Commentary: City should boost social programs, not police salaries

When Austin City Council, at the urging of dozens of community groups and residents, sent the police contract back for further negotiation last month, it did the fiscally responsible thing.

When the Austin Police Association refused to negotiate the remaining cost and accountability concerns in the three-plus months still available under the contract, it was simply trying to bully the council into taking the same bad deal that was just rejected.

Thank goodness, this council stood up to them. This year, Austin will still have a police department — and the city will have the leverage it needs to get the better deal that residents have demanded.

What is that leverage?

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The contract gives some Austin officers bonuses, high-dollar overtime and “specialty pay” items. Starting on Jan. 1, about $10 million from the city’s reserve account became available to the City Council — and a new citywide debate will begin about how to spend those dollars to best improve public safety. That debate will reset the terms of the new negotiation in favor of a better deal for every taxpayer: more accountability at a lower price.

To put that $10 million figure in perspective, in the last budget cycle, council members had less than $10 million in total discretionary spending. The council could not meet its commitments to housing or health and human services — or even relatively small requests for improvements to parks, pools and youth programs.

Why? There are many reasons why the council has so little discretionary money at budget time, but a big one is this police contract. The police contract locks up more than 27 percent of general revenue for the next five years, a financial decision that will tie the hands of council members we haven’t even elected yet.

Does it makes sense to spend millions more to make our existing, highly compensated police officers even more highly compensated? That is what the recently rejected contract did. On top of salaries that are the highest in the state by more than 15 percent — on top of guaranteed large “step” increases after years of service — the new contract added a bonus for patrol officers to patrol — yes, that’s right — and a $1,000 “ratification” bonus.

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The City Council should reinstate some of the “specialty” pays – like extra pay for bilingual officers and participation in mental-health crisis intervention teams. But things like the proposed “patrol stipend” and $1,000 bonus were unnecessary and inappropriate.

It is reasonable to have a highly compensated police force — but it is also reasonable to decide that enough is enough. We need to balance police pay against the need for programs that might better address some of the well-known root causes of crime: homelessness, mental illness and disaffected youth.

Some of those alternatives – for example, social services and diversion programs for the homeless and mentally ill – would likely benefit public safety more than just boosting police officers’ pay to do the same work. Even the hiring of more police officers is jeopardized by decisions today to pay officers more than taxpayers can really afford.

For all these reasons, the decision to send this contract back for further negotiation was a good decision. I thank all the council members and the myor in their unanimous vote. The debate that the city can now have about how we prioritize and spend our precious tax dollars is long past due.

Ross is an environmental engineer in Austin.

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