The City of Austin is proposing to reduce the Austin Police Department’s planned budget by $8.1 million, despite calls for much bigger cuts to the department.
The proposal cuts roughly 2% of the department's forecasted budget for the coming year and is roughly $150,000 less than last year’s police budget. It's the first time in at least five years that the city has proposed not increasing the amount of money spent on policing.
City Manager Spencer Cronk presented his suggested budget for the fiscal year, which begins in October, to council members Monday. The unveiling came amid demands to significantly defund police departments across the country, including here in Austin.
“Reimagining public safety is an important endeavor for both our community and our officers,” Cronk told council members. “There are many responsibilities currently shouldered by police officers that could be taken on by others, allowing officers to focus on their core mission – to protect and serve everyone.”
The entire proposed budget is $4.2 billion, a large portion of which would go toward Austin Energy, the city-owned utility, and the city’s capital budget, which funds planned investments; $1.1 billion would go toward the city's general fund, which pays for core city services such as parks and libraries.
Once it’s all tallied up, the draft budget proposes the city collect 3.5% more in property taxes than it did last year, meaning the typical homeowner would owe roughly $20 more in city property taxes. A state law that went into effect this year limits a city’s ability to increase its property tax revenue by more than 3.5% without holding an election. In the past, cities had been able to collect 8% more in property taxes before being forced to go to the voters to ask for more.
City of Austin Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo said Monday that despite the financial effects of the pandemic, the city is in good economic shape compared to other Texas cities like Dallas, which has had to furlough nearly 500 city employees.
“I think people are expecting a much more austere and severe budget,” said Van Eenoo, who attributed this to the city’s conservative budget making in the past. Before the pandemic, the city had nearly $26 million more in its reserves, or savings account, than it had aimed for.
The city had also underestimated its sales tax revenue for the fiscal year by more than $10 million, Van Eenoo said.
As for cuts to the police, the city manager has proposed using roughly $3 million of the money to staff up the city’s Office of Police Oversight and Equity Office. Another million would go into the city’s Housing Trust Fund, which pays for low-income housing. The budget also proposes reallocating $900,000 from the police budget toward several training initiatives, including unconscious bias training.
"We are disappointed in Spencer Cronk’s budget, released today, which comes nowhere near the $100 million in cuts to the police budget that we think are appropriate,” Chas Moore, founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, said in a statement. “We have an opportunity right now to take this roadmap and make the change. But this budget, today, doesn’t free up enough of the money we need, and in fact it understates even Council’s modest directive to cut empty positions.”
Van Ennoo had warned council members in June that staff would not have enough time to make the significant changes they had called when they passed a resolution to divest from APD. Council voted to ask staff to do away with vacant positions at the department, reduce inventory of military-grade equipment and fund more nonpolice responses to mental health calls.
The AJC wanted at least $100 million to be cut – a fourth of the department’s current budget. Communities of Color United, another local organization, asked that the city halve the budget, cutting $225 million and redistributing that money to entities like Austin Public Health and into funding for low-income housing.
Council Member Greg Casar said he agreed with the demand to decrease the police budget by $100 million.
"The City Manager’s initial budget proposal takes a small step in the direction of reducing funding for police patrol and increasing funding for more comprehensive forms of community safety. But, it is far from enough,” he said in an emailed statement. “We must do better, and I will be working with the community to change this budget proposal."
Van Ennoo said city staff could ask council members to make changes to the budget in the middle of the fiscal year, once the city figures out its new vision for a police department.
Deputy City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde said at the budget presentation Monday that the city will create a task force to consider how best to change policing. She said the group, the City Community Reimagining Task Force, will begin hosting “listening sessions” this month.
“This is a complex and multifaceted challenge and we are fortunate to have so many creative, passionate, and innovative people – both on staff and in the community – ready to work together to bring about the truly transformative change we all know is so badly needed,” Rivera-Vandermyde said.
This story has been updated.
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