Tuesday, August 7, 2007

A boost for public safety and infastructure?

With 17 vacancies in the police department and no plans for another police academy until January, some city council members are considering pumping more money into public safety in a last minute effort before next Tuesday's 2008 budget vote. And they're also considering more money for street maintenance (which is $900,000 shy of what it was last year) and they even batted around the idea of cameras in police cars.

City Manager George Kolb said his thinking behind keeping the police positions open is that the money that would have gone to salaries can go to planned savings. And, he notes, the department doesn't usually start its academies until there are 25 to 30 vacancies anyway -- this year they've had less turnover than expected. But with a huge upswing in murders this year and what the chief describes as a "gutted" larceny division, council members are pressing Kolb to hire police. After Kolb explained the planned savings, Vice Mayor Sharon Fearey said: "I don't think that's what our citizens want to hear." Council member Sue Schlapp said: "It seems to me the number one priority is the police." And Mayor Carl Brewer said: "I think we need to look at this before Tuesday."

On the street maintenance side, Council member Jim Skelton said he's afraid that a $900,000 cut could put the city on track to have to spend huge amounts to fix ailing streets because, like most maintenance issues, deterioration accelerates. The cut in funding is exasperated by big hikes to the price of materials used to build roads. But, as Public Works Director Chris Carrier pointed out, the cut simply brings street maintenance back to 2006 funding levels. That extra $900,000 was just a nice boost the city approved and hoped to maintain. But, he said, it didn't work out that way.

As for the cameras in police cars (a big issue last year), it's unlikely to happen quickly, especially after the council's inconclusive discussion. The plan is to ask companies to submit bids to supply the city with more cars and include a price tag for equipping at least the traffic division cars with cameras. If the price is right, Kolb said the city would start using them. But, Chief Norman Williams noted, there's a price to maintain the cameras and the video too. He said police used to have cameras in the early 1990s after getting a federal grant, but there was no money to maintain them and they fell to the wayside.

"I think this is important" Fearey said in their workshop Tuesday. "Other cities have this. I have had to be on the other end where I think that I've got citizens' calls that are telling me some kinda big horror stories about police action and, you know, there's no way to know (what exactly happened)." Schlapp said she thinks that the videos could exonerate police in many cases. But Chief Williams, who said cameras weren't even in the top 10 police department priorities, returned to the bottom line argument.

"Cameras are fine if you have ample funds to fund them," he said. And, he noted twice during his discussion that all five of his priorities didn't make the budget this year. That's because the city council wanted to focus on improving fire service, Kolb said. And that has been done -- with three new stations and more than 30 new firefighters expected to be hired.

(Meanwhile, on a fire department note, the city this week will interview finalists to replace the retiring Chief Larry Garcia. The city declined to release candidates' names.)

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