Budget-battered Police, Fire keep eyes on sales tax returns

       A dismal forecast… with a ray of hope.

Deputy Police Chief Pete Carey answers questions at the May 25 Westside Center meeting.
Westside Pioneer photo

       This was the gist of a combined presentation May 25 by representatives of the Colorado Springs Police and Fire departments during a public meeting at the Westside Community Center.
       Over the past few years, both entities have absorbed funding and manpower cuts and are looking at more. Some of these, CSPD Deputy Chief Pete Carey said, “keep me up at night.”
       Rich Brown of the CSFD said that if some of the conditionally proposed cuts for 2011 take effect, it would be like “a knockout punch” for city fire service.
       The ray of hope stems from upticks in city sales tax returns over the past few months. That's why more specifics on the potential 2011 cuts for his department were not presented, Brown noted. “It's a moving target, and it's moving to the better,” he said.
       But for the present at least, favorable financial news has not convinced City Council to revise its grim prognosis. “We're looking at more budget cuts next year,” said City Councilmember Bernie Herpin, who attended the meeting. In response to an attendee's question about possibly increasing city taxes to cover police and fire needs, the councilman pointed to the defeat of the 2C property-tax-hike measure last November and said there's been “no move by council to put a tax issue on the ballot.”
       The only possibility being talked about is to “beef up” the .04 percent Public Safety Sales Tax (which now pays for capital improvements for police and fire), but council would need to hear support from the community first, Herpin said.
       In the meantime, both CSPD and CSFD are seeing increases in calls for service coupled with decreases in sworn officers.
       For police, the impact to the public has been that fewer calls get a physical response, Carey summarized. One of the reasons is that patrol units simply don't have time. In past years, it was rare when all units in the city were too busy to answer a call. But that number was at 23 percent in January, and with this year's cuts taking effect it's expected to climb to 32 percent by the end of the year. The potential cuts for 2011 could put the “all-units-busy” number at 42 percent, Carey said.
       Other points Carey made:
  • Colorado Springs continues to do better than the national average in terms of violent crimes and property crimes, but by less of a gap than before.
  • More and more people aren't reporting crimes when they're told an officer can't respond and they're asked instead to file a report on the Internet. Police know of this phenomenon because of people telling officers they won't do it that way, Carey said.
  • Burglary investigations have dropped off because the number of property crimes detectives has been cut in half (from 25 to 12).
  • In the case of fraud and identity theft cases, people are now asked to file a report in the lobby or on the Internet.
  • Abandoned vehicles are dealt with more slowly than before, unless they're a safety hazard.
           Assuming no funding improvement in 2011, the CSPD is considering more cuts, including:
  • No more officers at middle and high schools. Carey used that as another of his “keeps me up at night” examples because of the potential public anguish if “one bad thing” happened as a result.
  • Eliminating Code Enforcement. Major code issues, such as unsafe buildings, would have to be handled by patrol officers, he said.
  • Eliminating the Domestic Violence Enhanced Response Team (DVERT), Community Relations group and the Special Enforcement Unit (vice and narcotics investigations).
  • Reducing patrol officers and the COMMIT unit (gang crime).
  • Reducing traffic enforcement and training academy staff.
  • Closure of stations after normal business hours.
  • Closure of one of the police divisions because there would no longer be enough officers to justify the current four.
           For the Fire Department, Brown described the impact of current staff cutbacks:
  • Eliminating a full-time hazardous materials response team and safety education programs for children and seniors.
  • Reducing fire code enforcement.
  • Postponing construction of new stations.
           Some of the envisioned cuts for 2011, presented at a CSFD talk on the Westside in March, are technical rescues, such as from wrecked cars, cave-ins, ice or water.
           Some members of the audience looked for ways that public safety money could be saved. One attendee asked why CSFD doesn't do its ambulance transport, inasmuch as its crews respond to medical emergencies anyway. Brown said this had been studied about three years ago, with the finding that within three years (after start-up costs) such an effort could become self-sufficient. City Council at that time chose not to pursue the plan, but “if we did it, we would be successful,” Brown said.

    Westside Pioneer article