Thursday, December 14, 2017

#atxcouncil Correctly Rejects Profligate, Opaque, Police Contract

"There is desirable treasure,
And oil in the dwelling of the wise,
But a foolish man squanders it."
Proverbs 21:20

[Note: The Austin Monitor has more here; Austin Affordability has more here.]

It takes a special degree of ineptitude for a police department to simultaneously be the most expensive in the state and one of the least transparent in the country.  Somehow, the Austin Police Department (APD) managed to pull that off.  Last night, in a unanimous vote, council correctly rejected their latest labor agreement.

The opposition coalition created remarkably strange bedfellows.  Many left-leaning activists opposed the contract due to its failure to address APD's transparency and accountability shortcomings in use of force incidents.  Others expressed concerns over the fiscal impact.

Under questioning from Ellen Troxclair, the city CFO explained that the proposed contract would have added a minimum $74 million to annual general fund base line.  This would essentially crowd out any other budget priority (including property tax relief) and embed annual 8% property tax hikes into the indefinite future (*).  As Troxclair explained, the numbers simply didn't work to add up this pay increase for current officers plus the new officers APD has already committed to hire.

We testified about how, every budget cycle, long-term public safety contracts bite us in the rear end.  Like it or not, APD is already 40% of the general fund.  Furthermore, APD already has the highest paid officers in the state (ie. "Base Pay" + "Steps" + "Longevity bonuses" + "stipends").  Like it or not, you cannot structurally reform the city's finances without getting public safety costs under control.  We also mentioned that municipal pensions are bankrupting cities across the country, and that the proposed contract makes Austin's pension situation worse (by increasing the baseline).  Had we had more time, we also would have voiced our own concerns on the transparency side.

Speaking of pensions, we learned something insane: Apparently, APD officers are eligible to retire after 23 years.  That means, if you get hired at 25, you can retire at 48.  While Austin's pension situation isn't as bad as Chicago or Houston, it's on the same trajectory and the proposed contract would have made it worse.

On transparency, the proposed contract would have allowed APD to stall investigations into officer misconduct to death by simply waiting until 180 days after the incident occurs; that's assuming a complaint is filed in the first place.  The department also has access to body/dashboard camera footage that doesn't exist for the general public.  In the event (God forbid) that the type of incident that has made national news in the past few years were to happen in Austin, the proposed contract would have entrenched APD's culture of stonewalling.

Bottom Line: On both fiscal and open government grounds, the proposed contract would have been a significant step in the wrong direction; kudos to the unanimous council.


* - Absent a voter revolt, this will probably happen anyway, but that's no reason to write binding spending commitments into law.


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