Thursday, August 12, 2021

Bring on Austin's police staffing debate: Proposal to hire 400-800 new cops would require budget tradeoffs the public won't support

In Austin, the Republican-led group that ran a successful ballot initiative criminalizing homelessness has put another one on the ballot for November that would require the city to hire hundreds more police officers. Their main backers so far are the police unions, who're salivating at the prospect of hundreds of new dues-paying members. Backers think the folks who voted to criminalize homelessness will now support a vast expansion of the police force.

Grits isn't so sure. I think they've overreached. And the biggest reason is the budget math, which has been called "irresponsible" but may be straight-up "impossible" without massive tax increases the Legislature has forbidden via municipal revenue caps. 

Yesterday, the city council put the Save Austin Now initiative on the November ballot and the financial services department released an estimate of the proposal's cost. There's some fuzzy language in the measure using undefined terms, so it's a range: To meet the requirements of the initiative, Austin would need to hire somewhere between 400-800 more police officers than it employs today, at a cost of $54 million per year on the low end to $120 million on the high end.

The difference arises in part because the initiative calls for officers to have 35% "community engagement" time. Currently, they have about 1% "community engagement" time, based on definitions the city has used in the past. But the phrase is sometimes used interchangeably with "uncommitted time," which includes things like checking email or restroom breaks, not necessarily "community engagement." The low estimate assumes the latter definition; the high-end estimate assumes the former.

Courts may eventually decide which definition to use. But even on the low end, increasing the budget by $54 million per year - given legislative revenue caps - would force draconian cuts

The other factors driving the cost estimates are wage increases and the size of Austin's population. The $54 million figure assumes lower population growth and police wage increases than we've witnessed in recent years. Grits believes that figure is probably too low and the real number will be closer to the high end of the range.

SAN suggests all this could be paid for by eliminating money spent on homelessness. But even if you closed all the shelters and eliminated every service to that group (which doesn't sound particularly wise), it wouldn't raise nearly enough money. Money for recent expenditures purchasing hotels to get folks off the street came from the feds as part of the COVID stimulus: That's one-time money, not an ongoing revenue stream from which the city can pay salaries. 

The truth is, you can't get to $54 million per year without cutting things the public STRONGLY supports: The entire budget for the city's animal shelters is about $10 million, for example. You could eliminate them entirely and still not be 1/5 of the way there.

Thanks in large part to the 40% of the city budget already spent on police, the overwhelming part of the city budget arrives at city council every year fully baked in: The amount they have for discretionary budget choices is generally in the low seven figures: a few million dollars. $54 million in new spending can't be done without closing things most Austinites don't want to eliminate.

This is the police unions and the Republican party doubling down on their anti-homeless ballot initiative this spring, but Grits predicts they'll find this a much harder sell. For starters, they did the last one during the legislative session when most of the criminal-justice reform advocates in town were focused on fighting bad bills at the Legislature. SAN outspent their opposition by more than 15-1 and the opposition campaign was led by inexperienced folks with nonprofit backgrounds who'd never run a campaign before.

This time, they'll find groups like the Austin Justice Coalition and its allies more fully engaged in the fight. A new PAC was formed to oppose the measure and experienced campaign staff has been hired, so don't expect the fundraising gap to be nearly as significant. And whereas the Mayor and most city council members stayed out of the homeless fight, the outlandish budgetary issues ensure they'll be vocally opposed to this one.

Local TV news has been SAN's biggest ally, giving their leadership a platform to spread misinformation with impunity. (The local FOX station has the SAN leader on frequently to "debate" different folks but the supposed debate moderator never fact checks his lies: It's really pretty embarrassing.) That's the biggest risk of this thing passing; if they let SAN pretend Austin can hire hundreds of new police with no budget tradeoffs, people might be duped into backing something they otherwise wouldn't support.

But the upgraded opposition campaign means there will be somebody out there informing the public besides local TV news. It's not going down like Prop B, where the opposition didn't have resources to counter the message.

Indeed, Grits welcomes this debate and am near-giddy that SAN has framed it this way: The anti-homeless initiative passed because West Austin was mad about public camping and wanted homeless folks out of their sight line. Now, the policy discussion shifts to the real-world tradeoffs involved in spending so much new money: A very different debate.

Prop B passing left the impression that Austinites oppose criminal-justice reform. Defeating this measure will reverse that false meme and perhaps give local media a chance to reboot their sycophantic cop coverage.

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