The $4 billion budget Austin City Council adopted Thursday includes plans to reduce the police budget by about a third – $150 million. Twenty million dollars is being cut immediately, with $3.5 million going to Austin-Travis County EMS, and $6.5 million going to housing assistance for people living on the street.
Council also voted to put a property tax on the ballot this fall to help pay for the massive Project Connect transit expansion plan.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler talked with KUT about the budget and the item he thinks is not getting enough attention.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
KUT: Some groups call these cuts "baby steps," because you're doing the $20 million APD cut now and then the bigger chunk later. Do you share those concerns about this issue of possibly losing political momentum?
Adler: I don't think so. I think we are in a different world now in so many ways than we were before. I think this is a community that's seen the disparities that exist, that have just been in our face associated with the virus. You know, it's like somebody grabbing both sides of your face and not letting you look away.
The community here – as have communities across the country – are now seeing institutional unfairness. And I think that we're all going to be moving forward to change those things, especially here in Austin, because I think it is part of who we are in our culture.
KUT: Conversely, not everyone supports the reduction in APD budget. How do you explain the $150 million cut to them?
Adler: I find that when people actually understand what it is that we actually did yesterday, that it makes a lot more sense to those folks. We turned a little over $20 million out of the police department by cutting unfilled positions and overtime and the cadet classes. We didn't cut any current officers. It's going to have no impact on 911 response.
But we took that measure of cuts and we are investing it directly into taking people out of camps and putting them into homes, expanding EMS to take out more of the medical calls the police are doing now, providing places for women who want to leave abusive situations before they get hurt, and increasing the number of mental health first responders.
People understand that kind of investment and they understand why that's an important thing for us to do and why doing all of those things are going to better enable our police officers to focus on crime. That's $20 million.
There's another $80 million bucket, and there we're talking about keeping the functions remaining, but maybe under independent leadership – like forensics, which people understand, like combining 911 or 311 or integrating them. That's an important thing for us to do. And people understand that administrative services don't necessarily need to be in the department. And people like the idea of internal affairs not having to report up the same chain of command that they investigate. And that's what that $80 million is for. It's not making the functions go away. It's having more independent control, and people understand that.
The $50 million in the last bucket are ideas that we're not ordering. There the things we want to investigate. Maybe it is better to take training and recruiting and make that independent, make the police officers be adjunct professors, but have the actual administration be something other than the police force – lake and park police, traffic enforcement, loud noise enforcement that our police do downtown. Maybe these are the kinds of things that our police should not be doing and that's what that last $50 million bucket was. We're not doing it, but we're saying, let's just take a look at those to see if those are good ideas or not.
So when you explain to people what the $150 million is – for people that have reservations – when they understand the detail of it, I'm finding that most people understand that and go, "Oh, that makes sense." But there's concern that we were taking just $150 million out of the police department budget, and that's not what we did.
KUT: I want to move on from that, because there's another really big issue that the City Council tackled yesterday, and that is public transit. Project Connect, an ambitious project, includes new rail lines. It would have a rail tunnel through downtown with underground stations. Expanded commuter rail, new Metro Rapid and Metro Express service. Of course, it comes with a big price tag and it will go to voters in November.
For the owner of a $400,000 home, my understanding is it would be an increase of roughly $350 a year in property taxes. How concerned are you about requesting a relatively large tax hike from voters during a recession, during a pandemic?
Adler: You know, it feels like forever, although it might just be two decades, that everywhere I go, people say to me as the very first thing: When are you going to do something about traffic in Austin? When are you actually going to do something that is big enough to actually fix it?
Well, this is what that is, and I think it's something that people want. I think that dealing with traffic, ensuring that we have a more equitable mobility system by providing travel opportunities to people who travel and mobility deserts. Really doing something real with respect to climate change, emissions. Reducing fatalities.
These are all things that are incredibly important, and this project makes the largest investment ever – anywhere in the country – associated with making sure that housing remains affordable in and around stations and transit corridors. The largest investment.
This reflects so much of what Austin's values are. And frankly, as we come out of this virus, this is going to be a huge job program for a lot of people in our community that probably are not going to have the same job they had before to go back to.
KUT: But as much as people are concerned about traffic, I'm sure you hear the complaints about affordability and property taxes as well. Right? And then how concerned are you that especially during a time when so many people have lost jobs or their earnings have been cut, that they're going to sign up to check that box saying – Yes, I will pay hundreds more in property taxes per year – for a public transit program that may not directly benefit them?
Adler: I think it's going to directly benefit almost everybody in the city. But I understand what you're saying. It has a price tag, and I don't take that lightly. And for that reason, it is a concern. But I think that the overwhelming number of people recognize that for the benefit that we achieve in this community on what has been our highest community priority for almost 20 years, that we're going to have to do something big if our challenge is big. And this challenge that we have in this city is huge.
So, it is a concern. I recognize there's a price tag, but the benefits are just so great that I think it's going to have a pretty significant support.
KUT: Finally, the media, of course, has very limited bandwidth and has been focused on these two major items, APD and Project Connect. But I'm wondering, mayor, what is the biggest piece of the budget that's flying under the radar and not getting enough attention from your perspective?
Adler: The investment that we're making in homelessness, in getting people out of camps and into permanent, supportive and transitional housing, so that they can stabilize their lives. The money that we're providing to gear up programs like Caritas that has a 95% success rate.
I want to be able to take somebody off the streets and get them into permanent supportive housing, so they don't go back. It's increasing the capacity of organizations like SAFE to take women out of abusive situations into safe places before they just become a crime statistic. I'm just really excited about those efforts.
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