Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
San Antonio’s public safety agencies need more money to better serve their employees and constituents, two top executives told City Council in budget presentations Wednesday.
Fire Chief Charles Hood asked City Council for $4.7 million in department improvements, most of which would be used to purchase a building to house wellness programs.
Police Chief William McManus said his department needs an additional $1.95 million to fund more police officers and enhance recruitment efforts.
The City’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget is $2.8 billion, about 6 percent larger than the 2018 budget. City Council is slated to vote on the proposal on Sept. 13 and will receive several more presentations from City department heads before then.
Hood emphasized the need to keep his firefighters healthy. He said the $3.5 million “Wellness Building” would house a physician and psychologist to care for the firefighters as well as the Fire Prevention Division. He also plans to distribute new bunker gear for his force and add barrier hoods and gloves to keep particulates from getting into firefighters’ skin – a cancer prevention tactic.
“Cancer is a challenge in the fire service,” Hood said. “It’s a new normal, new reality for us.”
Of the $1.95 million McManus requested in enhancements, $576,000 would add eight parks police officers to provide security for the City’s new linear creekways and to expand security in outer districts. He also upped his recruitment budget from $85,000 to $235,000.
Council members were generally receptive to both presentations, but Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) pressed McManus on the department’s vacancies, which the chief said usually hovers around 50 to 70.
“When are we going to be up to 100 percent?” Perry asked.
The police department continues to work on growing its force, McManus said, but he knows of no police departments who hire at full capacity.
“I’ll be real candid with you,” McManus said. “We have people retiring, leaving the department every day. We get close to it, but if in one month we lose 15 people, there are 15 vacancies.”
San Antonio police have been nationally recognized for their work with community mental health issues, McManus said, but there’s still a need for improvement.
According to Assistant City Manager María Villagómez, an additional $236,000 is included in the city’s proposed budget for mental health services provided by Haven for Hope and Center for Health Care Services.
In five years, the police have “emergency detained” more than 63,000 people who officers deemed a risk to themselves or others, McManus said.
“You’ve often heard about problems we cannot arrest away,” McManus said. “We cannot ’emergency detain’ mental illness away.
“What we need is help upfront with this issue,” he continued. “By the time they get to us, we’re dealing with their issues from a law enforcement perspective, not from a medical perspective, which is how they should be dealt with.”
City Council does not set wages, health care, and other benefits that uniformed officers receive. Rather, the police and firefighter unions negotiate those terms through collective bargaining. Public safety spending makes up about 63 percent of the City’s general fund.
The police union’s five year contract was approved in 2016 after more than two years of on-again-off-again talks with the City.
The fire union has refused for years to negotiate its new contract and now is embroiled in legal battles with the City surrounding three charter amendment proposals it worked to get on the November ballot.
City Council is slated to vote whether to put the fire union’s amendments on the ballot Thursday. The deadline to do so is Monday, Aug. 20.