The budget questions

What are we spending on?

The budget questions
Blazer Tag, the highlight of the godforsaken Southwood Shopping Center on SH 71. 

Council members have until Friday at 6 pm to submit questions to city staff about the budget. So far 191 have been submitted and staff has responded to 67 of them. Read them all here.

I'm not going to suggest that those who ask the most questions are necessarily the most engaged or hard-working. Some offices may not need to ask as many questions because they are better-informed, better at tracking down information on their own or have greater respect for staff time. But if you're going to ask questions, it makes sense to do it as soon as possible. The sooner you have the information, the sooner you can draw up amendments and the more likely you'll be able to influence the budget, which Council is scheduled to vote on two weeks from now.

Here are the number of questions submitted so far from each CM:

  • Natasha Harper-Madison: 0
  • Vanessa Fuentes: 13
  • Jose Velasquez: 3
  • Chito Vela: 41
  • Ryan Alter: 15
  • Mackenzie Kelly: 45
  • Leslie Pool: 10
  • Paige Ellis: 19
  • Zo Qadri: 0
  • Alison Alter: 30
  • Kirk Watson: 0

Here are some of the interesting issues that caught my attention.  

The 911 it time to splurge?

Chito Vela asked what funding has been set aside to address the 911 center's severe staffing shortage. The response was that employees with a certain state certification will continue to get a $150/month stipend and that a "career progression plan" for call-takers and dispatchers is "being finalized."

Vela plans to introduce a budget amendment –– the dollar amount remains TBD –– aimed at bolstering recruitment and retention. He has floated more frequent step increases and allowing part-time work.

This really needs to be a top priority. The staffing shortage among police officers is serious, but frankly I think much of the anxiety about policing that elected officials are hearing is due to the horrible experiences people are having when they call 911 and are put on hold. If they have to dramatically increase wages at the call center, they should just do it!

Right now 47 of the 104 call-taker positions are vacant. If Jesus Garza really wants to get "back to basics," as he has branded this budget, then filling those positions should be his top priority.

How much does it cost to wrap a cop car?

Mackenzie Kelly asked what it would cost to provide new wraps for all APD vehicles and how many of them need new wraps. Staff ignored the first part of the question and responded that there are 61 vehicles that could use new wraps, but 48 of them are poised to be retired in the next three years. It would cost $39,000 to wrap the remaining 13 vehicles at $3k a pop.

Vacancy rate by department

Alison Alter asked for the vacancy rate for each department and how it compares to a year ago.

Note the highest vacancy rate is at the airport: 35%. Yesterday the city manager suggested the high vacancy rate was largely due to Council adding 55 positions in last year's budget. In fact, the vacancy rate was higher (38%) before those positions were added. A bigger bump occurred the year before, when 80 positions were added. But even if one were to make the absurd assumption that all 135 positions added at the airport over the past two years are vacant, there would still be an additional 105 vacant positions, putting the airport vacancy rate at 15%, just above the city average.  

Also notable: only 4.2% of firefighter positions are vacant compared to about 18% of sworn positions at EMS and APD.

It's important to remember, however, that vacancy rates are not always the best indicators of whether a department is adequately staffed. A department could have a 0% vacancy rate and be horribly understaffed due to political neglect, while another department could have a 50% vacancy rate but have far more positions than it needs.

For instance, the APD vacancy rate would be higher if its authorized staffing was at its 2019 level: 1,959. However, during the 2020 "reimagining" budget, all of its vacant positions at the time were eliminated, reducing its authorized staffing by 150. So for a minute the vacancy rate was 0%!

Vacancies = overtime

Money that is set aside for vacant positions is usually spent on overtime. And very often this overtime budget develops a constituency among staff who depend on overtime wages –– or at the very least appreciate them.

For instance, in response to questions submitted by Kelly, APD informs us that its 440 vacant positions are worth roughly $39.4 million of salary. It estimates it will spend slightly more than that on overtime this fiscal year: $42.5 million.


Homelessness is an extremely complex issue –– I'm sure different people who look at the budget could come to different conclusions about what should be categorized as homelessness spending. But FWIW city staff estimates that there is $80.9 million focused on that issue in the proposed budget.

CIP = capital costs.

About $7.13 million is allocated towards the two-year-old HEAL initiative, where the city offers people at encampments spots at two motels that have been repurposed as bridge shelters. The first encampment that was cleared was under the highway at Ben White & Menchaca. Two years later, people are camping there once again, although not nearly as many.

Translating dollars into sense

Vela asked a couple questions about investments in language access. Departments have budgeted the following amounts on interpretation and translation services:  

The city also offers bilingual civilian employees a stipend: $118 per month. It offers bilingual police offers a slightly more ($2,100/yr).

Anyway, here are the number of civilian employees per department who get the stipend.

I'm sure the great majority of these employees speak Spanish, which is of course a very useful language in Austin. I would love to get a glimpse of the reported languages drawing the stipend –– are there any Danish speakers claiming it?

(In all seriousness I'm a big fan of multilingualism and support rewarding and incentivizing it)

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