Editorial writers said the proposal to boost pay even higher is, "in a word, outrageous, and City Manager Marc Ott's negotiators should unceremoniously reject it." I tend to agree, but would add that the advice comes many years too late.
Under the proposed budget, branch libraries will have to close on Thursdays or Fridays, and the Parks and Recreation Department will be short staffed. Also, trash collection fees will rise 40 percent and water bills by 7 percent. But that picture will darken considerably if the police, fire and EMS unions continue to demand — and receive — raises above those given other city employees. After five years of public safety's 2 percent premium, there is no good argument to continue it.
A recent city report found that Austin's per capita spending on the police department grew 84 percent over the nine years ending in 2006. That was twice the per capita increase of most other Texas cities. ...
In the past five years, the City Council has spent $53 million just on the extra raises for public safety employees. That has propelled police, firefighters and EMS employees into the top pay ranks not only in Texas but around the nation.
Even so, the Statesman said, "The unions are negotiating from a position of strength ... They are powerful sources of campaign money in city elections and helped elect a majority on the council." That's true, and it's been that way in Austin for quite a while. Perceived as liberal, Austin councilmembers tend to fear being labeled soft on crime and so in recent times have thrown money at public safety unions hoping to deter such criticism.
I remember well the City's decision in 2001 to give police a 23% pay raise over three years, then in 2004 when dozens of citizens testified against the current contract containing even more extravagant raises. So that's eight years running with fat pay hikes well beyond what other city employees received.
Ironically, that strategy arguably reduced overall public safety resources. Rather than increase the number of officers to keep up with an expanding population, over the last decade Austin police became the highest paid officers in Texas, and when adjusted for the cost of living, the highest paid in the nation. Not only that, the 2004 contract in particular made it more difficult to discipline bad cops and gutted police oversight mechanisms.
The City Council can shut the barn door now, and should, but the horse has already run away.