The front lawn of the City of Austin's highest-paid employee got some new lawn ornaments Thursday.
Organizations urging radical change to how the city spends money erected more than two dozen lawn signs outside Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk’s house. One sign read, “Increase funding for Austin Public Health to survive the pandemic and beyond,” another “Protect and create more low-income housing.”
“[We’re here] to demand that the budget we see presented to City Council on Monday this time actually reflects a commitment to transformative change,” Marisa Perales, a member of Communities of Color United, said as she stood outside Cronk’s home in South Central Austin.
On Monday, Austin City Council members will get the first look at a proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins in October. While members of organizations like CCU show up every year during the budget process to demand change, typically the process, which includes meetings during the summer and a vote on a final budget in September, attracts little pomp.
This year promises to be different: The city has received 37,000 responses to its online budget survey, more than 10 times the typical response to the annual questionnaire.
The flood of responses follows protests across the country against police killings and systemic racism. In response, local elected officials in Austin and elsewhere have pledged to defund or even fully dismantle police departments.
Last year, the Austin City Council allocated $434 million – roughly 10% of the city’s entire budget – to the police department. But that figure represents nearly 40% of what the city spends on its core operations, including public safety, parks and libraries.
The Austin Justice Coalition has asked the city to move at least $100 million from the police budget into social services, including mental health services. CCU's proposal goes further: Members are asking the city to halve the budget for police, transferring roughly $250 million into other services, and to continue cutting the police budget over the next four years until the department is dissolved.
While council members have not put a dollar amount on the changes they’d like to see, they voted June 11 to have city staff increase non-police employees to respond to mental health calls and to look into moving police positions into other city departments.
But city staff and the city manager, who each year put together a proposed budget that council members then tweak over several weeks, warned council members that substantive change would not be possible this year.
“We are not going to be able to implement a fully rethought, outcome-based, zero-based budget in time for fiscal year 2021,” Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo told council members in June at the first-ever meeting of the Public Safety Committee. There just wasn’t enough time, he said.
“But I am extremely excited about doing that as part of the fiscal year 2022 budget,” he said.
In a memo sent to the mayor and council members last month, Cronk said the city would be eliminating roughly 100 yet-to-be filled positions in the police department: 30 new officers the city planned to hire and roughly 65 positions the department does not anticipate being able to fill.
Van Eenoo estimated this could save the city $6 million to $6.5 million.
Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said she was disappointed to hear the staff would not be presenting more substantive changes.
“We have got to be presented with something that provides a significant move toward diverting funds from the way we used to do public safety and the way we used to respond in our police capacity,” she said in June. “We keep talking about this moment and the need for change, and we know that once a budget is approved it is incredibly hard to move stuff around.”
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