Austin residents got their final chance to advocate for deep spending cuts to the police department Wednesday, the culmination of a journey that began many years ago but intensified this summer with the nation’s racial and economic injustice reckoning.
But despite a plan that would remove $150 million in funding and services from the police budget over the upcoming fiscal year, many callers commenting at the city’s budget adoption meeting Wednesday were unsatisfied, predicting the planned cuts would do little to end racial injustice or curtail the police department’s powers.
Others who commented during the hearing said they were pleased with the proposals, praising council members for unifying to get a lot of work done in a relatively short period of time. Other speakers lobbied against eliminating 100 officer positions, citing statistics that suggest Austin could be headed toward a record number of homicides this year.
At 6:15 p.m., the council broke for dinner and had not yet voted on the budget. Council members were expected to get to it before the end of the night, or else return Thursday to continue deliberating. More than 200 people called in, accounting for the first five hours of the meeting.
In addition to solidifying the next annual budget, the council was scheduled to consider a proposal on the November ballot for the multibillion-dollar Project Connect transportation plan. That plan would require voter approval for a tax increase up to 8.75 cents per $100 of taxable value to fund. That would be in addition to the 44.6-cent tax rate for city operations.
The latest iteration of the proposed police budget, patched together from several council amendments, called for more than $150 million in reductions through three ways. Those were direct spending cuts, including the elimination of three cadet classes; moving functions from the police department to other departments or community organizations, including internal affairs and forensics; and diverting funds toward alternative forms of public safety, which would not happen immediately, but before the end of the fiscal year.
Those cuts were in addition to $11.3 million more presented by the city’s budget office.
The concern expressed by several callers — most of whom phoned in, although a few dozen showed up in person at the Palmer Events Center — was that not enough of the money being taken from the police department would be funneled back into the community to help address racial and economic inequities.
Pending additional cuts later in the year, the council for now has come up with a plan to distribute $21.5 million into the community. The things to be funded by that plan would include emergency medical response for the coronavirus pandemic, housing services and shelter for victims of family violence.
A handful of callers questioned the $100,000 that would be devoted to abortion services, saying the money would be more useful in other areas of the budget. The city, under a proposed amendment from the health department, will also carry over $150,000 that it did not use for abortion services last year.