Presidents' security for Civil Rights Summit to cost Austin big money

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by ANDY PIERROTTI / KVUE News and photojournalist DEREK RASOR

khou.com

Posted on April 11, 2014 at 6:21 PM

Updated Friday, Apr 11 at 6:21 PM

AUSTIN, Texas -- This week's Civil Rights Summit and four presidential visits created one of the biggest security initiatives for the Austin Police Department.

While the department considers it a privilege to protect the president, it comes with a big price tag for city taxpayers and few opportunities for reimbursement.

“It’s probably the biggest security operation, at least in the seven years I’ve been here,” said Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo.

While specific details are confidential, the chief says the department provides the Secret Service with extra manpower, surveillance and resources any time a president visits.

The additional security this week could cost city taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Here’s some perspective: In May 2013, President Barack Obama toured Manor New Technology High School and stopped to visit tech start-ups in downtown Austin.

City records obtained by the KVUE Defenders show it cost APD nearly $100,000 in overtime hours and resources for less than eight hours of security.

Acevedo says the federal government has no legal obligation to reimburse any city for the extra security.

“If you put things into perspective. It’s a small price to pay to be known for what we want to be known for, the live music capital of the world, economic vibrancy, [a] safe city. God forbid we take shortcuts. I don’t want to be known for something else, like a tragedy,“ said Acevedo.

Not all presidential visits are for official business. While running for reelection in July 2012, Obama came to town for a campaign speech at the Austin Music Hall.

He also attended a fundraiser at the Four Seasons Hotel, where he raised more than $1 million for his campaign.

It cost Austin taxpayers $147,110 for about five hours of security. The KVUE Defenders found the city did not get reimbursed.

Travis County Taxpayer Union member Roger Falk sees things differently. He says the city should be proud anytime a president chooses Austin to visit, but campaigns should also pay for the security.

“It’s our obligation to provide him security and to make sure he can come to our community in a safe fashion, but when he’s a politician, coming to raise money, why are homeowners having to ante up a portion our property tax to pay his fundraising?“ said Falk.

Acevedo says the federal government treats campaign visits of sitting presidents the same: no reimbursements.

It’s not just Austin taxpayers bearing the brunt of the cost. For eight years, Waco police provided security to former President George W. Bush when he came home to his Crawford ranch.

Sgt. Patrick Swanson says the federal government offered no reimbursements, but the department did get a $250,000 Homeland Security grant to help pay for some expenses.

“That money was provided to us for us to pay overtime, but again, that money goes pretty quickly when you consider the amount of people you have to have to run a detail that was needed to protect Presiden Bush,” said Sgt. Patrick Swanson with the Waco Police Department.

Swanson says the department didn’t see the expenses as a burden. The city received extra security training and recognition it wouldn’t have been able to get without these visits.

“Not only was it good for the department, but for our city as a whole," said Swanson.

Acevedo agrees.

“I don’t look at it as a cost. I think of it as a responsibility. We have a responsibility to the nation to protect the president of the United States, especially a sitting president," Acevedo said.

The city has never asked campaigns to reimburse for security and says it likely won’t if a president holds a fundraiser here again.

To reduce costs for the city on the Civil Rights Summit, the Travis County Sheriff’s Department and constables pitched in, too.

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