With the city’s budget adoption process now only two weeks away, three Austin councilmembers are proposing amendments that would reallocate $40 million from the city’s police budget.
That’s on top of the about $11 million in cuts made by the city manager earlier this month, and still far short of what local activists with the Austin Justice Coalition are demanding: a $100 million budget reduction.
Chris Harris, one of the developers of #WeFund, a newly released web tool that allows Austinites to draft a city budget of their own, said the recent movement in city council was a promising start to the conversation.
Created by a collaboration of activist groups and nonprofits, including Texas Appleseed, Austin Justice Coalition, Just Liberty, and Texas Fair Defense Project, the web tool is a transparent and interactive look at the city’s budget.
“We wanted to create something that really allowed people to craft the budget on their own, but also gave them explicit opportunities for reinvestment,” said Harris, the Criminal Justice Project director at Texas Appleseed.
Harris said their web tool allowed for greater flexibility than a similar effort produced by the City of Austin earlier this year. In June, the city released a long-form interactive survey that let Austinites draft a budget of their own — but it would only allow respondents to reduce the budget of a department by up to 5 percent or increase it with unlimited amounts, so long as it remained balanced.
Despite the limitations, of the 37,000 Austinites that completed the web tool-survey, 92 percent chose to reduce the Austin Police Department budget, with almost half, 49 percent, electing to reduce it by the maximum permitted reduction of five percent, according to a report of the survey.
In addition to having no limit to what you can cut, the #WeFund tool also proposes alternatives for users to consider. Those options, Harris said, come from real solutions proposed by activist groups and nonprofits.
Harris said 90 percent of users who submitted their city budgets using the #WeFund tool chose to reinvest from Austin police. The average cut was a little over half of the budget.
In its current form, the Austin Police Department represents 40 percent of the city’s total budget.
“The politics of police funding have always been flawed,” Harris said. “People that support the status quo can really use whatever the current context is for crime in the city to justify increases [in police budgets]. If crime is going up then obviously we need to invest more in police, if crime is going down it’s because of these investments in police that we need to continue to make.”
Harris hopes the #WeFund tool will allow Austinites to start thinking of alternatives for harm reduction as opposed to thinking punitively about crime and without addressing why it occurs in the first place.