The debate over how many officers’ positions to add at the Port Aransas Police Department apparently has ended, with the city council voting on Thursday, Aug. 19, to have staff finish preparing a 2010- 11 budget by funding it with a tax rate of 33.2023 cents per $100 valuation and including two more officers’ spots.
Voting in favor of that were council men Keith Donley, Rick Pratt, John Price and Steve Lanoux. Voting no were Mayor Keith McMullin and council members Glenda Balentine and Charles Bujan.
The motion passed after the failure of a motion to go with a slightly lower rate, 32.9112 cents, and add just one officer. Only McMullin, Balentine and Bujan supported the motion.
Official approval of the tax rate and budget with the two officers’ positions isn’t an absolutely done deal yet. A final vote is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 9, at council chambers, 710 W. Ave. A.
No citizens showed up to speak at a public hearing on the tax rate and budget on Monday, Aug. 23.
Police Chief Scott Burroughs earlier requested the addition of two officers’ positions.
The police department has been understaffed for years, according to city officials and a study conducted by a consulting firm hired in 2005.
The analysis concluded that the department should have 20 sworn positions, including the chief’s position. However, the number of sworn positions actually has decreased from 15 to 14 in the past five years.
There are times during the week when only one Port Aransas Police Department officer is on duty, and that could mean a lack of back-up on potentially violent calls, unless a constable’s deputy or an off-duty officer is immediately available, which isn’t always the case.
Burroughs said he was pleasantly surprised that the council approved the new positions.
“The budget is unbelievably tight, and hiring cops is very expensive,” Burroughs said. “But the data speaks for itself, and the data suggests that the police department is not adequately staffed to meet the community’s expectation for law enforcement services.”
The cost to taxpayers for each officer is $49,054, of which $33,996 is salary and $15,058 represents benefits, according to the city’s finance department.
Burroughs said he appreciated the support of city administrators and the council.
“Coming from Austin, I can tell you it is refreshing to work with a political subdivision that is willing to not only listen, but to expect the city leaders to bring forth a vision and make the tough decisions necessary to deliver the best bang for the buck to its constituents,” said Burroughs, who formerly worked for the Travis County Sheriff’s Department.
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 adver- tised 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 time to evaluate the proposed budget and leave more wiggle room in case they ended up seeing the need for a higher rate.
Even though the council appears to be going forward with a rate higher than the current one, the hike is so small that the average taxpayer actually will end up paying less in city taxes than last time around, as a result of property values falling, city officials said.
The average taxpayer last year paid $702.33 in city taxes, according to Finance Director Darla Honea. With the rate of 33.2023 cents per $100 valuation, that taxpayer will pay $662.29.
With the 32.9112-cent rate, the average taxpayer would pay $656.48.
McMullin and council members have said they’re working to keep the tax rate as low as possible to make it more palatable to voters to support a bond election that might be held next year for extensive roadwork on 11th Street. The package is envisioned to cost several million dollars and raise the tax rate anywhere from 3.3 to 4.6 cents.
At the Aug. 19 meeting, Balentine said budgeting for one more officer is “what’s necessary,” and it’s “what the city is able to do at this time,” considering the economy.
Bujan said he wanted to add two officers, but go with the 32.9112-cent rate. Honea said it could be done, but the city “could be in a huge heap of trouble” the following budget year, because continuing present level operations wouldn’t be sustainable with such a low rate.
“You could have to do personnel cuts,” Honea said.
“We’ll hurt ourselves,” Donley cautioned. Going with the 33.2023-cent rate and hiring two officers will be sustainable and yet still will represent a savings on the city tax bill to the average taxpayer, he said.
The difference between the 32.9112-cent rate and the 33.2023-cent rate will be $5.80 for the average taxpayer, Honea said.
Pratt said protecting people and their property is one of the most important functions of city government, and he gets calls every week from crime victims.
“In my opinion, we’re not doing as good a job as we can,” Pratt said before calling on the council to put two more officers on the force.
Donley said it’s “not acceptable” that officers currently sometimes lack backup and have to work many weekends.
Pratt said the city has obtained good leadership under Burroughs and his predecessor, Sam Russell. The next step, he said, is to hire more officers and do a better job of retaining employees by raising salaries.
Two openings currently exist at the police department. Lanoux asked Burroughs if he could provide assurance that those openings and an additional two new officers’ positions will be filled.
Burroughs responded that he had “no doubt” all four will be filled. He said the department has received 36 applications for the existing two openings.
In an interview, the chief said his goal is to be 100 percent staffed by early April and have everyone trained and ready to go by June 1.
“However, we will not just hire warm bodies,” Burroughs said. “If we cannot find four qualified applicants from the current pool, we will test again in a couple of months and will continue to test until we find the right personnel.”