AUSTIN, TX — The Austin City Council unanimously approved on Thursday a $4.2 billion municipal budget that calls for $150 million in cuts to the Austin Police Department.
The budget approval came after city council members listened to about four hours’ worth of testimony from more than 200 residents, most of whom called for cuts to the $442 million police budget amid ongoing civil unrest calling for law enforcement reform.
The $150 million police budget cut is a far cry from an original proposal by City Manager Spencer Cronk to cut a mere $11.3 million from the police budget. All told, the approved police budget totals about $290 million — down from $434 million before the cuts.
The budget cut comes amid ongoing civil unrest sparked in late May as protesters decry police brutality. The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes sparked nationwide protests, including in Austin. But locally, activists already had galvanized after the death of Michael Ramos, 42, who was fatally shot by police after a brief confrontation in South Austin despite having shown them he was unarmed at the time.
Calls for police reform were bolstered after police used beanbag projectiles and pepper spray to disperse peaceful protests outside police headquarters on May 30. Two young men were seriously hurt by the non-lethal projectiles after being hit in the head with the munitions and subsquently hospitalized. Police Chief Brian Manley acknowledged that officers fired the same projectiles as they carried one of the injured men for ambulance transport after having been directed to move the injured protester by police themselves. Calls for Manley’s resignation continue among some following that demonstration of police force.
The General Fund budget is $1.1 billion while the Capital Budget includes $1.2 billion in planned spending. In approving the budget, council moved to introduce changes to public safety in Austin by reallocating police funding to health, housing and critical social services.
Among the approved cuts to police funding:
A $20 million cut primarily taken from cadet classes and overtime in a move to reinvest in permanent supportive housing and services, EMS for COVID-19 response, family violence shelter and protection, violence prevention, workforce development and a range of other programs.
Transfer of police functions (and related funding of nearly $80 million) out of the department over the course of the fiscal year. These include Forensics Sciences, Communications/911 call center, strategic support, and internal affairs.
Create a Reimagine Safety Fund to divert almost $50 million from APD toward alternative forms of public safety and community support, to be delivered from outside APD, as determined through the year-long reimagining process.
The specter of coronavirus also loomed large in the budget-making process. The approved budget ensures the city continues investing in key council priorities and implementing council-approved COVID-19 spending framework to support Austin families and businesses, “…while remaining consistent with responsible budgeting practices that have enabled the city to mitigate the impacts of anticipated revenue losses caused by the pandemic,” Cronk explained.
“In just a few short weeks the city and council have worked together to come up with solutions to the challenges we face as a community,” the city manager said in a prepared statement. “This budget takes us forward as a city, but I’ve also been clear we’ll have to come back and make adjustments, not only because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but because of our desire to truly reimagine public safety.”
The approved budget assumes a property tax rate of 53.35 cents per $100 of taxable value. That comprises a rate of 44.60 cents for city operations — an increase of 0.29 cents from the FY 2019-20 tax rate and a 3.5 percent increase above the no-new-revenue Operations and Maintenance rate – plus an additional 8.75 cents for the Project Connect transportation initiative, a citywide traffic-easing rapid transit system.
Council called for a Nov. 3 election to seek voter approval for the additional taxes to fund Project Connect. If voters accept the proposed tax rate of 53.35 cents in November, the city tax bill for the typical homeowner — defined as the owner of a median-valued ($326,368) non-senior home — would be $1,741.17 per year or $145.10 per month. This would be an increase of $332.39 per year or $27.70 per month.
Under the adopted budget, typical rate payers will see their Austin Energy bills go down and their Austin Water bills frozen, the city manager noted. Austin Resource Recovery charges will increase, by just over $31 per year, to pay for the citywide implementation of curbside organic materials collection. Taken together, the combined impact of tax, rate and fee changes would represent an increase, for the typical ratepayer, of 7.9 percent — an additional $325.20 per year or $27.10 per month. Thursday’s approval of city tax and spending plans for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2020 comes after several months of stakeholder engagement — including an online survey that attracted unprecedented levels of participation, with 37,000 responses compared with the usual 2,000-3,000.
Officials explained this is the third year in which the proposed budget was organized by outcome area, and not strictly by city department, to reflect the priorities of the Austin community, using council’s adopted Strategic Direction 2023 as a guide. The outcomes are Culture & Lifelong Learning, Economic Opportunity & Affordability, Government That Works for All, Health & Environment, Mobility, and Safety. Council began their deliberations on Wednesday working from the city manager’s proposed budget, (snapshot summary here) which included the following commitments, now part of the adopted budget:
$60.9 million to strengthen the city’s commitment to end homelessness in Austin through housing displacement prevention, crisis mitigation, and re-empowerment efforts.
Additional $3.5 million in low interest loans to small businesses through the Family Business Loan Program.
$735,000 to enhance the city’s open-data portal, increasing transparency for Austin residents.
$1.5 million for improvements to the Asian American Resource Center, Carver Museum, and Mexican American Cultural Center.
$423,000 and 6 new positions to fully implement the citywide curbside organic materials collection program.
$14.7 million for sidewalk improvements and $2.3 million for pedestrian safety including hybrid beacons, audible crosswalk indicators, and more visible signs and markings.
$5.1 million for crisis response and victim services.
In a prepared statement following budget approval, city council member Greg Casar lauded efforts to reinvest in public safety alternatives. “Today’s budget vote is unprecedented in Texas,” he said. “We’ve begun a transformational change away from mass incarceration and toward real community safety. We know that we cannot simply police away our community’s challenges.
“Thousands of Austinites demanded we invest deeply in the public health and safety of our community. Today, we chose to create a safer city. We’re opening a new family violence shelter; we’re hiring mental health crisis teams; we voted to get hundreds more people out of homelessness; we funded gun violence prevention programs. Today, our city did the right thing.”
Chas Moore, founder of the Austin Justice Coalition — a group that has spearheaded calls for local police reform and has organized several protests — said the cuts represented a victory for his members.
“This is the first of many victories for this next year,” Moore said in a prepared statement. “And we are just getting started. Structural change is hard. Ending racism is even harder. We are fighting long established interests, and our voices and engagement are required in this transformation of our collective values.”
But he said fellow activists cannot let up or rest on their laurels: “The decoupling and the effort to reimagine public safety will take place over the coming year by a thousand small decisions,” Moore said. “I hope that the thousands of people who have protested in the streets, sent emails and made phone calls over the past two, three months will stay involved and help us get the structural change we want and so desperately need.”
Kathy Mitchell of Just Liberty was more tempered in response, saying the initial divestments were smaller than had been hoped: “The $20-plus million in immediate divestment is of course less than we hoped Council could cut,” she said in a prepared statement. “But it was enough to fund a big expansion of EMS services, fully fund alternative first responders for mental health related calls, provide a much needed shelter for victims of family violence, increase homeless services, offer programs to support people trying to reintegrate after incarceration, add new violence prevention services and give harm reduction a chance to help people struggling with addiction, and I expect many Austininites will want to have a party the day that downtown police headquarters finally comes down.”
Chris Harris, the director of Criminal Justice Programs at Texas Appleseed, also had hoped for deeper cuts in police funding: “While many hoped to cut 25 percent to 50 percent of the police budget, this divestment is similar to what other cities are doing,” he said in a prepared statement. He ticked off a list of cities implementing similar cuts: New York cut 8.5 percent; San Jose, Californais, with a 3 percent budget reduction; Seattle with a 2.5 percent cut.
“On the other hand,” Harris noted, “Houston increased their police budget 2 percent, Phoenix by 3 percent and San Diego by 5 percent. Austin is cutting about 4.5 percent, but also has created the opportunity for additional cuts over the coming months, so it’s in a position to be a leader nationally in responding to these protests if City Council retains its commitment to racial justice and reimagining public safety.”
Emily Gerrick of the Texas Fair Defense Project was similarly forward-thinking in her assessment: “Everything the city invested in today — from public health and emergency medical services to survivor support and violence prevention — would not have been funded without immediate cuts to the police department’s bloated budget,” she said in a prepared statement. “Each of these investments has the potential to improve public safety for all Austinites, unlike the current APD strategy of severely over-policing people of color and causing intergenerational harm to entire communities.”
Moore noted how the revised budget creates separate funds for many police divisions that will be moved out of the department over the first two quarters, and budget amendments will be brought forward at the latest mid-year.
“It is a victory that the crime lab, 911 dispatch, internal affairs and many support services will be rapidly moved out of the police department,” he said. “There is no doubt that we send police to calls where we don’t need them because the police department runs the call center. There is no doubt that internal affairs has failed to hold officers accountable for misconduct. Police mismanagement ruined the crime lab. We’re on a path to fixing structurally some of the biggest problems we’ve encountered with policing.”
This article originally appeared on the Austin Patch