One cop or two?
As the Port Aransas City Council puts finishing touches to the city’s 2010-11 budget, one of the last major questions remaining in the equation is this: Should the council add one officer’s position to
“ the police department? Or should it be two?
“ The council is considering the options. Either move will provide assistance to a department that has been understaffed for years, according to city officials and a consultant’s report. But adding as few as two positions could be a little tough in a year when property values are down (which limits tax revenue) and the council has stated an intent to keep the tax rate as low as possible.
The council is scheduled to discuss the budget when it meets today at council chambers, 710 W. Avenue A. The meeting begins at 5 p.m. While a discussion is expected, no vote is scheduled.
A public hearing on the budget and tax rate is slated for Aug. 23. A final vote on the matter is scheduled for Sept. 9. All of the meetings will be at 5 p.m. at council chambers.
Port Aransas Police Chief Scott Burroughs has asked the council to add two officers’ positions. He said a law enforcement agency’s ability to do good police work begins with its ability to deploy the right number of employees.
“Appropriate staffing is not only necessary to address service demands, but it is also necessary to provide sufficient down time for staff to mitigate fatigue and overtime,” Burroughs wrote in a briefing to council. “Experience suggests that fatigue and excessive overtime leads to accidents, apathy, low morale, and the potential increase in the use of force.”
But the chief was quick to say that the Port Aransas Police Department is not in crisis.
“Every shift is staffed, and every call is handled,” Burroughs wrote in an e-mail to the South Jetty. “… We have the resources to provide basic law enforcement services to the city, but we also have the foundation to evolve into one of the best law enforcement agencies in the Coastal Bend. We are very appreciative of the fact that the city council is even contemplating adding police officers, considering the weak economic conditions.”
Discussion of police positions is tied in with debate on where to set the city’s tax rate.
The current tax rate is 32.2434 cents per $100 valuation. The council on July 29 voted 4-2 to advertise a proposed rate of 33.2023 cents per $100 valuation. By law, the council could end up adopting a rate up to but not exceeding the advertised rate.
Going into the July 29 meeting, the proposed budget as submitted by city staff called for adding one police officer’s position and a tax rate of 32.9112 cents. The council decided to advertise for the higher amount after more than one council member said they wanted more wiggle room as they continued to study a proposed budget that only recently had been delivered to them.
Council members Charles Bujan and Glenda Balentine voted against advertising for the higher rate.
“The homework’s been done,” Balentine said.
Bujan said the council should have advertised for the lower rate because city staff said the city could be run adequately for that little, and going above that would amount to needlessly “padding” the budget,
Mayor Keith McMullin and councilmen Keith Donley, John Price and Steve Lanoux voted in favor of advertising for the higher rate, but also indicated that they might end up voting for something lower when the time comes to actually set a rate. Councilman Rick Pratt was absent.
McMullin initially pushed for advertising the lower rate but then agreed to the higher rate, he said, in the spirit of moving the process forward and not painting other council members in a corner as they continued to study the budget. But the mayor said he planned on eventually voting to set a lower rate.
Even if the council ends up going for the higher rate, the hike will be so small that the average resident actually will end up paying less in city taxes than last time around, as a result of property values falling, city officials said.
While the 32.9112-cent rate was produced with the idea of adding one new officer to the force, not two, Finance Director Darla Honea said she could find enough savings in the budget to add two officers with the same rate.
But Honea said it would be hard to sustain the second position in the 2011-12 fiscal year. Finding the budget savings this year would mean cutting certain needed items, and “you can’t keep delaying those,” Honea said.
The current police department budget is $1,678,553, according to Honea.
The proposed police budget for the upcoming year is $1,586,108. That includes enough for one new officer’s position, Honea said.
The proposed budget is lower than the current year’s because the city bought police vehicles last year and because the city recently finished making payments on sets of computer hardware and software for the police department, Honea said.
PAPD has fourteen sworn positions. Those slots consist of the chief’s slot, two lieutenants, two sergeants, two detectives and seven patrol officers.
The non-sworn positions are: four and a half dispatchers, one dispatch supervisor, one and a half animal control officers, one administrative assistant and one records supervisor.
The city in 2005 hired Keller Consulting Group to conduct a management study of PAPD, at a cost of $12,500. The study included a staffing analysis.
The analysis concluded that the department should have 20 sworn positions, including the chief’s position. However, since 2005, the number of sworn positions actually has decreased from 15 to 14.
Donley worried aloud at the July 29 meeting that the police department is so short-staffed that an officer could end up being seriously hurt due to a lack of backup. There are times when only one officer is on duty at PAPD, due to the staff’s size.
PAPD gets back-up from the Nueces County Precinct Four Constable’s Office, located in Port Aransas, when deputies are available, and PAPD provides backup to constable’s deputies, Burroughs said.
However, the chief added, the constable’s jurisdiction extends far beyond the Port Aransas city limits, and because constable personnel have responsibilities throughout their service area, they can’t always be available to help, Burroughs said.
Asked how lack of back-up has affected the police department, Burroughs said, “We have had several occasions where the outcome may have been influenced by a lack of on- scene resources.
“But we have been fortunate, so far, in that the lack of available resources has not led to any serious consequences,” Burroughs said. “I can’t think of any situations where I can say unequivocally that an officer had to use additional force to affect an arrest, where a suspect escaped, or the outcome would have been different if they had back-up present. I do know that there have been occasions that make me wonder.”
Four PAPD officers live in Port Aransas, Burroughs said. The rest live outside of town.
“There have been several instances where one or more of us (who live in Port Aransas) has had to respond after hours to provide backup for the only on duty officer,” Burroughs said.
Earlier this summer, one PAPD officer responded to a family disturbance and suffered a cut to her back from a shard of broken glass while trying to arrest a person who had jumped through a plate glass door, the chief said.
“It was a freak accident that may have occurred even if there were a dozen officers on the scene. We will never know,” Burroughs said.
In an after-hours incident, Burroughs personally had to back up an officer who was involved in a violent confrontation with a person. Burroughs said the officer was able to wrestle the offender to the ground and pin him down, but was too exhausted to apply handcuffs without Burroughs’ help.
“Would the outcomes have been different if there was more than one officer on the scene? Would the offenders have fought the officers if they had backup from the get-go? I can’t answer those questions,” Burroughs said.
“During my career, I have been on a number of scenes that went south even when there were adequate police resources present,” the chief said. “But I do know that there is safety in numbers. Our officers must deal with intoxicated and/or combative suspects on a routine basis.”
(Editor’s note: To read Port Aransas Police Chief Scott Burroughs’ full briefing to the city council on police department staffing levels, go to www.portasouthjetty.com, and click on “Documents,” on the left side of the page.)