Texas officials to offer incentives for officers who move to Austin

Despite being among the highest-paid in the nation, only 27 percent of sworn officers live inside the city limits

By Philip Jankowski and Tony Plohetski
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin officials are in the early stages of developing an array of monetary incentives to get hundreds of police officers living in suburban communities to become city residents, the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV learned Thursday.

In a first step toward adopting the possible perks, police union representatives this week approved a tentative change in their labor contract allowing Austin City Council members to come up with various options that could include a one-time moving expense payment, monthly stipends for owning a home in the city or a month of free rent for apartment dwellers.

Council Member Kathie Tovo said she is exploring possibilities and hopes to draft a resolution co-sponsored by Council Member Ora Houston within coming weeks. Officials said they haven't calculated possible costs.

"This would be structured as an optional program," Tovo said. "Our officers do a great job of becoming familiar with the neighborhoods in which they serve, but this would be an additional opportunity for them to really get to know an area well, to be very familiar with Austin, and to be close to their job."

Despite being among the highest-paid officers in the nation, as of August, only 27 percent of Austin's 1,737 sworn officers lived inside the city limits, documents from Austin police show.

The move could rekindle a years-old debate about whether police officers who work for the Austin Police Department should live within the city.

Proponents who say officers should be strongly encouraged — if not required — to live in the city limits generally contend it enhances public safety because they can become more familiar with the issues affecting their communities and are capable of responding to emergencies more quickly by cutting commute times. They also say having officers residing in the city provides some indirect benefits, such as the ability to participate in municipal elections and other civic events.

However, police union representatives have cited cheaper living expenses and better schools as some of the reasons why officers are often attracted to suburbs. Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, said officers also like to stay away from the city to reduce the chances of encountering people they have arrested or ticketed while on the job.

The agreement under consideration "will incentivize them to move back into the city," Casaday said. "However, it will not force them to live within the city. That is something we would have never agreed to."

For years, Austin has paid its officers some of the highest police salaries in the nation and the highest in Texas.

A beginning officer with no experience earns $57,530 his first year, and gets a salary bump to $64,559 after the first 12 months. That pay doesn't include other stipends such as for those who are bilingual or who have special training to deal with people with mental health issues.

By comparison, a Dallas police officer earns $46,670 after one year of service, and a San Antonio police officer has a starting salary of $42,732.

Some Austin's suburbs already offer extra benefits to officers who live in the cities where they work. In Cedar Park and Round Rock, officers who live in the city limits get to drive a patrol car to their home, with fuel paid for by the city. Georgetown provides a take-home vehicle for any officer living within 12 miles of the police station, police there said.

San Marcos officers get a take-home vehicle if they live within 5 miles of city limits. The city also offers a $5,000 loan to all employees who move to the city that is forgiven after 5 years of employment, officials said.

These financial benefits are considered a recruitment tool, but they might also help lower crime rates, Round Rock police Cmdr. Jim Stuart said.

"We're fortunate the city buys into this idea because the presence of a police vehicle anywhere is a deterrent," Stuart said.

Outside of Texas, Baltimore, Md., is currently considering offering $2,500 property tax rebates for police and firefighters who live in city limits.

Houston has also tried to adopt incentives to keep officers living within its city limits, but an initiative to encourage police officers to move into the city stalled last month over opposition from the Houston Police Officers Union, union President Ray Hunt said.

Initially the union supported a proposal to offer $25,000 in financial incentives over five years to police officers who moved into the city. But when city officials added a requirement that any officers participating in the program have their addresses and phone numbers posted publicly, the union turned its back on the proposal.

"It was a good idea from the outset, but when it got down to the details it was not a good deal for our officers," Hunt said.

Copyright 2015 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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