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The City of San Antonio’s proposed budget for next year includes $21.1 million more spending for the police department and increase of $3.2 million for the fire department, the public safety department chiefs told City Council on Tuesday. Public safety expenses represent the largest chunk of the City’s general fund.
Next year, the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) will add 16 positions focusing on domestic violence, 10 new community policing officers, and six new sergeants. Addressing family violence emerged as a top priority of the City Council during a budget work session earlier this summer. The department also will add four parks police officers to patrol the City’s growing park space.
The San Antonio Fire Department (SAFD) will add five positions, three of which will be firefighters assigned to Fire Station 44, the far Westside station that’s the city’s busiest. SAFD is looking to lighten the load of that engine company by adding a lighter-weight emergency vehicle with a smaller crew to respond to medical calls.
The pilot program could be replicated at other strained fire stations and engine companies, SAFD Chief Charles Hood said. Other fire enhancements include equipment, technology, and a new command center bus for large-scale operations and emergencies.
City Council is scheduled to vote on the $2.9 billion budget on Sept. 12. Before then, it will review portions of the budget in several more meetings. SASpeakUp, the City’s public engagement arm, will take input from the community through a survey, an event this Saturday, and via a “Telephone Town Hall” at which residents can call in to share their views and ask questions. Click here to view the schedule.
Starting this week, SAPD will add two officers to so-called “Entertainment Zones” with increased nightlife activity adjacent to neighborhoods where residents have made more calls for emergency and non-emergency services, SAPD Chief William McManus said. During peak hours, these officers will patrol the North St. Mary’s Strip, the North Main Strip, the Pearl, and Southtown in the urban core, as well as a section on the South Side around Military Drive.
SAPD receives reports from neighbors that people, usually those leaving bars, are “using their front yards [as] bathrooms and littering their yards with trash,” he said.
This initiative will not involve hiring new officers, but the budget allocates $272,000 for overtime pay to cover those shifts.
SAPD also will weigh a suggestion from community groups to use $150,000 of the money it obtains from criminal asset seizures to fund programs outside of the department that target crime reduction, McManus said. Typically that money is used to buy equipment and pay off debt, but next year SAPD plans to formulate “a competitive process on how to share some of those funds.”
The proposed budget also sets aside $200,000 for an expert-led review of SAPD facilities to find out where more police substations are needed as the city’s population grows.
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) reiterated her years-long call for another substation on the South Side.
“We talk about equity, but we are making an entire southern part of the city share one substation,” Viagran said. There’s only one substation south of Highway 90, she noted, but plenty of population and high crime rates to justify an additional substation.
“What is our clear path forward to stop this inequity?” she asked McManus and City Manager Erik Walsh. “The business-as-usual [mentality] is not going to work anymore.”
Walsh agreed that SAPD substations need to catch up with the City’s growth. The City hasn’t added a police substation in 25 years, he said.
“I think we’re being proactive by laying out money for a facilities study,” Walsh said. “Frankly, there are other parts of the city that have had the same kind of request … There’s likely more than just one [substation] that we’re talking about [needing].”
A substation likely would cost between $15 million and $20 million, Walsh said, and would need to be part of a future bond program, which is how bigger-ticket infrastructure items typically are funded.
Councilmen Clayton Perry (D10) and John Courage (D9) questioned the ratio of police officers to residents. Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, and Austin all have two or more police officers for every 1,000 residents, according to data collected by SAPD. San Antonio has 1.77.
“We need to look at expanding our police force,” Courage said.
While San Antonio may have fewer police officers for its population, the number of violent crimes per 100,000 people is lower in San Antonio than in Dallas, Houston, and Fort Worth, said Assistant City Manager Maria Villagomez.
McManus said comparing FBI crime statistics can paint a misleading picture because different law enforcement agencies and cities do not classify and report types of crime the same way.
“It’s not comparing city-to-city how safe it is, it’s simply a reference [point],” McManus said.
While City Council discussed the police and fire department budgets, much of the City’s public safety budget – wages, health care, and other benefits for uniformed employees – is controlled by the collective bargaining agreements it has with the police and fire unions.
The police union signed a five-year labor deal in 2016, and the City and firefighters union are in arbitration to work out terms of a new labor deal. The City and union representatives are trying to decide on a third person to serve on the arbitration panel.