Cops and Budgets

The police union raises hell after City Manager Mike Hein proposes a pause in new-officer hiring

Two years after it was launched, the city of Tucson's 10-Year Financial Sustainability Plan has hit rough waters. Could political pressures sink the idea entirely, or will the City Council stick with the concept?

City Manager Mike Hein insists that the plan's goals can be accomplished "with patience and discipline." He adds that the City Council will need to reject "knee-jerk reaction to pressure."

The Tucson Police Officers Association is applying that pressure. Its president, Larry Lopez, says Hein has failed at his job while declaring: "The community's not safe out there, because we don't have the officers."

Lopez says that the number of police patrolling Tucson's streets is about the same now as it was a decade ago, and forecasts that up to 68 officers might retire shortly. He also says many others could move to the Phoenix area, where the pay is higher.

Hein responds: "There are more police officers on the street today than ever."

Lopez believes there should be close to 1,000 patrol officers for Tucson, a city of 550,000 people.

A review of budget figures shows that--while their assignments may vary--in 1998, there were approximately 658 police officers. The number is now about 765.

The financial-sustainability plan was supposed to annually increase that figure significantly. Based on 40 years of revenue data, in 2006, Hein proposed, and the council adopted, the strategy. It called for devoting 60 percent of future general-revenue increases--estimated to total $783 million over a decade--to improve services in four areas: police, fire, residential street maintenance and parks.

The balance of the new revenue, Hein suggested, should go to what he labels "human capital costs, such as salary and benefit adjustments."

The first two years of the sustainability plan happened during a growing economy. Hundreds of miles of residential streets were improved; parks maintenance was upgraded; and 80 police officers, plus 75 firefighters and paramedics, were hired.

Those last two categories were critical, since Tucson has lagged substantially behind many other similar-sized communities in the number of officers and the response time to emergency calls.

According to figures supplied by Hein to the council two years ago, Tucson had 1.9 police officers, including supervisors, for every 1,000 residents. He wanted to raise the figure to 2.4, which would mean hiring 560 new officers over the 10-year period, beginning with 40 in each of the first several years.

At the same time, to reduce the response time for emergency medical calls to a four-minute level--the level is currently more than five minutes--Hein projected the city should employ 354 additional firefighters and paramedics over the next decade.

More civilian staff members in the police and fire departments and the judicial system would also be needed to meet the plan's goals. All of these new public-safety employees were going to cost a lot of money--$547 million, by Hein's estimate.

After successfully implementing the first two years of the plan, the downturn in the economy has apparently put the brakes on the plan, at least for the time being. Hein is recommending no new public-safety personnel be hired in the next fiscal year, although all existing positions will be retained.

Hein is proposing a continuation the residential street-maintenance program to the tune of $7.4 million, while allocating $800,000 toward the parks and recreation goal. As for "human capital," city employees aren't slated to get any pay increases in the coming fiscal year.

With such limited financial resources, Hein was asked: Why not spend what money is available on more public-safety employees?

"That would add to the base budget," he responds. "We're not adding new money to the base of street maintenance."

Since Tucson's population hasn't grown as much as was expected when the forecast was originally made, Hein also indicates 40 new police officers may not be needed to meet the plan's annual goal. However, if the city does not fund any new positions, the city will sit almost 100 employees short of meeting the established targets of the sustainability plan.

"We'll get there," Hein predicts of the future. "I don't expect to see zero revenue growth again."

Lopez thinks the City Council needs to move money around in the proposed budget to focus more attention on public safety. He mentions two possibilities--the millions spent on organizations outside of the city government, and $43 million held in reserve accounts.

"Why are they sitting on that money?" Lopez asks of the reserve accounts. "If nothing changes (in the proposed budget), this community won't be protected."

Hein doesn't agree that the reserve funds should be used. "If I wanted to be popular with the employees, I'd recommend spending down the reserve fund balances, giving everybody a raise. (And) then (I'd) look for another job in two years. But I want to stay in Southern Arizona."

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