The one word that makes Prop A so expensive

This is an excerpt from the Aug. 16 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

City budget officials say the police staffing initiative (Prop A) will result in major fiscal challenges, forcing the city to either make big cuts to other services or to ask voters to approve big tax hikes in the coming years.

But Prop A supporters can’t believe it. All they’re asking for, they say, is putting APD a little above where it was on track to be a couple of years ago.

“Our approved staffing two years ago was 1,959,” police association prez Ken Casaday said to me via text last week. “The Council had also agreed to add officers to this number over a five year period. So, where did the money go?”

Much of the incredulity is due to a nuance in the petition language that almost everyone who isn’t a professional budget analyst neglects:

That one word, “employment,” explains why the proposal is actually much more expensive than many of its supporters believe.

Two years ago, the city didn’t actually employ 1,959 officers. That number represents the authorized strength. The city budgets enough money to pay 1,959 officers, but there may be a significant number of vacancies. Typically the police department uses the money for the vacant positions to pay overtime.

So, if the law requires the city to always employ 2 officers per 1,000 residents, then that means that the city must budget for many more because vacancies will naturally occur due to retirements, resignations and (occasionally) firings.

The city budget office has estimated that to meet a 2 officers per 1,000 residents ratio at all times, it must actually budget for a ratio of between 2.35-2.5. That means it must budget for hundreds of positions more than it intends to fill.

Wait, why?

Hiring police officers isn’t as simple as hiring, say, an accountant. Every new officer has to go through the 8-month police academy. Just running the academy costs money –– to pay the instructors as well as the cadets.

Perhaps if the city were subjected to such a strict police staffing mandate, the city could find ways to recruit and train with greater flexibility. For instance, Mackenzie Kelly has proposed a way to get officers more affordably: a 4-month academy for a smaller number of recruits (30) who already have a state law enforcement certification. Many such recruits have experience as cops for other departments.

But there is a certain rigidity that is unavoidable. No one — at least no one I’m aware of — is suggesting we do away with or water down the required training. And if we’re going to require eight months of training, the most economical solution is to try to train as many cadets at once.

So here’s the current situation: As of the end of July, the police department had an authorized strength of 1,809 officers but it had 156 vacancies. So only 1,655 officers are actually employed. Now, there is a current academy class with 88 cadets who will become officers in February. But the city is losing about 15 officers a month, mostly to retirements. So it’s very possible that by the time we get 88 new officers, we will have lost another 90, meaning we’ll be at roughly the same number of employed officers

If we are going by the recently-released 2020 census figures, which put Austin’s population at 961,855, we will need to employ 1,924 officers if the mandate passes.

If the mandate is approved, we will need to immediately increase the force by nearly 300 officers. The petition says the city must run three academy classes a year until it achieves the ratio. I suppose if we do that we will eventually achieve that ratio.

But what about after we achieve the ratio? Each year we’ll have to run more academy classes than we likely need to make sure that the number of new cadets exceeds the retirements that year. The problem is you never know how many retirements there will be each year. This explains why the city would have to budget for more positions and always train more officers than required. This explains why the mandate is much more expensive than its authors may realize.

Hence the city’s estimate that it will cost an additional $54.3 million to $119.8 million a year.

The real tragedy of this mandate is not just that it would force us to spend much more money on law enforcement, but that it would require the city to spend on a very specific type of law enforcement. None of this money that would be roped off for the police department could be spent on anything except officers. It couldn’t be used to boost staffing or pay for the burnt out 911 center. It could not be used for equipment in the forensics lab.

And then there are the taxes…

The other big difference between two years ago and now are the state-imposed tax limits, which were signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2019 but did not go into effect until 2020.

The police staffing plan that Casaday and others point to was crafted back in the days when the city was able to increase taxes by up to 8% each year without voter approval. In the last three budgets before the new taxing limits went into effect, Council boosted the police budget by 5% in FY 2017-18, 7.6% in FY 2018-19 and 4% in FY 2019-20.

We couldn’t afford to keep this hiring pace up under the current 3.5% revenue limit without making major cuts to other departments. So the cost of SAN’s proposal, with the fateful employment word, is even more unrealistic.

By the way, back in 2019, city and county leaders from all over the state warned Republicans at the Lege that the revenue limits posed a serious threat to funding for law enforcement…

Do they even realize it?

There are two reasons why Save Austin Now may have written the fateful word, employed:

  1. Cluelessness. Save Austin Now or Legislative Solutions, the legal consultant they paid $425 to help with “petition language creation,” simply didn’t realize the significance of the word employed
  2. A conscious effort by Mackowiak and the GOP to starve other city services that conservatives don’t believe are necessary. Something to make the ghosts of Ronald Reagan and David Koch happy.
  3. A conscious effort to turn voters against the city and its Democratic elected officials by forcing them to significantly raise taxes via one or more tax rate elections.

I tend to believe it’s mostly #1. But #2 and #3 are certainly on the table.

This is an excerpt from the Aug. 16 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

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