Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Austin budget crunch caused by massive police raises

Belatedly realizing the city's bloated public safety budget necessitates draconian fee hikes and slashing basic services, the Austin city council must now change course and "think first of the Austin taxpayers," said the Austin Statesman in a Sunday editorial. Police and firefighter unions must not be given the "keys to the vault" during meet and confer negotiations, said the paper. Here's how they described the budget impact of rising police pay:

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.

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.

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.

Related recent Grits posts:


TxBluesMan said...


Probably surprising you not at all, I am all for the police being paid appropriately as per the meet and confer agreement, as well as having the appropriate protections against wrongful accusations and politically motivated discipline...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

You're definitely a man who knows where his bread's buttered, bluesy! ;)

Anonymous said...

It's really too bad librarians don't have an organized lobbying arm to press for a disproportionate share of the budgetary pie, so to speak.

What would be nice is if the Statesman engaged in intrepid investigative journalism, like the folks at the Chronicle, and published public sector employee pay. Perhaps some of the outrage that emerged over police officers earning over 100K a year would counterbalance the strength of their lobby.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you're keeping up the posts on this subject. The size of city government is growing twice the rate of the population thanks to all the tax and spending. I realize the obscene pay rate for police and fire are a big part but there's got to be other important reasons. Someone needs to dig out all the unnecessary city employees and programs. The city ought to realize the significant problem they're creating for the future by expanding the budget the full amount that the increase in property appraisals allows.

Anonymous said...

Property appraisals are key! With the new legislation, appraisals will reflect real values rather than financial institution needs.

The property taxes and people's ability to pay them may not continue to climb as quickly as Austin can spend the money.

Fiscal responsibility starting now would be a very good idea.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that I kinda agree with you here Grits. I think the police should be well paid for the job. Any profession that requires a ballistic vest should have adequate compensation.

That being say, I think Austin police are paid enough that they really don't need a raise at this point. The reality of the economy has to be faced. The city simply can't afford to pay more.