E.V. police departments barely hold the line on officer cuts - East Valley Tribune: Public Safety

E.V. police departments barely hold the line on officer cuts

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Posted: Tuesday, June 21, 2011 3:30 pm | Updated: 12:26 pm, Thu Jun 23, 2011.

With a new fiscal year looming July 1, at least one police department in the East Valley is preparing to deal with cuts in personnel, while others hope to “hold the line” to keep cities safe.

Police staffing levels are dropping to what they were nearly a decade ago throughout the East Valley, but cities are doing what they can to keep criminal activity from spiking out of control.

Mesa

The state’s third largest city is proposing a $141 million annual budget for the police department, with at least a $2.1 million cut from a year ago. The cost-reduction plans eliminate 19 full-time civilian positions, according to Candace Cannistraro, acting budget director for Mesa.

On top of health-care costs increasing for city workers, Mesa police now are entering their fourth year without a pay raise — and with a 2 percent pay cut that went into effect in January 2009.

The number of sworn officers in Mesa is about 769, down 66 from two years ago.

After experiencing double-digit cuts into the millions the last two years, further cuts into the low millions have concerned the executive board of the Mesa Police Association, which represents about 730 sworn officers and issued this statement:

“Over the last two years, Mesa’s police department has been cut by approximately $25 million dollars. Frontline officers were hopeful last year when city officials stated that our great city was at the end of the road with budget cuts to in turn find Mesa considering another $3 to $4 mil-

lion dollar hit to our department in 2012. Mesa’s local and state elected delegates have heard from their constituents that public safety is a priority, however, the city spends the lowest amount per person for our services. How is this acceptable?”

Mesa police have worked to maintain core services as they’ve lost staff, including more than 130 non-sworn employees, Sgt. Ed Wessing said. Police have tried to streamline the department to become more efficient and also plan to let the public file some types of crimes online. That would allow people to report crime without having to wait for an officer to be available to take a report on a low-level crime, Wessing said.

“We surely would like to bolster the total number of officers that we have available, but we just don’t have that luxury,” Wessing said.

The MPA statement also said, “Financial challenges compound our ability to provide adequate protection. Officers feel the police department has become more reactive. Many Part II crimes like identity theft continue to rise and our detectives have a huge workload. When Mesa has a great insufficient number of officers, police have to realistically assess what calls we will and will not respond to. Police experience many angry Mesa citizens because they had to wait for hours for an officer to respond. The simple truth is we do not have enough boots on the ground. The current police department budget is cut so thinly, further cuts mean less people doing the job.”

Tempe

Earlier this year, when city leaders were putting together a budget where all departments had to identify 2 percent in “efficiency” cuts over the next two years to avoid further layoffs, the Tempe Police Department turned to its jail and speed photo enforcement program. It also is eyeing grant funds to help with special programs or operations.

The cuts in operational aspects of the police department, which city deputy financial services managers Cecilia Robles and Tom Mikesell say should save $800,000, will be done without eliminating any personnel, as the department will not be filling positions.

“This is a strategic initiative,” Robles said. “We’re just looking at every department and asking tough questions by asking whether anything can be done different. We hope to re-engineer some of our business practices.”

Last year, the city made deep cuts when it eliminated 55 non-sworn or civilian positions in the police department to save $75 million. Most of the personnel were able to transfer to other city departments; the cuts ultimately resulted in seven layoffs.

The police department, which now is fully staffed with 341 sworn officers, plans to go forward with an annual budget of $66.3 million and weather the continuing economic storm by generating $8 million to $10 million from a four-year sales tax increase that was passed by voters in the May 2010 elections.

In hopes of saving money, Tempe will reconfigure city jail operations to save $100,000 by adding weekend city court hours to process criminal cases (so the jail will not shoulder the cost of housing inmates over the weekend if they are booked into the jail on Fridays).

Tempe also plans to save about $600,000 in costs it would have paid Redflex Traffic Systems. The Phoenix-based vendor oversees the city’s speed photo enforcement program. The city pays Redflex for each citation issued, but with the number of speeding citations down, the city will see savings, Robles said.

Chandler

The Chandler Police Department is the only police agency in the East Valley that will experience pay raises for the second straight year — up to 5 percent, following a memorandum of understanding between the City Council and the Chandler Law Enforcement Association that was approved on June 9.

Chandler also plans to keep what it now has in the way of police officers and administrative staffing into the 2011-12 fiscal year, with an annual budget to $78.4 million.

Last year, Chandler experienced minimal cuts that included its DARE drug prevention program, which was eliminated at the end of the 2010-11 fiscal year. The officers in that program were able to transfer into other departments.

Officers also were awarded merit raises last year.

This year, the department’s public information office will reduce its staff from three to two, with an officer also being transferred to fill a vacant position.

Chandler has 318 sworn officers and is in the process of hiring three entry-level officers, according to information from the city. The beginning salary of a Chandler police officer is $51,438, with the top officer pay reaching $73,070.

Gilbert

Gilbert’s police department is looking to bring its level of sworn officers back up to its “normal” level of 226 while avoiding any cuts to its sworn personnel.

Although officers have not had a raise in three years, the department will move forward with a no-growth budget while continuing to place a priority on keeping officers on the streets.

The Gilbert Police Department will be operating on a $34.2 million budget this fiscal year, $1 million less than it did a year ago, eliminating purchases of equipment such as new police cruisers.

Gilbert has 206 sworn officers working, but plans to bring 18 new officers on board within the next year: six in patrol, five school resource officers, three in the traffic division and four in investigations. Those positions will not be an addition, but will replace officers who have retired or moved on to other jobs. Of those new officers, 10 have been hired and are going through training. They will earn a beginning pay of $24.30 an hour or a starting salary of $50,544 a year, according to Sgt. Bill Balafas, a Gilbert police spokesman.

Gilbert has 10 officers in academy training, with three officers expected on the street in August, two in September, three in October, one in January and one in April, Balafas said. Of the 10 hires, there was a mixture of lateral or post-certified officers from a large pool of candidates, Balafas said.

The department also is turning to technology to bolster its efforts against crime.

Balafas said possible changes are under review after purchasing Corona Solutions, a computer software program the police department began using six months ago that is able to see where officers are needed based on population and the types of calls for service in certain areas.

“We’re letting technology of the day show us where we stand, and we’ll go from there,” Balafas said.

The program is assisting the department in seeing where more officers could be re-deployed, he said.

Apache Junction and Queen Creek

As the city is approaching its fourth year without pay raises, Apache Junction, the smallest police department in the East Valley, also is proposing to keep what it has through a “no growth” budget.

“They told us to hold the line, so that’s what we’re doing,” said Capt. Tom Kelly, an Apache Junction police spokesman. “We’re not going to lose any personnel, and Council has been in support of us not losing any sworn personnel.”

In fact, Apache Junction is in the process of hiring eight officers to add to its 57 sworn officer force to replace some that were lost through retirement and others moving on this past year.

However, the eight new officers will be lateral hires or officers that would not require academy training, Kelly said.

The average starting pay for officers ranges from $45,690 for a new recruit to a top salary of $63,966.

However, if an officer joins the department from another agency with at least five years experience, he can begin making as much as $49,704, Kelly said.

Apache Junction police Chief Jerald Monahan, who has been with the department for three years, told the Tribune the department has been able to maintain a minimum staffing level with its $8.3 million annual budget to perform its primary and basic mission, but when economic times improve, the department plans to pursue beefing up other units to better help with crime management and prevention, Monahan said.

“It’d be nice to have unlimited resources and be able to have all the people we wanted, but we know right now that can’t be done,” Monahan said. “When times get better, we’ll seek expansion for specialty units that would help better manage crime and possibly add some school resource officers.”

Law enforcement in Queen Creek is provided by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. Under the 2011-12 Queen Creek budget approved June 1, the town’s contract with the agency will be cut from five beats to four.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6533 or msakal@evtrib.com

• Tribune writer Garin Groff contributed to this report.

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