By Bill Oakey – November 28, 2017
But that’s not the right question. The question is, do they have the will to do it? At their regular meeting on December 7th, the City Council will face a critical decision that will affect the General Fund in the annual City Budget for many years to come. This is serious business, and I do not envy the Council members. All 11 of their positions on the dais will become “hot seats” on December 7th.
Staring at affordability projections is really spooky stuff. It’s a lot more comfortable to look the other way. You can kick the can down the road but, by golly, you’ll run headlong into it sooner or later. The other vitally important factor is that we all value the service of our police officers. Austin is one of the safest cities in Texas, if not the country, for its size. So, I would be the last person to suggest that we should short-change them on well-deserved pay.
The fact is that we already have the highest paid police force in Texas. The proposed new contract, approved by the union after negotiations with City staff calls for 9.5% in pay raises over the next five years. With additional stipends included, the total jumps to 12%. The impact on the City’s General Fund was laid out in a public meeting this past May. This was the headline in the Austin Monitor on May 18th: “Mayor Suggests Changes in Public Safety Pay.”
The article starts out with these words:
“Paying for Austin’s public safety needs could add more than $75.9 million to the city’s General Fund budget over the next five years – with more than two-thirds of that funding going to the Austin Police Department, according to the city’s preliminary needs assessment.”
Then, in a later paragraph, this dire warning appears:
“Looking at the projection of public safety needs over the next five years and the city’s projected income, it is clear that even going to the 8 percent rollback rate every year, the City will not be able to meet most of those needs.”
So, public safety salaries could push the General Fund over the edge, and force the City to raise property taxes to the 8% legal maximum every year going forward. And, even if that happens, all of the needed City services covered by the General Fund cannot be met. Fairly simple math will tell you that 8% annual City property tax increases would cause them to double in 9 years and quadruple in 18 years.
During that May City Council Meeting, Mayor Adler suggested that City staff expand their analysis of the public safety costs and other basic needs. And he stated that perhaps some adjustments should be made.
The Big Decision on December 7th Will Not Be Easy
In my current round of affordability meetings with City Council members, one fact has become clear. They cannot predict how the vote on the police contract will turn out. Council Member Ellen Troxclair’s office, often seen as the most conservative, expressed concern over both public safety salaries and the pensions. Council Member Ann Kitchen told me that “It is important to consider all of the cost projections and their implications.”
As an affordability advocate, I have just one piece of advice for each City Council member. Never be afraid to do what you really believe is the right thing. When in doubt about an issue like this, don’t just rely on verbal prowess and the power of persuasion. Sometimes it may be best to remain relatively quiet and…