Police criticism, social services requests lead Austin budget response

11:40 a.m. Friday, Aug. 18, 2017 Local
Nick Wagner

Critics of Austin police dominated a city budgeting session Thursday evening as the City Council heard from scores of residents on what 2018 financing priorities should be.

Those should be less money for policing and more money for social services, a large group of activists argued. They urged the council to abandon contract negotiations with the police union and instead return to funding police annually without a multiyear union contract.

“Begin an incremental process of dedicating public safety resources — just a few million dollars this year — to more effective approaches that address root causes,” said Kathy Mitchell of the Austin Justice Coalition.

Public safety makes up about 67 percent of Austin’s $1 billion general fund.

The Austin Justice Coalition, a nonprofit organization focused on helping minorities, outlined eight changes it wants to see made to how police misconduct cases are handled. They include considering past misconduct in future discipline, eliminating the statute of limitations for discipline, considering misconduct in weighing promotions and stopping the practice of sealing officer misconduct files.

The group said the current police contract protects misconduct and rewards a policing system in need of reform.

A couple of people disputed that and argued that budgeting for public safety should be increased for 2018. Cary Roberts of the Greater Austin Crime Commission said the city is ignoring warning signs and should fund more officers.

“My grandfather would say someone was whistling past a graveyard when they avoided a difficult situation and, unfortunately, when it comes to public safety we’re doing just that,” he said. “Despite growth, increased violent crime and slower response times, public safety spending as a total of the budget will decrease.”

Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, said in an emailed statement that local officers put their lives on the line every day in an environment of explosive population growth, rising violent crime and a proposed budget with no new dollars for additional officers.

“We understand some of the community’s frustration,” he said. “However, we are committed to ensuring our (contract) agreement will maintain our standing as one of the most transparent police departments in the country.”

Overall, the council heard 2½ hours of testimony from the public on the budget Thursday. Aside from policing, Austinites asked to increase public health funding, contribute more money to city equity efforts and to up services for low-income residents.

Even with a substantial tax increase on the table, Austin’s 2018 budget is tight. Already-approved spending increases, like body cameras for police officers and the opening of a new Central Library, will eat up new funding. The staff proposed budget didn’t increase social services funding as much as some council members would have liked, and left just $5 million for council additions.

RELATED: Austin tax rate may mean election as city mulls school district swap

City leaders set the maximum proposed tax rate for next year at 46.5 cents per $100 of property value — a 14.4 percent increase in revenue that could trigger an election — in order to consider a potential tax swap with the Austin school district. If the city and school district don’t decide to pursue a deal for the city to raise taxes and the school district to lower them, the city is expected to raise its tax revenue 8 percent. Two people turned out to lodge concerns about the tax rate Thursday.

Numerous advocates asked the council to ease the development of co-op housing within the city.

Supporters of the Austin Commission on Women called to add a $50,000 allocation to help train sexual assault counselors and to put more police resources into victims services. Last year, sexual assault services became a flashpoint in the city budget as victims begged for funding to test rape kits.

One women cried before the council Thursday as she recounted her rape and insensitive handling of it, she said, by authorities.

“I tell people I’m too cold to go out in the winter, but I’m not, I’m just afraid of the dark,” she said. “I lie awake thinking … I know he’s doing it to someone else. Because, statistically, he is. I urge you to take this small step to help women that have reported these crimes.”

Others asked for more funding for parks and community centers and, especially, asked that parks and community centers in overlooked areas of the city be brought up to par. Several children from the Montopolis swim team turned out with a slick documentary-style video saying their neighborhood pool is in poor condition.

“Montopolis doesn’t have the flag that you use to indicate where you’re going, so … I’d like, hit my head on the wall, or hit my hand or bump into people,” a child in the video said. “But then at all the pools we competed at, that was something they had.”

*This story has been updated to include a comment from the Austin Police Association.