The first citywide ballot measure, Proposition A, concerns public safety and made it on the ballot following a petition drive by political action committee Save Austin Now. The language of the proposition—subject to a brief legal dispute between SAN and the city—asks whether the Austin Police Department must be staffed to a level of at least two officers per 1,000 city residents.
The proposition also calls for an increase in "uncommitted time" and incentives for patrol officers, and a requirement that three APD cadet classes are held until the department is staffed to at least 1,959 officers as well as public safety training for city officials and staff.
An August report from Austin Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo estimated that Proposition A could cost the city between $54.3 million and $119.8 million annually. While APD's budget has fluctuated in recent years, it sits at $442.81 million for fiscal year 2021-22, meaning Proposition A's passage could hike APD's share of city finances by 12.26% to 27.05% next year.
Funding for APD comes from the city's approximately $1.15 billion general fund. Police spending takes up more than one-third of the general fund, while other top recipients include the Austin Fire Department, Austin Public Health, EMS, and the library and parks and recreation departments.
The 1,959-officer requirement stems from the number budgeted in Austin's FY 2019-20 budget, although APD never reached that staffing level. SAN has said the proposition's cadet class element would speed hiring at APD and mitigate the increased numbers of officers retiring or leaving the force in the past year-plus. City Council budgeted for two new full cadet classes in FY 2021-22 in addition to an optional modified class for those with previous law enforcement experience.
The proposal has drawn political attention since SAN announced it in May. Supporters have pointed to APD's consistently low staffing, lagging response times and new 911 protocols, and a record murder total in the city as top reasons to see the measure pass. Opponents have said the required police staffing could severely cut into other city departments and services for years while not properly addressing public safety concerns.
In early October, SAN grabbed the endorsements of three former Austin mayors—Ron Mullen, Lee Cooke and Lee Leffingwell—as well as sitting District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly. The Austin Police Association has also supported SAN through its petition and election push.
“Prior councils have commissioned numerous police staffing studies, and each concluded that the Austin Police Department needs additional personnel in order to meet the growing demands of our city. This is something for which we both steadfastly fought, yet the actions and pronouncements of today’s council make clear that those on the dais are taking law enforcement for granted and our city is suffering with more crime and fewer police," Mullen, Cooke and Leffingwell said in an Oct. 8 statement. "Austin will continue to further degrade if citizens do not take action by voting in favor of a minimum police staffing level. It is for this reason that we enthusiastically endorse Prop A."
SAN has brought in more than $730,000 on its local election efforts since July, and had nearly $90,500 on hand as of Oct. 4, according to its finance report submitted 30 days before the election. Contributions from hundreds of individuals and organizations ranged from $5 to Charles Maund Toyota's $100,000. Other top donors include Philip Canfield with $50,000 contributed and several donors and businesses who gave $10,000 each.
On the other side of the issue, Austin's nine other City Council members, Mayor Steve Adler, several former council members, Travis County commissioners and area state representatives stand against the proposition's passage. Those officials and dozens of other local groups have endorsed the No Way on Prop A campaign backed by Equity PAC. The Austin Firefighters Association also announced its opposition to the measure Oct. 1 given the related budget projections and fallout for other public safety departments.
“Austin’s homicide increase is a serious problem, but it’s a nationwide problem. Homicides went up in 90% of U.S. cities during the pandemic, and we know that more officers didn’t prevent it, and more officers won’t solve it,” said Bill Spelman, a former City Council member and current University of Texas criminal justice professor, in a No Way statement.
Based on its 30-day report, Equity PAC raised nearly $120,400 in the past three months and had around $68,300 on hand as of Oct. 4 from donations of $5.58 to $25,000. Based on separate reports, the PAC also received larger out-of-state donations of $200,000 from The Fairness Project and $500,000 from the Open Society Policy Center, both based in Washington, D.C.
Stay tuned to Community Impact Newspaper's local voter guide for election details and results.