Austinites waited with their phones on hold, some for over an hour, to tell city council members on Thursday that proposed cuts to the police department’s budget were too small. Residents seeking more profound changes called the cuts a “pittance,” “insulting” and a “slap in the face.”
“If a budget is a moral document, [City Manager] Spencer Cronk’s current proposal is immoral,” said David Peterson, one of hundreds of residents who spoke for nearly 10 hours in the first of two scheduled public hearings on the city’s proposed budget.
Last week, Cronk presented council members with this offer: a budget that raises property taxes by about $12 a year, the lowest increase in the past several years; includes $61 million to help people avoid or get out of homelessness; and provides a 2% increase in employee wages.
As cities across the country have erupted in protests against police violence and systemic racism in recent months, residents, including those in Austin, have been calling for major cuts to police budgets. Cronk proposed giving the police department $154,000 less than last year, when the department spent roughly $434 million.
The reduction equates to taking out $8.1 million from the $445.6 million that APD forecasted it would need in its budget for the coming fiscal year. The majority of the cuts comes from vacant positions the city reasoned it would not be able to fill.
“This budget also accelerates the process of reimagining our public safety system to ensure justice and equal treatment for all Austin residents,” Cronk said in prepared remarks last week.
He said after the council adopts the new budget he wants to hold public hearings to understand what policing in Austin will look like in the future before proposing potential larger cuts to the department.
Typically, budget season at the city takes place with little fanfare. After getting the suggested budget, council members use meetings over several weeks to vote on tweaks – a little here, a little there – to departments’ spending and various social services.
This year, many in the city are demanding this process look different.
Groups like the Austin Justice Coalition, Communities of Color United and Grassroots Leadership have asked the city to slash APD’s budget by anywhere from $100 million to $225 million and put that money toward low-income housing, mental health services and direct cash assistance for people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The vast majority of speakers echoed that call Thursday.
“I’m calling to demand an immediate reduction of APD’s budget by at least $100 million reallocated specifically to the Black and Hispanic communities being gentrified in Austin,” said Marcel Moore, who said, as a person of color, he fears police.
Chas Moore, co-founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, called Cronk’s proposal “nowhere near” where the city needs to be.
Some of the council agrees.
“I stand alongside the calls from local organizations and everyday activists demanding a $100 million reinvestment into our community’s safety from APD’s existing budget this year,” Council Member Greg Casar, who represents North Central Austin, wrote in a press release last week. “We must do better, and I will be working with the community to change this budget proposal."
Mayor Steve Adler has said he’s not happy with the current budget, but has not said how much money he’d like to cut from police.
“We need greater assurance that we’re leveraging this moment to create transformational change,” Adler wrote on social media last week. “Truly re-imagining policing will require us to first re-imagine budgeting.”
Only a handful of the hundreds who testified Thursday spoke in favor of spending more money on police, arguing that having more police officers reduces violent crime.
Brenda Ramos, whose son Mike Ramos was shot and killed by an APD officer in April, called in to Thursday’s public hearing. She questioned the work of police on the case of her son’s death.
Earlier this month, Cronk delayed the release of body camera footage of Mike Ramos’ shooting after the police department failed to follow its policy over how it prepares recordings of serious injuries and deaths for public release. APD Chief Brian Manley told KUT it was an “oversight.”
Brenda Ramos told council members Thursday she's had trouble getting information on her son's case.
“My lawyer keeps asking APD for information, and they tell her the investigation is going on. What does that mean?” she said. “You should take away all APD’s budget for investigating murders and give that money to someone who actually cares.”
The next public hearing on the budget is July 30.
This post has been updated.
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