Austin to vote on increased police spending at the expense of FD

City leaders who have said if the proposition passes the firefighters could lose hundreds of jobs and be forced to sacrifice tens of millions of dollars to the police department


Ryan Autullo
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN — If voters approve it, a ballot proposition in November to increase staffing in the Austin Police Department could come at a steep cost: somewhere between $54 million and $119 million per year, if city estimates are correct.

The range is broad because several factors are unknown at this point, including the precise number of officers who would need to be hired to bring the city into compliance with the ballot measure.

As the second-largest consumer of the city's $1.2 billion general fund budget, the Austin Fire Department has been pulled into this election by city leaders who have said if the proposition passes the firefighters could lose hundreds of jobs and be forced to sacrifice tens of millions of dollars to the Police Department.
As the second-largest consumer of the city's $1.2 billion general fund budget, the Austin Fire Department has been pulled into this election by city leaders who have said if the proposition passes the firefighters could lose hundreds of jobs and be forced to sacrifice tens of millions of dollars to the Police Department. (Photo/AFD)

But far more certain is where much of that money might end up coming from: the Austin Fire Department.

As the second-largest consumer of the city's $1.2 billion general fund budget, the Austin Fire Department has been pulled into this election by city leaders who have said if the proposition passes the firefighters could lose hundreds of jobs and be forced to sacrifice tens of millions of dollars to the Police Department.

In response, the Fire Department's labor union is considering opposing the proposal and spending $15,000 of its own money in an effort to defeat it. Firefighters are set to vote on that this week.

"I feel this directly involves us," Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks said.

Known as Proposition A, the police staffing plan is complex. It starts with requiring the city to employ two officers per 1,000 residents, a metric that as of today would mean more than 300 new hires.

But it goes deeper.

A second provision mandates that 35% of an officer's shift must be spent on uncommitted time — often referred to as community engagement time — and not responding to calls. To ensure that shifts are staffed adequately, city staffers say even more than two officers per 1,000 residents are needed. The true ratio, they say, is somewhere between 2.3 per 1,000 and 2.5 per 1,000.

Save Austin Now — the police-friendly political action committee that got Proposition A on the November ballot — disputes the city's cost estimates and plans to release a lower estimate before the election, co-founder Matt Mackowiak said.

Weighing police attrition rates against Austin's current population and projected growth, the city would need to hire 403 to 885 more officers in the next five years, according to the city's math. The cost to do that is $271.5 million to $598.8 million, the city says.

All of this has the Fire Department on high alert.

A graphic distributed by City Council Member Greg Casar suggests potential ways the city could fund Proposition A, calling for significant cuts to the Fire Department: 300 to 400 firefighter positions and $30 million to $40 million.

The numbers are alarming but also possibly exaggerated. For instance, the chart includes high and medium cost range scenarios but not the $54 million low range scenario provided by the city. It also omits the possibility of the city paying for some of the new hires through increased tax revenue that would be generated by rising property values. Lastly, it makes no mention that the city already is short about 225 officers whom it must hire regardless of Proposition A to fill the number of positions allocated in the budget.

Mackowiak said trying to reduce Proposition A to firefighters vs. police officers is "a false choice." He accused the city of inflating the cost estimate and overplaying the challenges in paying for the proposal.

He also said that, if voters approve the measure, he does not expect the city to fully enforce the proposition in the first year, noting that it's unrealistic to hire and train 300 to 350 officers in one year.

Other departments that could be affected by Proposition A through job reductions include EMS, parks and libraries, health and services, and courts.

"We'll have to evaluate those trade-offs if we're forced into it with this proposition," Council Member Alison Alter said.

Although police leaders have expressed concern about a shortage of officers, the city's fire and EMS leaders are also dealing with staffing shortages.

The budgeted sworn positions for the three public safety departments are 1,809 for police, 1,257 for fire and 661 for EMS. Their approximate vacancies for those positions are 224 for police, 110 for fire and 87 for EMS.

The annual budgets are $442 million for police, $219 million for fire and $105 million for EMS.

"This is really a question of extraordinary new amounts of spending for police officers at the expense of all of our key city services — fire, medics, parks and libraries," Casar said. "All of those could take a drastic hit and would face major consequences if Prop A were to pass."

Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association, said her union is "closely monitoring the proposition" and has not issued an endorsement of any kind. Casar's graphic has them sacrificing $15 million to $19.2 million and losing 160 to 210 positions.

Meanwhile, firefighters are weighing their options and considering siding against police. Beginning Tuesday, the labor union will take a vote during which members will select from two options: oppose the police staffing initiative or remain neutral with the possibility of further action.

The vote will end Thursday.

If its members vote to oppose the ballot measure, the union intends to spend $15,000 to campaign against Proposition A. It would be unusual in that the union historically has endorsed individual candidates — including many, such as Casar and District Attorney Jose Garza, who are critical of the police — but typically has not taken a position on ballot propositions.

Austin Police Association President Ken Casady was recently invited by the firefighters union to speak on the proposition.

"We're asking them to stay out of it like we did with their proposition," Casady said, referring to a binding arbitration proposal for firefighters that voters approved during the May election.

Mackowiak said he has committed to Austin firefighters that he will work to create a staffing measure for them similar to Proposition A if the City Council cuts positions from their budget.

"We'll see how they vote," he said. "They're going to have to live with the consequences of their decision."

But in an email to union members obtained by the American-Statesman, Nicks, the union president, expressed concerns about Proposition A and encouraged his members to oppose it.

"I am unapologetic for doing my duty, no matter how unpleasant, but I am not lying when I say I believe that Prop A will likely pass if we do not get involved and I believe that Prop A will have a significant negative impact on your future wages, benefits and working conditions, and therefore your families," Nicks wrote last week. "We can debate how large or small this impact may or may not be but there will be a future impact that you will feel."

No matter what happens in the election, it could take years before the Austin Police Department returns to the 1,809 positions currently authorized in its budget. Two years ago, the number was even higher — 1,959. Then, in the wake of last summer's protests, the City Council voted to eliminate 150 vacant positions and pause three cadet training classes. An increase in department retirements followed and has continued.

Thus, the 224 vacancies.

One of the canceled cadet classes was restored, but those cadets will not graduate until the spring. Two future classes were approved for the upcoming fiscal year, but those classes haven't started. A third class is likely to be funded at some point by the end of the year. That class will be smaller than the other two.

Early voting will begin Oct. 18 and go through Oct. 29. Election Day is Nov. 2.

An earlier version of this story said firefighters' jobs are protected under their service agreement and cannot be laid off for budget reasons. Firefighters can be laid off for budget reasons.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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