Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What, me to blame? Austin city council gets "wake up call" on police budget crisis they knowingly caused

The debate in the Austin Statesman today over why the Austin Police Department's costs rose more than other PDs in the last decade strikes me as utterly disingenuous. Despite officials' incredulous comments, everyone quoted knows full well why Austin police cost so much - an extravagant union contract spearheaded by then Mayor Kirk Watson that made Austin police the highest paid officers in the country. Ridiculously, council members behaved as though they'd never heard this before:

"These numbers are eye-opening," City Council Member Brewster McCracken said Monday. "It is a wake-up call about a concerning budget trend."

Council Member Lee Leffingwell said he wants more information before forming an opinion about the new data, including whether the other cities had comparable growth rates.

"It would be premature to jump to any conclusions without that information," he said.

Both McCracken and Leffingwell knew years ago their support for massive police raises would cause this result. They were told, I can personally assure you. They said they didn't care. But now this news is a "wake up call"? It takes a lot of chutzpah to believe the public is stupid enough to accept that flip flop! Leffingwell in particular during his campaigns apologetically told opponents of the last police contract that he's afraid to confront the police union and feels like he must give them whatever they want to keep getting re-elected. No wonder he's asking for more "information"! The information all the rest of us have available indicates he and his colleagues are to blame.

Though I first began focusing on criminal justice policy because of a local Austin case, I pay little attention to APD policy anymore because it's just too frustrating: Our local city council has for years been in the pocket of local police union, and the liberals who tend to get elected are so scared someone will label them "soft on crime" they fall over one another to give the cops more money while opposing added accountability. Bottom line: Austin needed more officers over this period, but the council caved in to union demands to dramatically boost pay for those already on the force and fill gaps with overtime. That made it financially impossible to hire uniformed cops in the numbers the city should have and squeezed out other budget priorities. (In the same contract they gutted Austin's already weak civilian oversight of police.)

Now, though, years of pandering have come home to roost in the city budget. The Statesman reports that APD costs went up 84% over the last nine years, "while expenses in six other departments, including Dallas and San Antonio, increased 34 percent at most."

It's absurd for councilmembers to claim they didn't know these policies would make Austin lose control of its police budget - me and a couple hundred other Austinites showed up to tell them exactly what the budget impact would be, both before they approved the current union contract and the one in 2001. Indeed, I testified at city council back in 1998 to complain about high costs in Austin's very first "meet and confer" contract, particularly because, like other recent APD raises, it was bestowed with no added accountability in return. For anyone at the city to claim these numbers were unexpected beggars credibility.

Chief Art Acevedo asks the question, "Can you put a pricetag on public safety?" Well of course you can, sir! It's called "your budget." The questions before us are a) why that pricetag is so much higher for Austinites than everyone else, and b) what if any additional public safety benefit do we gain from it?

I think the answers are a) political pandering, and b) not much.


Anonymous said...

Everything any government agency does, even the APD, it does very, very well, or as good as it CAN be done. Shame on you for criticising these public servants!

I bet you just don't want to pay your fair share!

Just hope and pray that Obama gets elected and you finally get Universal Health Care. You'll need the police then, for sure, to round up folks like you who don't appreciate the sacrifices made by Federal, State and Municipal Government!

Anonymous said...


Your troll-fu is very weak.

Anonymous said...

This budget crisis when followed to it's logical conclusion leads to the example set by the State of California.

The Prison Guards Union is about to bankrupt the State in California.

Improvements in public safety must be examined in light of all cost increases. Anything less is just as you describe. Political pandering.

TxBluesMan said...

Grits doesn't hate the police, but he is not their friend either.

Part of his issue is that Mike Sheffield of the police union outsmarted him on the police review board, using the Meet & Confer law to get a contract that benefited their members.

They were able to put reasonable protections for the officer into the process, preventing the board members from running to the press to condemn the officers actions prior to hearing any evidence, and allowing the officer the same rights to see the evidence against him as criminal defendants get.

He didn't like the way it turned out.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Bluesman, your spin on that agreement is so off base I won't bother to correct all the errors in your assumptions. It's a nice day and I'm in too good a mood.

I will say this: Sheffield didn't outsmart anybody. Everybody knew what he was doing. He outmuscled the public, is what happened. And now the politicians APA bought and paid for are pretending they didn't know the cost to the taxpayer of the decisions Sheffield strong-armed them into, hoping to put the blame for the massive costs on someone, anyone else. But they can't. They and Sheffield are responsible. Nobody else.

Anonymous said...

The APA, headed by Sheffield, only outsmarted the public if you call getting a backroom deal from Mayor Kirk Watson outsmarting the public. As Sheffield wrote later for a book, Mayor Watson promised him that everyone would play along with the public through a task force process to come to an agreement, but that afterward Sheffield could personally change the agreement into anything he wanted before it was inked. ... Which he did. I think Mayor Watson outsmarted the public to get the CLEAT endorsement he needed to run for AG. If anyone got taken for a ride, it was the public.