Police Action 

Would Tucson's Prop 200 be worth the cost to taxpayers?

When you hear stories about a person stabbed while interrupting a midtown car robbery, or citizens shot to death in southside home invasions, it seems as if we're all just one wrong step away from a bullet to the head or a knife to the throat.

The Tucson Association of Realtors says it has a solution: The Public Safety First Initiative, which will appear as Proposition 200 on the Nov. 3 city of Tucson ballot.

"People don't feel safe in the city of Tucson," says Colin Zimmerman, director of public affairs for the Tucson Association of Realtors. "They don't feel safe in their homes. They don't feel safe in the schools. Businesses don't feel safe and don't want to relocate here."

Prop 200 would require the city to hire more police and firefighters over the next five years, at an estimated cost of $157 million. Once in place, the cost would be in the neighborhood of $51 million a year.

Critics of Prop 200 say that the cost is too high. Brandon Patrick, chairman of Don't Handcuff Tucson, a political committee opposing the initiative, says that Prop 200 will force the city to cut back on everything from street repairs to parks and recreation programs.

"The money isn't there," says Patrick, "especially when crime is already on the decline."

Given everything that Tucsonans hear about criminal activity, it's a little surprising to learn that crime rates, for the most part, have been declining since the mid-'90s, according to Tucson Police Department statistics.

Violent crime—homicide, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assaults—has dropped by more than a third between 1995 and 2008, as measured by the number of reports to TPD per 1,000 residents. Burglary calls have dropped 38 percent since peaking in 1997. Criminal-damage calls have decreased 29 percent since a 1997 high.

Nearly all of Tucson's crime-rate categories are dropping. Even homicide, which saw a minor uptick in 2008 over 2007, has dropped 16 percent since 1995.

"The suggestion that there's more need than ever before for police is nonsense, and the fear-mongering tactics that they use to try to burn that into people's minds are particularly unfortunate," Patrick says.

Dispite the drop in crime rates, the Tucson Association of Realtors has been bankrolling the campaign to force the city to hire more cops and firefighters. As of Aug. 12, TAR had contributed $125,276 to the Public Safety First campaign. The Southern Arizona Home Builders Association had contributed $20,000; the Tucson Police Officers Association had contributed $15,000; and the International Association of Fire Fighters had contributed $10,000.

Of the $103,573 that has been spent by the campaign, more than $86,000 had gone to Zimmerman and Associates, the political consulting firm run by Colin Zimmerman's parents, Pete and Carol Zimmerman.

Prop 200 would mandate that the city hire at least 2.4 police officers per 1,000 residents; right now, the city has somewhere around 1.9. It would also require that firefighters and emergency medical technicians be on the scene within four minutes, a standard found in the National Fire Protection Association's guidelines.

But there's a cost to mandating staffing levels in the city charter. City staff estimates that it will take an additional $51 million a year to add 350 new police officers to the city's current force of 1,113 officers, including associated costs for civilian support, equipment, substations and court staff.

The fire department would also need enough firefighters to staff new fire stations, especially on the perimeter of the city. Fire Chief Patrick Kelly says that response times in most of the city are already within the required range; longer response times are in areas where the city has yet to build new fire stations to serve new development.

Opponents of the initiative warn that the city's budget has already been pinched so much by the slumping economy that most departments have been cut by 7.1 percent, and most employees are also taking five-day unpaid furloughs this year. (Police and firefighters were exempted from the furloughs, although they saw a reduced uniform allowance and a few benefit cuts.)

To deal with the budget shortfall, the city has been forced to suspend a program that repaves residential streets, cut back on park maintenance, eliminate 400 vacant city jobs, reduce funding for outside agencies and make other cutbacks.

If voters lock in more spending on public safety, the city will have to either raise taxes or cut more services to cover the costs, warns Patrick.

Zimmerman is optimistic about the economic recovery and dismisses concerns that Prop 200 will require much of a sacrifice from taxpayers. Additional costs will be ramped up over five years, and the economy should grow during that time, giving the city additional money to spend on public safety, he says.

"Theoretically, the economy should cover the entire cost," Zimmerman says. "I don't see any reason why cuts need to happen. I don't see any reason why anything has to change in the city of Tucson."

City officials offer a more dismal economic forecast. This year, the city was looking at a drop of $68 million in projected revenues, and City Manager Mike Letcher has warned council members that the city could face a shortfall next year between $46 million and $68 million.

"Revenues are contracting in Tucson, and we're running a huge deficit," Patrick says. "This pie-in-the-sky notion that all of sudden, there's going to be this magical uptick in the economy is nonsense."

The city is already spending about $268 million—or 64 percent—of its $420 million annual general-fund budget on public safety, if you include court, jail and administrative costs, according to a presentation that Letcher made to the council last week.

The city has boosted spending on public safety in recent years. As part of its "sustainability plan," council members moved forward with plans to expand the police force by 80 officers between 2006 and 2008. (About 70 of those positions are currently unfilled, because of officers who have retired or quit. The city plans to hire new officers to replace them later this year.)

Zimmerman gives the council credit for expanding the police force and suggests that the additional cops may have helped bring down crime rates.

"The only downside was that they stopped the program, and they stopped in the worst possible time," Zimmerman says. "During the recession, you need more cops."

But Patrick says the cost is too high for taxpayers.

"Everybody would love to have more police and fire," says Patrick. "Nobody is against that, and nobody is anti-public safety. I just know that we can't afford it."

The Public Safety First Initiative

Proposition 200 would require the city of Tucson to hire at least 2.4 police officers per 1,000 residents. Today, the ratio is closer to 1.9 per 1,000. The city would have to add an estimated 350 officers to the force.

Supporters argue that more police officers and more firefighters will make for a safer city.

Opponents argue that crime is already on the decline in Tucson, and the initiative will cost an estimated $51 million annually when fully implemented in five years. They warn that taxes will have to be increased, or other city services will have to be cut, to pay for the additional public safety.

More by Jim Nintzel

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