(October 9, 2006) -- By offering the police officers' union a second pay raise in the middle of their current contract, the Mayor and City Councilmembers (8-0) have shown their willingness to spend roughly $9 million a year more by April 09 to retain currently budgeted officers and replace those who've left.
But that's only half the job. A well-run city has an obligation to pay public safety workers competitively AND provide taxpayers with enough officers.
LB City Hall has been shortchanging its residents and businesses on the latter for years.
In 2003, in a gutsy, intellectually honest move, Police Chief Anthony Batts told the Council and the public that he needed 130 more officers. In an equally praiseworthy action, the president of the Police Officers Union said at the time that Chief Batts was right. The Council listened and did little.
In Sept. 2005, Chief Batts outlined for the Council what it could expect by adding between 37 and 309 officers. The Council responded by chasing a tax increase without changing its spending habits. Meanwhile, candidate Foster was elected Mayor on a pledge to provide 100 more officers during his first term in office.
So we asked Mayor Foster at a October 6, 2006 briefing (when the Council put the multi-million dollar police contract sweetener on the table) if City Hall would be budgeting 100 additional officers by the end of FY 2010 (by Sept. 30, 2010, basically the end of his first term of office). Mayor Foster responded with the kind of language doctors use when trying to soften a blow on familymembers:
"I'm going to do everything I can, I know [City Manager Miller] is going to everything he can to make that happen. I'm going to try to make good on that commitment. I can't predict four years from now, but I'll tell you, I'm going to give every effort I have to make that happen."
This was incredibly saddening. Just weeks earlier, Mayor Foster set a powerful example by traveling to a NLB library to unveil a new budget that reopened libraries but didn't provide additional neighborhood cops. A few weeks later, a shooting rocked that very neighborhood.
A City Hall "Strategic Plan" (trotted out before the election cycle that brought Beverly O'Neill to power) included a "staffing strategy" recommending 1,023 officers by FY 2000. Today, entering FY 07, City Hall budgets only about 945 neighborhood officers for taxpayers (with fewer actually on the force).
By our math, expecting 100 more officers by FY 2010 is a decade overdue. It's basically what City Hall told the public it "planned" to deliver by FY 2000...and still hasn't.
And it gets worse. Some in this city think it's smart to pile more density and development on top of what's already been invited. If approved by the Council (do you have any doubt?), those developments will make LB's already too-thin ratio of police to population even thinner.
So we asked City Manager Miller if management has any plans to provide increased police staffing levels in the future. His reply, "Not in this [retention/recruitment plan] but we are looking at some other internal reviews that are not the subject of this negotiation that I think begins to work towards that question, and I'd rather save that for the time being but we are looking for some potential ways in which to make more efficient the operation."
To this, Police Chief Anthony Batts added, "We have other innovative approaches that we're working on. You saw that we've taken off the head of the "Insane Crip" gang [a joint federal/local project] where most of those guys, there were 20 in number, went away for 20-plus years. We're doing more of those things. I think that will help to reduce the crime rate overall. I think as we participated in community policing, where we're going after root causes, and we're taking out structures, we're taking out things that have caused eyesores to the community...we're taking those things out through nuisance abatement. Because we're trying these new and innovative approaches, I think those are going to help us long-range. If those continue to work, maybe it's not 100 [more officers] that we need long range. And maybe there's other ways internally to that we can do some other innovative approaches..."
Chief Batts has greater patience with the Council than we do. From what we've heard, the current exodus of LB police officers is due in part to the Council's continued failure to add officers to keep pace with growth. LB's thin police level demoralizes the force. It makes hard working officers work even harder to provide service they know LB residents deserve...and other cities provide.
Shortchanging taxpayers on officers is a daily body blow to cops. They put their lives at risk daily to cover thin spots in LB's thin blue line...while watching (like us) as City Hall miraculously dispensies money for all kinds of other adventures.
We urge Mayor Foster to act boldly, take the bull [the right word here] by the horns and use his considerable intellect and persuasiveness to urge reprioritizing spending to deliver police officers that LB taxpayers have deserved for over a decade. The process can start on any Tuesday. Here are our suggested starting points (we'd be glad to hear less painful ones from others):
- Begin closing City Hall one day a week every other week or every week to produce cost savings. Taxpayers deserve five day a week service...but the hole dug by prior administrations precludes this.
- Start laying off expanding members of management's "six-figure" club. Stop comparing us to better run cities which might be able to afford this. LB City Hall can't...in part because of the way things are being run here. When management formed its own "union." it showed taxpayers what its expectations really are.
- Start laying off non-public safety city employees. Its union leadership thought the 2002 pension spike was smart...and layoffs now the consequences of pricing themselves out of affordability>
- Cut spending for non-required convention/meeting junkets, food, travel lodgings and non-required organization dues, subscriptions. These are luxuries, not entitlements.
- Reduce the City Manager's contract authority to $50,000 (where it was before Henry Taboada became City Manager). Everything about $50k should come to the Council...complete with copies of the contracts before they're signed (done in many other cities).
- LB's new City Auditor should audit and disallow travel, food, lodging, convention registration and redundant membership costs that don't demonstrably serve the City of LB. Political networking and gladhanding aren't entitlements.
- The Council should schedule a special session each week to go through a section of the budget, department by department, line by line if necessary, and eliminate dispensable spending items. Nothing should be sacred.
We urge the Council to enact these or other measures until reaching at least $2 million in continuing savings (so it won't have to blow through the one-year one-time lawsuit settlement to fund this year's police raises).
To us, it appears City Hall is headed in the opposite direction. In July 2006 (one of the last acts under the exiting O'Neill administration), the Council approved MOUs for raises for city management's union and two other city employee unions. That came after the Council approved a new MOU containing raises for non-public safety City Hall employees. And that came on top of the costly 2002 Council-approved pension spike (engineered after the 2002 elections) that became an issue in the 2006 Mayoral race.
We believe all of this makes the case even stronger for a Charter Amendment that will provide LB taxpayers guaranteed levels of police and firefighter staffing tied to the population of the city. That is the surest way to deter more unsustainable growth...and to put taxpayers' money where City Hall's mouth is on public safety.