Faced with historic economic and health crises that left the city's main revenue streams battered and a citizenry demanding change, budget writers on Monday proposed a $4.2 billion budget for the city of Austin for the 2020-21 fiscal year that includes $11.3 million in cuts to police services, the lowest property tax hike in 15 years, and provisions to keep the city's emergency reserves healthy.
It also proposes cutting funding for cultural arts, historic preservation, and live music by 33% to make up for a deep deficit in hotel tax revenues and increasing some fees.
While officials had imagined potentially raising property taxes by as much as 8%, the hike was kept to 3.5%—the lowest hike since the 2004-05 fiscal year, City Manager Spencer Cronk told the Austin City Council during the first public presentation of the proposal.
"Austin remains engulfed by a pandemic that has caused tragic loss across our community, upended our way of life, and triggered an unprecedentedly swift economic contraction," Cronk said. "At the same time, the City is taking new steps to confront and end the long history of systemic injustices experienced by people of color by our public safety institutions."
City leaders have grappled with a projected budget shortfall of nearly $200 million due to the coronavirus, which devastated revenue streams across travel and tourism dollars, sales taxes, earned wages and more.
"It is nearly impossible to overstate the magnitude of the challenge that COVID-19 has presented," Cronk said.
The cuts to the police department include eliminating 100 sworn officer positions and delaying a new cadet class.
While the proposed police cuts fall short of demands for $100 million in funds to be diverted from the Austin Police Department, city leaders promised it would be the first of many steps to overhaul the way the APD does business, in the wake of protests after the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Michael Ramos in Austin, both at the hands of officers. Council members are scheduled to make their final vote on the budget on Aug. 12, after council workshops and public input sessions.
The $11.3M would be redirected to several areas, including:
- $3 million to support and grow the work of the Office of Police Oversight and other auditing and rewriting of the department's general orders.
- $2.7M toward increased non-police mental health first response.
- $900k on cultural and sensitivity training as well as drug overdose treatment on-site.
- $1M to the Housing Trust Fund.
Last year, the Austin City Council approved a $4.2 billion budget for the city. Some 67% of the general fund was for public safety, which includes police, fire and EMS. The Austin Police Department accounted for $440 million.
The first budget input meeting is scheduled for July 23.
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David Frost, 22, had never attended a protest before the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in May. Then the cell phone-wielding Austinite became a key player in a series of events that touched off major change in the Austin Police Department.
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This story has been updated to include quotes from the mayor's speech.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler delivered his annual "State of the City" address Wednesday evening, in which he discussed the coronavirus pandemic, police funding, the local economy, homelessness, transit and equity issues.
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