

He continued, “This is going to be the most challenging budget that we’ve ever put forward and that this Council will be considering, but what I also see is the Budget with the most opportunity because this allows us to think very differently about how we’ve done things in the past.”

KXAN has reached out to several Austin City Council offices as well as Austin Police Association, Austin Firefighters Association, and Austin EMS Association for comment on the #WeFund tool.

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