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Austin city leaders balk at $119M annual price tag of police ballot measure

If approved by voters, the proposal would require the city to employ no fewer than two officers per 1,000 residents

Austin Police Department

Austin Police Department

By Ryan Autullo
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — A vote this November to increase staffing in the Austin Police Department could wind up costing the city anywhere from $54 million to $119 million per year for the next five years and would require offsetting cuts to city services or increases in taxes, according to new financial estimates from the city’s budget office.

The analysis was released Wednesday, and Austin City Council members launched a blistering attack on the proposal, raising concerns about the potential financial impact it could have on taxpayers if voters approve it. Mackenzie Kelly was the only council member who voted to adopt the ordinance outright without putting it on the ballot.

The initiative is from Save Austin Now, the political action committee riding a wave of momentum after spurring the successful vote to reinstate the homeless camping ban during the May election. The PAC got the police staffing measure on the ballot through collecting petitions from registered voters, of which 25,000 were verified by the city clerk.

If approved by voters, Save Austin Now’s proposal would require the city to employ no fewer than two officers per 1,000 residents, conduct no fewer than three cadet training classes per year for several years ahead, and ensure that 35% of an officers’ shift is spent on community engagement. It would also offer financial incentives to officers who learn a foreign language and exhibit good behavior.

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The financial analysis presented by chief financial officer Ed Van Eenoo includes two scenarios, each of them accounting for unknown variables such as the city’s population growth, wage increases for officers and department attrition rate. To accommodate a larger police force, the forecast reflected costs for the construction of one to three police substations and the purchase of additional police vehicles. Van Eenoo also said more than two officers per 1,000 residents would be needed in order to achieve the 35% community engagement time requirement.

Both cost estimates were forecast over five years. The lower estimate is $271.5 million, providing for the hiring of 403 new officers. The higher estimate is $598.8 million and includes 885 new officers.

The police department currently has more than 1,600 sworn officers — about 400 shy of the staffing level that would be needed if Save Austin Now’s plan were in effect right now.

Several council members criticized the proposal during Wednesday’s council meeting. Leslie Pool called it “fiscally irresponsible.” Greg Casar said it would “devastate existing services,” and presented a PowerPoint document that suggested the cost on the higher end could lead to the closing of libraries, pools and parks, or the termination of 1,425 city employees.

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The City Council opted against adopting the petition language proposed by Save Austin Now and came up with their its language for the November ballot. Mayor Steve Adler said Save Austin Now’s verbiage omitted several key details, including cost and minimum staffing levels.

The ballot language approved by the council reads as follows:

“Prop A: Shall an ordinance be approved that, at an estimated cost of $271.5 million - $598.8 million over five years, requires the City to employ at least 2 police officers per 1,000 residents at all times; requires at least 35% of patrol officer time be uncommitted time, otherwise known as community engagement time; requires additional financial incentives for certain officers; requires specific kinds of training for officers and certain public officials and their staffs; and requires there be at least three full-term cadet classes for the department until staffing levels reach a specific level?”

The caption language on SAN’s petition read: “A petitioned ordiance to enhance public safey and police oversight, transparency and accountability by adding a new CHapter 2-16 to establish minimum stands for the police department to ensure effiective public safety and protect residents and visitors to Austin, and prescribing minimal requirements for achieving the same.”

Save Austin Now’s lawyer, Bill Aleshire, told the American-Statesman on Wednesday night that he intends to file a lawsuit this week just as he did when the City Council refused to adopt the PAC’s proposed ballot language for the May election. Aleshire said he plans to file an emergency motion for writ of mandamus to the 3rd Court of Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court.

“The council’s inclusion of the unvetted and undocumented cost speculation memo into the ballot language at the last minute will be fatal to their attempt to defend the council’s language,” Aleshire wrote in an email. “But this case will first test whether the Austin City Council must comply with the Austin city charter and whether the people of Austin can petition for an ordinance and indicate what the ballot language will be instead of letting the City Council (who does not support the petitioned ordinance) manipulate the ballot language to try to defeat it.”

The debate over the ballot measure comes a year after the City Council voted to cut or reallocate $150 million from the police department’s budget and eliminate 150 vacant officer positions. The council also canceled three cadet classes, which are needed to fill staffing vacancies. The declining staffing levels led to the petition drive, with Save Austin Now leaders Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek saying the city does not have adequate police staffing to address violent crime.

Former City Council member Bill Spellman testified at the meeting that the city does need more officers, but that Save Austin Now’s proposal is not the way to go because it would hold the city to such a rigid standard. Spelman, who was on the council from 1997 to 2000 and again from 2009 to 2015, is a former University of Texas professor who conducts police staffing studies.

Later in Wednesday’s meeting, the council added a second proposition to the November ballot. Proposition B allows for the city to convey or lease nine acres of parkland through a public bidding process. The property is a maintenance facility adjacent to Oracle’s headquarters at 2525 S. Lakeshore Blvd. Multiple people told the American-Statesman that Oracle hopes to acquire the property.

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