IssuesLocal NewsAlleged Impact of Austin’s Police Staffing Proposition on Parks and Libraries Becomes Campaign Focal Point

Opponents of Proposition A warn about the financial costs of its passage which amount to less than 5 percent of the current budget.
October 27, 2021
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Establishment of a minimum police staffing level is on Austin’s ballot next week, and those opposed to the proposition contend parks and libraries are on the chopping block.

“Proposition A would require at least 2 police officers per 1,000 Austin residents (probably more because of other provisions),” Mayor Steve Adler said in a mass email, adding, “with a budget-breaking cost over the next 5 years of between $300-600 million.”

To achieve that minimum staffing level at the current vacancy rate would require hiring between 300 and 350 officers. There are currently roughly 200 vacancies for currently authorized positions and 150 positions from the 2019 budget remain absent. That 150 was nixed during the 2020 budget cut and redirection of $150 million along with the cancelation of three cadet classes.

The Austin Police Department (APD) is reeling from a staffing crisis due to a myriad of internal and external factors, and if projections of a January exodus come true, the department may see 150 to 200 more vacancies pile up.

Adler continued, “This would likely require cuts to other public safety services like fire and EMS, in addition to services like parks and pools.”

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Back in August, the Austin City Council adopted ballot language that differed substantially from the language circulated on Save Austin Now’s petitions. Its language focused heavily on the city’s estimated cost of Prop A’s provisions pegged at between $271.5 million and $598.8 million over five years.

Annually, that estimate boils down to between $54.3 million and $119.76 million. The calculation’s variation is tied to population growth estimates that would cause the minimum staffing threshold to fluctuate. The estimate pegs first year hires at 316 at the low end and 680 at the high end.

To meet the staffing level, those estimates would roughly amount to between $172,000 and $264,000 per officer hired. The city’s estimate also includes funding for capital expenditures such as a new police substation, a new training facility, and necessary equipment.

Save Austin Now’s Matt Mackowiak, meanwhile, estimates the cost of Prop A to be $100,000 per new officer hired. Under that estimate, Prop A would cost $30 million to $35 million at the current staffing level.

In a Medium post, he said, “Prop A will not be fully implemented in 2021 or even in 2022, as it will be impossible to hire the needed 300–350 officers that quickly.”

“We roughly estimate the cost to be between $30-$35M annually in the first 1–2 years. In 2022, rising valuations will bring AT LEAST $40 million more in property taxes into city coffers than last year.”

If the hiring lags behind immediate implementation of Prop A, then that would also defray the cost associated for however long it takes those positions to be filled.

Austin passed a $4.5 billion budget this year, which brings in $52 million more in property taxes than the previous year — a 5.7 percent increase which is above the legislature’s 2019 voter-approval cap but less than the 8 percent disaster rate. Subtracting Austin Energy, the city-owned utility, that total is roughly $3 billion, and the General Fund amounts to $1.2 billion.

Compared to the overall budget, the city’s estimates amount to either 1.8 percent or 4 percent.

In the same budget, the council allocated $443 million to the Austin Police Department (APD) — a nominal increase from the previous year’s large cut achieved mostly by placing the forensic lab and the 911 call center back under the APD umbrella. The council did this to avoid conflict with a newly passed state law that set punishments for large cities that make cuts to their police departments.

Opponents of Prop A say that because this year’s budget has already been allocated, that chunk must be pulled from elsewhere should it pass next week. As a campaign tactic, those places suggested are libraries, parks, or other emergency departments.

The allocations for those items are:

  • EMS ‒ $105 million
  • Fire ‒ $219 million
  • Libraries ‒ $60 million
  • Parks ‒ $112.5 million

Collectively, those amount to 16.5 percent of the overall budget. Should Prop A pass, it’ll be the city manager who’s tasked with identifying the places from which to pull funding.

The City of Austin is not opposed to spending money with abandon. The city just announced its intention to spend $515 million on homeless initiatives over the next three years — over one-fifth is slated to come from public dollars.

And since 2019, the council has approved $179 million in homelessness related projects, some of which is unaccounted for.

Last year, Austin voters approved a $7 billion light rail project and a 20 percent tax hike to finance part of it.

Other substantial categories of this year’s budget include:

  • Communications and Technology Management ‒ $124 million
  • Convention Center ‒ $125 million
  • Financial Services ‒ $123 million
  • Economic Development ‒ $69 million
  • Human Resources ‒ $325 million

At an October 5 press conference with Save Austin Now, Councilwoman Mackenzie Kelly, the only Republican on council, endorsed the proposition and said, “I can assure you that we have passed enough money through social services programs that have no reason to be provided by the municipal government — that we have the money at the city to prioritize public safety and provide additional staffing.”

After a legal challenge, the city council’s originally proposed ballot caption was ruled mostly deficient by the Texas Supreme Court. The final caption is Save Austin Now’s circulated caption backended by the city’s financial cost estimate.

As the campaigns reach the home stretch, the cost associated with Prop A will continue to be hotly debated. But if cuts to parks and libraries are levied upon a prospective voter approval of Prop A, it will be city officials who choose to implement them.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.