Austin firefighters vote to fight ballot measure on police staffing
The announcement could pit the city's two public safety departments against each other during the Nov. 2 election
AUSTIN — Fearing it could cost some of them their jobs, Austin firefighters said Friday they will spend union money to fight a ballot proposition that, if voters approve, would require the city to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to hire more police officers.
The decision adds the firefighters' voices to those who oppose Proposition A and say it would have significant financial consequences for the city's budget if it passes.
Friday's announcement by the firefighters could threaten the relationship between Austin's two public safety departments, pitting them against each other during the Nov. 2 election.
The decision to formally oppose the ballot measures came via a vote this week by the Austin Firefighters Association labor union. According to union President Bob Nicks, more than half of the roughly 1,100 members participated in the vote. Of them, 57% voted to oppose the proposition, and 43% preferred to stay neutral, he said.
In campaigning against the policing plan, the union will spend $15,000 of its own money plus any money it generates from outside contributions. Nicks said the union will not accept money from any anti-police groups.
"The vote was never about disrespecting police," Nicks said Friday at a news conference. "It was only about examining the negative consequences of a poorly written law."
Others who have come out against Prop A include most of the Austin City Council, the Travis County Democratic Party, and criminal justice reform groups.
The police staffing plan starts with requiring the city to employ two officers per 1,000 residents.
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 2.1 per 1,000 and 2.5 per 1,000.
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.
To come up with the money, the city could have to cut funding for other departments.
A graphic distributed by City Council Member Greg Casar suggests potentially significant cuts to the Fire Department: 300 to 400 firefighter positions and $30 million to $40 million. The firefighters' annual budget is $219 million, the second-largest in the city's $1.2 billion general fund budget behind the police department's $442 million.
Other departments that could feel the pinch of Prop A include EMS, parks and libraries.
"We appreciate the Austin Firefighters Association's willingness to shoot straight with the residents of Austin about the true cost of Proposition A," Mayor Steve Adler said in a written statement. "If passed, it would lead to budget cuts to city services like parks and pools and positions like firefighters, paramedics, and mental health care responders. We know this was a difficult and highly unusual endorsement for the Austin Firefighters Association to make, and we applaud their objective approach to this election."
The fire union's stance was unusual, as it historically has endorsed individual candidates but has not taken positions on ballot propositions. But Nicks said he held the vote because he felt this directly involved the firefighters.
Prior to the vote, Austin Police Association President Ken Casady encouraged firefighters to remain neutral and noted that the police did not get involved in a firefighter-backed proposition in May. That proposition was for binding arbitration in contract negotiations with the city.
Save Austin Now co-founders Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek issued a statement saying they continue to support firefighters even after the vote.
"AFA has decided to oppose Austin police in the most profound staffing crisis in city history amid a violent crime wave that is touching every neighborhood," the statement read. "We will continue fighting for public safety in Austin and we know Austin firefighters will too, even if Bob Nicks won't."
The Police Department is down to 1,809 sworn positions after losing 150 in 2020 from budget cuts. More than 200 of those positions are vacant, and it could take years before they are filled regardless of the outcome on Prop A.