Save Austin miserably now (shock!)

Austin Police Department HQ in downtown Austin (Photo by John Anderson)

Former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Save Austin Now against the city of Austin, who opposed the city council’s August 11 language for the GOP and Police-sponsored citizens’ initiative to mandate a minimum staffing level at the Austin Police Department, along with minor policy changes added to make the proposal more palatable to moderate and progressive voters.

City budget staff estimate that today’s Proposal A requirements for the November 2 vote (also a statewide election on constitutional amendments) could cost between $ 54.3 million and $ 119.8 million annually over the next five years. These cost estimates were put on the ballot by the council in response to SAN objections and Aleshire’s legal action was awaited.

If the voters approve, Prop A would demand that the APD employ at least two police officers per 1,000 inhabitants (“2.0 staff”). It would also require patrolmen to have 35% of their shifts as “free time” (not responding to service calls sent) to use, say supporters, to work with the communities they serve; this would also increase APD’s staffing needs, likely to over 2.0. Policy changes added as sweeteners include the addition of 40 hours of cadet training; new grants for multilingual officials who have consistently good conduct; and a requirement that certain city officials go through the department’s citizen police academy.

Aleshire’s motion was filed simultaneously in the 3rd Court of Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court; he asked for a decision before September 10th to allow time for revised language before the postal ballot papers had to be printed. As for the supporters of previous citizens’ groups who questioned their voting language, Aleshire argues that after the council decided not to directly pass the proposed regulation, its only option under the city charter that was used in the petition was Assume “lettering” without revising the drive that qualified the initiative for voting (see side-by-side comparison on the right).

Aleshire’s filing argues that including the cost of Prop A in ballot language is misleading as the SAN regulation does not require budget allocations (which cannot be legally done through a citizens’ initiative). Rather, the mandates of 2.0 and 35% are measures that the Council could implement at its own discretion or not at all. “If the council refuses to take to heart the electoral approved standards,” Aleshire wrote on the file, “it will be a political issue between them and the electorate, but the ordinance itself does not enforce city council spending.” Aleshire also argues that the Council’s language omits the rest of SAN’s proposed policy changes.

At the August 11 meeting, Mayor Steve Adler offered a preliminary ruling on the anticipated Aleshire case, noting that he was unaware of any case in the 70 years that citizens’ right to legislation was part of the charter which the Council would have accepted the petition. Caption unchanged as the language of choice, either alone or on the instructions of a court. “Even if that were the case,” said Adler, “the council cannot take this step if the lettering on the petition does not comply with the requirements of state law.” Adler later added that the language cannot “contain a confirmatory misrepresentation of the regulation” or “omit key features of the initiated regulation”. Several important features are omitted from the petition signature, most notably cost.

The city’s legal department agrees with Adler. “We believe the electoral language is consistent with state law as it identifies key features of the ordinance in a way that provides factual information to voters,” a spokesman told the Chronicle in a statement.

Ed Van Eenoo, Austin Chief Financial Officer, explained to the council how his team set the cost range based on projected population and wage growth; Capital costs required to build new police stations and training facilities to accommodate larger police forces; running costs such as vehicles and equipment, as well as the cost of the new grants; and how the 35% perpetual mandate would put upward pressure on the 2.0 staff ratio. A key difference between the low and high estimates (from $ 271.5 million to nearly $ 600 million over five years) is that at the low end, the APD would likely continue to move officers from specialized units to the labor patrol that SAN and the Austin Police Association railed last year.

The city’s finance team has already signaled that the General Fund, which is supported by sales and property tax receipts and almost a third of which goes to APD every year, will go into the red in fiscal 2023, and that the council needs either Cut services or repeatedly go to voters to raise their property tax rate above government revenue caps. If these deficits are increased by the cost of Prop A, those cuts or rate hikes will be steeper. According to Councilor Greg Casar’s office, the city could increase its other understaffed departments of the General Fund by 400 firefighters, 400 park and library workers, and 210 emergency medical personnel for less than the cost of Prop. A.

Prop. A language: the petition and the ballot

Here is a head-to-head comparison of the SAN petition signature and the ballot language adopted by the city council.

Petition signature

A pending ordinance to improve public safety and police oversight, transparency and accountability by adding a new Chapter 2-16 setting minimum standards for the law enforcement agency to maintain effective public safety and protect Austin residents and visitors, and the Specification of minimum requirements to achieve the same.

Ballot Language Accepted

Proposal A: Approve an ordinance that requires the city to employ at least 2 police officers per 1,000 residents at all times at an estimated cost of $ 271.5 million – $ 598.8 million over five years; Requires that at least 35% of patrolmen’s time be unspecified time, also known as community engagement time; requires additional financial incentives for certain executives; requires special training for officers and certain officials and their staff; and requires that there be at least three full-time cadet classes for the department until the staffing level reaches a certain level.

A version of this article appeared in print on August 20, 2021 with the headline: Cops Cost Money!