Prior to the break, the council deliberated locations for city-sanctioned encampments but couldn’t settle on any ahead of the beginning of the camping ban reinstatement’s Phase 2. They narrowed down two sites, one northeast of downtown and the other southwest.
Those were two of the initial 78 identified and now the councilmembers representing those two sites’ districts, Natasha Harper-Madison and Paige Ellis, came out against the proposed campsites last week. Both were within three-tenths of a mile from a school.
That puts Austin back to square one on this pivotal aspect of the camping ban reinstatement. The city has been hesitant to enforce the reinstated camping ban without having places to which to move the homeless outside of already existing shelters.
During the break, City Manager Spencer Cronk proposed a $4.5 billion city budget for the 2021-2022 Fiscal Year — $3 billion once Austin Energy is taken out of the equation.
The city is proposing a maximum tax rate of $0.5542 per $100 of taxable value. If the max is approved, the median homeowner in Austin will see a $906 increase in their city tax bill. Last year, Austin passed a 20 percent hike in the tax rate to fund, in addition to annual expenses, the $7.1 billion light rail project — which may now cost even more.
Because it was above the voter-approval rate, both the regular 3.5 percent and 8 percent disaster rate, it had to be put up for a vote. The ballot proposition passed overwhelmingly.
The original budget proposal recommends a 3.5 percent increase — at the lower voter-approval rate set by 2019’s property tax reform. But due to the disaster declarations issued by Governor Greg Abbott, the continuous one for coronavirus and the one during the February winter storm, Austin officials argue the voter-approval rate is 8 percent this year.
By tying it to disasters that cause physical damage, the state legislature passed legislation this year to close the “disaster loophole.” That allowed many localities to hike property tax rates up to 8 percent in 2020 without needing voter approval. Aimed specifically at pandemics, which cause more economic damage than physical, the reform would only apply to the pandemic disaster order.
With a disaster declaration issued across the entire state, February’s blackouts were very much physical damage and so an 8 percent tax increase can be issued by all cities and counties this year without voter approval. The city could still go with the proposal’s recommended rate but could also decide to go with an up to 8 percent increase without needing input from voters.
In that proposal, much of 2020’s $150 million cut and redirection from the Austin Police Department (APD) budget is nominally restored. But the proposed neighborhood patrol budget section is still $3 million less than its 2019 amount. The “restoration” largely came from placing functions such as the crime lab and the 911 call center back under the APD umbrella.
APD is currently short 163 patrol officers and saw its average response time increase one minute and 30 seconds since the cut last summer.
Save Austin Now, the group behind the camping ban petition, submitted over 27,000 signatures for its petition that, among other things, requires the city to staff APD at an “adequate” level of 2 officers per 1,000 residents. Austin is currently operating around 1.2 officers per 1,000.
Currently, APD is losing officers at about a rate of 15 to 20 per week and the 2021 homicide rate is at a 96 percent increase from last year’s levels.
On Tuesday, the Austin city clerk announced the certification of the ballot proposition with 25,786 of their submitted signatures were valid. They needed 20,000 valid to make the ballot. The council must approve language for the proposition that would be placed on the November ballot.
At a Tuesday press conference, four Texas congressmen — Reps. Michael McCaul (R-TX-10), August Pfluger (R-TX-11), Chip Roy (R-TX-21), and Roger Williams (R-TX-25) — gathered, alongside Rep. John Katko (R-NY-24) to voice support for the ballot proposition and stated federal legislation will be filed to address police staffing issues nationwide.
With all of this, plus its run-of-the-mill responsibilities, the Austin City Council has a lot on its plate this month.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and 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.