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Austin Public Safety Officials Weigh Possible Cuts, and Criticism Flares Up

AUSTIN -- Austin public safety agencies have joined other city offices in preparing for possible budget cuts next year, kindling a debate about how to best balance the need to trim costs while protecting residents.

How deep any cuts could go - and whether they would affect public safety - probably won't be known for weeks, as officials work to develop a list of programs, services or jobs that could be eliminated.

But the possibility of such measures has caused intense conversations to erupt among everyone from a potential mayoral candidate to union representatives about whether cuts would jeopardize the welfare of Austin residents.

"Part of our responsibility, as a public safety department, is to let everybody know what the consequences of meeting the goals are," acting Fire Chief Jim Evans said. "We haven't gotten far enough downstream in the process for me to be able to say it is very dire or it's not at this point."

City officials have asked the Police Department to find ways it could cut $4.7 million from its $233 million budget, and the Austin Fire Department has been asked to consider how it would slash about $2.5 million from its $121 million budget.

EMS officials must consider how they would cut about $900,000 from their $44 million budget.

The amounts represent about 2 percent of the agencies' overall budgets. Other city departments have been asked to consider similar cuts in their operations.

City Manager Marc Ott said Monday that the final decision about what could be cut will be left to City Council members.

Union representatives from the Police Department and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services predict that response times would increase and that crime rates would surge as the result of further cuts. They said they already are operating with lean staffs and tight budgets.

"When you are facing an economic crisis, there shouldn't be any sacred cow," City Council Member Mike Martinez said. "That doesn't mean that you shouldn't prioritize."

Former magazine publisher Mike Levy, who has said he is considering a mayoral run and who is a member of the city's public safety task force, which provides operational suggestions to city officials, said he would oppose any cuts to police, fire or EMS.

"That has a cost to the community," said Levy, retired Texas Monthly founder and publisher.

City officials have said they plan to identify $15 million in possible additional cuts citywide by year's end from the $620.7 million general fund, but that before choosing what to trim, they want to see further sales tax data from the state. The data will show sales tax collected in October, the first month of the city's fiscal year, and will be an indicator of what is ahead for Austin's economy, officials have said.

Austin already cut $8 million from its budget this year by not filling some vacant jobs and slashed another $25 million in the 2009 budget by freezing jobs and reducing employee travel and training.

Other U.S. cities have faced similar concerns about whether to cut costs in public safety agencies, particularly among police departments, as the nation's economic downturn deepens. In Los Angeles, police officials have preserved their budget and added officers to the force after arguing that crime is expected to increase and that more officers are needed, according to published reports.

A survey in June by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based organization that provides training to police leaders, said 45 percent of 200 police agencies surveyed said recent changes in the national economy had an impact on their ability to reduce crime; 43 percent said that the faltering economy had affected their ability to deliver services.

Austin police Sgt. Wayne Vincent, president-elect of the Austin Police Association, said he thinks department officials should consider telling Ott that they have no other place to cut.

"There isn't any fat left as far as I can tell," Vincent said. "If there are further cuts, it would probably start to affect public safety out on the street."

Steve Stewart, president-elect of the Austin-Travis County EMS Employees Association, said the agency has about a dozen vacancies among about 380 paramedics. He said any cuts could be harmful.

"We are a pretty lean department," he said.


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