Tempe is preparing to bolster its police department by adding 31 new employees.
The city’s police department has remained the same size for five years, but the new cops represent a larger effort to expand and reorganize the police force in an increasingly congested and urbanized Tempe.
The new police would address the city’s most pressing needs. But a staffing study that’s under way could call for other jumps in the force’s size, police spokesman Mike Horn said.
“We hope this is a process that is going to continue over time,” Horn said.
The proposed expansion also is an attempt to deal with the city’s crime rate, which has long been the highest in the East Valley. The higher crime is largely a result of Tempe’s geography and attractions, Horn said.
The city is home to more jobs than residents, which brings a surge of workers from nearby cities. Places such as Tempe Town Lake draw huge crowds for events, and the city’s roads are clogged with drivers passing through to other cities.
The new police employees reflect the challenges of those issues, Horn said, rather than basing the department’s size on the city’s population.
Sixteen of the new employees would be sworn officers. The rest would be records clerks, dispatchers, crime analysts and other support services.
The larger force will cost $2.7 million in just the first year. It expands the department of 517 employees by about 6 percent.
This is the second effort to improve the city’s police since longtime Tempe cop Tom Ryff became chief late last year. The city recently boosted salaries so starting officers have the Valley’s highest pay rate. Also, Ryff is working on a reorganization plan and should be unveiling some of that soon.
Tempe hasn’t expanded the police department significantly since the late 1990s. In the last five years, the city added just six new posts in the police department.
The police expansion is one of the largest new expenses in the city’s annual budget, which the City Council will begin discussing Thursday. The $169.5 million proposal is about 7 percent higher than this year’s spending plan.
One other high-profile expense is $176,000 to hire 10 part-time code enforcement officers. They’ll patrol neighborhoods and act separately from city employees who check on commercial properties.
The biggest new item in the budget will be appreciated by accountants more than average Tempeans. The city is setting aside $10 million to pay for health care for its retired employees.
New federal accounting standards require local governments to state how much they should expect to spend on health care in the future. Tempe has calculated it needs to set aside $300 million during the next 30 years.
City Manager Will Manley said the retiree health care issue forced the city to scrap $6.3 million in other new hires and programs it had considered.
“That really blows a hole in this budget,” Manley said.
The city wouldn’t face any direct penalties if it didn’t start the retirement health care account.
But that would hurt the city’s credit rating and probably boost the interest rate for money it borrows, said Tom Duensing, Tempe’s deputy financial services manager.
“It’s a classic pay me now or pay me later,” Duensing said.
Local governments across the nation are dealing with the same issue. Tempe is studying whether it will change benefits on new employees, and perhaps existing workers too, to save money.