Addressing a city that has ground to a halt amid a pandemic, save for frontline workers who can’t stay home and protestors in the streets demanding cuts to the police budget, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said this time of turmoil is a chance to rebuild a more equitable city.
“History will remember 2020 as the moment that pointed us in the direction of justice,” he said, delivering his annual State of the City Address not from City Hall as he typically does, but seated in his home office.
He referenced the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Mike Ramos in Austin, as well as the disproportionate health consequences of the coronavirus on Latino residents.
“This was the year that forced us to see injustice unlike any time before, like someone grabbing and holding our face between their hands and not letting us turn away, forcing us to look at the unfairness around us and our part in perpetuating it,” he said.
Watch the speech below:
In his sixth speech since taking office in 2015, Adler spent a good deal of time focused on the topic of funding for the Austin Police Department, which City Council members have been discussing as part of their annual process to come up with a new budget.
"When we can no longer do what we’ve always done, we can realize the dawning of a new day and focus on new dreams," he said.
Groups like Communities of Color United, Grassroots Leadership and the Austin Justice Coalition have demanded cuts of anywhere from $100 million to $225 million from the $434 million police budget. The council has considered proposals that could get the city close to that $100 million reduction. But the council is scheduled to adopt the budget next week, and staff have said they can’t implement such big changes in this short of a time frame.
“I want the demonstrators, marchers and advocates to know how much I respect, admire and appreciate their efforts to impact the debate we’re having at City Hall,” Adler said. “It has made a significant difference in the nature and substance of the conversation we are having.”
Adler mentioned several proposals, including one where the council would approve a six-month budget for police, instead of the typical one-year budget, so they could have more time to make changes next year. Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents much of East Austin, brought up this idea at a council meeting earlier this week.
Adler said he supports delaying the November cadet training academy until the city has a chance to evaluate and potentially change its police training materials. He also suggested rethinking 911 operations, perhaps moving it out from under APD's jurisdiction and creating a central number for both emergency and informational purposes.
“What if there was only one number, one set of operators, each trained to immediately forward every call to where it’s supposed to go?" he said. "Maybe the police department, and the taxpayers, could save some money, even while the public is better getting in touch with the right person, if we no longer made the police department pay for 911? We should find out.”
While Adler did not call for Police Chief Brian Manley to resign, as some of his colleagues have done, he said the city needs a leader that shares the values of the council.
“We need more than just a willingness to accept change if it happens; we need a champion for change at its best,” he said.
During his hour-long speech, Adler touched on homelessness and Project Connect, the plan – dependent on an election to raise taxes – that would build out rail and bus lines in the region. As has been done before, he pitched the plan as a way to tackle the inequities in transit, saying that those who cannot work from home during the pandemic increasingly rely on public transportation and deserve better commuting options.
“With light rail, a downtown transit tunnel to speed up travel, no matter what vehicular mode you choose, new MetroRapid lines and vehicles, and a transition to a zero-emissions fleet, Project Connect will connect our entire city, creating new opportunity for Austinites, reducing our dependence on expensive personal vehicles, and save lives,” he said.
Adler will deliver two more State of the City addresses before his second term as mayor ends in early 2023. He ended this year’s speech by calling on Austin residents to consider the virus’ disruption of everyday life as a chance to create something new.
“Let’s celebrate the opportunity born of the necessity to rebuild,” he said. “Let’s commit to be guided by a search to deliver justice. Let’s join in a disruptive recovery, seizing the moment to rebuild in a just and equitable way.”
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