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Wednesday, April 27,2011

Public safety and the vote to raise taxes

What will be the effects if the millage fails? It’s anybody’s guess

by Andy Balaskovitz
Lansing City Councilman Derrick Quinney was sitting in the
back row in room 213 at Foster Community Center on April 20 when he
spoke up during a public question and answer session on the city’s
proposed property tax increase. 

In the front of the room, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, Fire
Chief Tom Cochran and Police Chief Teresa Szymanski fielded questions
from about 15 city residents. The topic? What will happen if 149 police
and fire positions and basically all local road and sidewalk projects
are eliminated in the next fiscal year?


As the meeting wrapped up, Quinney cited an adage from his
Uncle Pete. “My uncle used to say: ‘Everyone wants to go to heaven but
no one wants to die.’ That’s what we’re looking at here. Everyone wants
city services; no one wants to pay for them.”


Quinney’s assertion had political undertones, but it begs a
series of quantitative and substantive questions about public safety in
mid-sized cities: What is an adequate size of police and fire
departments? What will these proposed cuts mean to the city? And if it’s
true that response times will increase — as Bernero, Cochran and
Szymanski suggest — how much longer will it take for a fire engine or
police car to show up at your door? 


While experts say studies can be done to answer these questions, they’re not happening before this election.


Moreover, the administration is not disclosing what three
fire stations could potentially close, therefore it’s impossible to
model how much fire response times would increase, if in fact they will.
Szymanski said any changes in police response times will be tracked as
they happen.


Voters are being told — if the millage fails — to expect
longer waits for police and fire service and a general decrease in
quality of life. But the extent to which response times will grow is
anybody’s guess, it appears.


Finance Director Jerry Ambrose said there’s no point in
expending resources on complicated studies when the outcome of the vote
is undetermined. He reasons: Why study the effects of closing three fire
stations if the millage passes and that’s not necessary?


“Going through that exercise is pretty complex to figure
out how to maintain the best response time we can. Our decision is to
wait until we have a good handle on the revenues that are going to be
available before we actually do that,” Ambrose said. “Once we have a
better handle on the possibility of the millage passing, maybe it won’t
be necessary to think about.”


So, the city says response times will go up but can’t say
how? “Right,” Ambrose said, adding that he believes voters are well
informed at this point. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job explaining
to citizens. When you talk about closing three (stations), I think that
gives a good idea on the impact to response times.” 


On Tuesday, Lansing voters will head to the booths with
guarantees and assumptions from city officials that response times will
go up and quality of life will go down if the millage fails. They will
be asked if they support a 4-mill property tax increase to restore $8.5
million for police, fire and road services from projected budget cuts
starting July 1. The anticipated deficit is $15 million to $20 million,
with the uncertainty largely due to the big unknown of what the state
budget will be for its fiscal year, which begins in October.


This year’s proposed $99.5 million budget is more than $17
million less than fiscal year 2010. In 2008, the adopted budget was
$112 million; it inched up to $114 million the next fiscal year before
peaking at $117 million in FY10 (see chart on next page). This fiscal
year’s budget was adopted at $109 million, and the biggest change yet in
Bernero’s tenure could come in the next budget if the millage fails and
the City Council approves his recommendation.




Police and fire


The Police Department has 326 fulltime positions.
Bernero’s budget proposal would shrink it by 78 positions to 248. If the
millage passes, then the Police Department would have 292 positions. In
all cases, 22 unfilled positions would be eliminated. Overall, the
departmental budget would go from $33,112,100 this fiscal year to
$30,029,430 without the millage and $33,779,430 with the millage.


Without the millage increase, the Fire Department would
lose 71 of its 225 positions, four of the 12 fire engines and three of
its eight stations. With the millage increase, only one fire engine
would be cut and only one station. Its budget would shrink from
$28,996,301 to $26,541,930 without the millage increase and grow to
$30,191,930 with it.


(See chart on Page 13 for specific cuts to the police and fire departments.)


Ambrose said that if the millage passes, the police and
fire budgets would be higher than this fiscal year because of some
scheduled salary increases and higher health care, pension and fuel
costs.


If the millage fails, this would be the first year in
Bernero’s five-plus-year tenure as mayor that police and fire staffing
would change significantly. The number of police positions has hovered
around the 330 and fire around 230 in that time.


“I’ve insulated public safety up to this point, and I’m
proud of that,” Bernero said. “When people say your (police and fire)
departments are bigger than others, I say, ‘Yeah, and I’m darn proud of
that.’”




Down-sizing or right-sizing?


You might ask yourself: How did the city come up with
these staffing numbers? And while city officials say response times are
sure to increase if the millage doesn’t pass, by how long? 


Ambrose said once the maximum amount of cuts were made in
the budget outside of public safety, police and fire were scrutinized
“as a matter of how we best maintain services.” As for knowing how
police response times will be affected, Ambrose said that will be
determined after the election.


Experts say figuring out how to downsize police and fire departments and its effects is no simple task.


Jeremy Wilson, a criminal justice professor at Michigan
State University, specializes in researching what exactly an adequately
sized police department is.


Determining an adequate amount of public safety is
complicated and varies by community. It’s not as simple as attaching a
per capita number of police and fire employees to the city’s population,
Wilson said.


“The tendency when we talk about what we need is to want
to look at other communities. Those (benchmarks) are very dangerous to
use,” Wilson said. “The data out there shows you can have communities
with similar characteristics but drastically different numbers of
officers.”


You want to consider crime rates, social characteristics
and the geographical size of the city and also personnel workload and
“performance objectives,” Wilson said.


When comparing Lansing to Ann Arbor, Sterling Heights,
Flint and Livonia, you’ll find Lansing has between 100 and 130 more
full-time police positions than each of those places. Flint — where the
rates of violent crime, murder, robbery, aggravated assault, property
crime and motor vehicle were roughly double than in Lansing in 2009 —
had about 140 less full time police employees in 2009 than Lansing. On
the other hand: Livonia, Ann Arbor and Sterling Heights — where those
crime rates are a fraction of what Lansing’s are — had between 100 and
150 fewer police personnel than Lansing in 2009.


So when the economy tanks and police and fire departments
are forced to cut back, coming up with new staffing levels is a long
process and, in many cases, a new concept, Wilson said. 


Wilson said a police chief made an “interesting” point as
part of a criminal justice symposium at MSU this year: “We have a lot of
research on how to build up a police department. Unfortunately, we
don’t know how to dismantle them,” Wilson said.


He added that in order to determine
adequate levels of service, a “workload base assessment” should be done,
though that can take time and, if a consultant is used, cost a lot of
money. The latter of which is not exactly a luxury in many cases, he
said.


Tom Wieczorek, director of the Center for Public Safety
Management at the International City and County Management Association
in Washington, agrees with Wilson. Wieczorek was the city manager in
Ionia before joining the Washington-based consulting firm. He said ICMA
has developed a modeling system that “helps a community really determine
if they have enough officers to handle the calls they’re receiving.”


“If you don’t know how much work load is being demanded of
officers, it’s difficult to right-size and determine if you have
enough,” he said. “The officers per thousand (model) is totally
irrelevant.”


But then there is public perception, which also plays an important role in final policy decisions, Wieczorek said.


Bernero says he is “proud” about the number of police and
fire employees he has maintained and that Lansing residents have come to
expect a certain level of public safety. How does that expectation
factor in to how many employees each department should have?


“A lot of times our (policy) decisions are made using
emotion,” Wieczorek said. “We try to provide them (cities) with the data
that can make those decisions. But, still a key factor is public
perception.”


Lansing hired Alexander Weiss Consulting to perform a base
assessment for the Police Department last year. The full report of that
is unavailable to the public because it contains “tactical
information,” Lt. Noel Garcia said. 


But one way to sum up what the optimal or adequate size of
a police department is to figure out the amount of “obligated” and
“unobligated” time a police officer has in a day, Ambrose said.


Obligated time includes responding to calls and
investigating an incident, while unobligated time includes taking
breaks, walking neighborhoods and engaging with the community —
“proactive community policing things,” Chief Szymanski said.


Szymanski said her decision to cut things like school
liaison and neighborhood watch officers was not easy and ultimately
burdens her department’s “core” function — patrolling officers.
Szymanski said the proposed cuts would impact the obligated and
unobligated time police officers have. She said “experts disagree” on
the amount of obligated versus unobligated time officers should have. 


“Some say 75/25 (percent), others say
66/33 (percent). Right now, we’re at about 70/30 (percent),” she said.
“What will happen (if the millage fails) is the obligated time will go
up.”


She added that increased obligated time means officers have less time to engage with the community, and that officers’ unobligated time is “what keeps us great.”


As for predicting response times if the
millage fails, Szymanski said there is no “magical formula” to determine
those. As of July 1, LPD averaged four minutes and 39 seconds for
“priority one” calls and six minutes and 49 seconds for “priority two”
calls, department statistics show. Szymanski said any changes will be
tracked as they happen.


However, Lansing has not done a workload
assessment for the Fire Department because “it’s very much getting the
right number of people with the right equipment on time as quick as
possible,” Ambrose said. 


But unlike the Police Department,
predicting what will happen to Fire Department response times could be
determined, but that can’t happen until the city proposes what three
stations would close, said Bryan Epling, president of the Lansing Fire
Fighters union.


That won’t happen until after the
election because the amount of resources spent on determining those
numbers would be moot if the millage passes, Ambrose said. So, the city
will wait on the outcome of the election rather than presenting
potential response time information to voters beforehand.


Hypothetically, the city could tell
Epling what three stations are being considered for closing and Epling
could have the headquarters of the International Association of Fire
Fighters union in Washington run those numbers to predict how much
response times would increase. However, Epling added that there is a
backlog of requests for these types of reports throughout the country.
He said he knows that even without a study, fire response times will go
up if you cut four fire trucks and three stations.


“It’s going to drastically impact the
level of coverage in the city,” he said. “I wish I knew which three
stations were identified. If I had that I’d probably be able to give you
some quantitative data.”


Fire Chief Tom Cochran said his
department responds to calls between four and eight minutes more than 90
percent of the time, which includes fire and Emergency Medical Service
runs.


Wieczorek said modeling the appropriate
size of a fire department is also different from a police department
because the discussion about privatizing duties within them — such as
EMS and hazmat response — is growing.


Lansing loses $1 million annually on EMS,
spending $4.2 million and getting back $3.2 million. That represents
roughly 5 percent of the anticipated deficit. The proposed budget does
not call for eliminating any of the five ambulances, one of which was
brought online in July. An ambulance costs between $150,000 and
$200,000, Ambrose has said. 


Lansing provides full-service EMS, which
includes responding to calls and also transporting people to the
hospital. Other places, like Ann Arbor and Jackson, do not transport
victims to the hospital.


But before thinking about privatizing
portions of a fire department, Wieczorek said it’s important to know
what level of service you would get from a private company.


“Too many communities say ‘we’re going to
privatize because it will save us $10 million.’ But how are they
(private companies) providing that service?” he said. That’s where the
modeling comes in. “If you don’t know what your existing performance is,
it’s pretty hard to say what the other will be.”




Roads


Beth Monteith, president of the Eastfield
Neighborhood Association, made a candid comment to Bernero about a road
in her neighborhood at the April 20 public meeting at Foster.


“Michigan Avenue is a disgrace,” she said about the road’s condition.


While Bernero said he believes Lansing’s roads aren’t any worse than other places in Michigan, that’s not a very high standard.


“I think roads in Michigan stink,” he said. “They’re woefully underfunded.”


Regardless of how you feel about
Lansing’s roads and sidewalks, the Public Service Department will be
doing less maintenance, renovation and reconstruction this year. But
road projects are the third element affected by the millage.


This year's budget devoted $1,604,816
from the general fund for roads. Other funding comes from the state as
well as federal grant money, which totals $11,797,989. Bernero has
proposed spending $350,000 out of the general fund for roads if the
millage fails. If it passes, Bernero proposes devoting $1.1 million of
the new revenue from the millage to roads. The city projects getting
$12,504,630 from other funds in this fiscal year.


Public Service Director Chad Gamble said
the city could still have money for “potholes and skin patching” but not
resurfacing or reconstructing any local streets.


“I can tell you, with regards to annual
deterioration, the annual backlog of (repairing) streets we’ve had for
so many years, it would take between $13 million and $15 million to get
us out of a hole to perpetually address roads,” Gamble said.


However, a growing trend — as a result of
less state revenue coming in from the gas tax — is that municipalities
are seeing less road money from the state, kicking in more themselves to
fund local projects.


Jeremy Rapp, a policy assistant at the
Michigan Environmental Council, said the 19.2 percent that
municipalities pay in for road funding “used to be a lot less.”


“The gas tax funding roads is becoming
more and more antiquated,” he said. The state gas tax — at $.19 a gallon
— is divvied up through Act 51 money. Rapp said Act 51 allotments are
based on the number of roadway miles and population. But when you think
about commuters, “neither of those give a good indication of how many
people are driving there,” Rapp said. “There is a disconnect of how we
fund roads and how we use them.”


Gamble said Lansing has approximately 440 miles of roadway. Its population is about 114,000.


“There are ways they could increase (the
gas tax) if they (the state) wanted to, but that doesn’t look
politically palatable right now,” Rapp said.


Rapp added that he is also seeing local
millages to fund roads voted down because the “sense is, ‘We’re already
paying for roads with the gas tax, why pay more?’”


Rapp said it’s difficult to pin down an
amount of money a city the size of Lansing should be paying for its
roads. It depends on how many miles of roads are qualified for state and
federal funding, he said.


Gamble said any significant progress on improving Lansing’s roads will have to start at the state level.


“I hope and pray the state Legislature
will look outside and look down if they’re driving on roads and
understand that there needs to be a structural repair of the funding of
road maintenance in the state,” Gamble said, adding that without an
increase in the gas tax, the increased costs of gasoline, personnel,
salt and the evolution of vehicles needing less gas is “working against us.”


The questions about adequate funding
amounts for public safety must be answered soon because cities can’t
continue to cut from other departments, Wieczorek, of the International
City and County Management Association, said.


“The cry has always been: Cut anything
but public safety,” he said. “But you have to have people send out bills
and process payroll. There’s a certain core you have to have.


Bernero often makes the point that the “low-hanging fruit”
cuts have been made. And Wieczorek said Lansing is not unique in that
respect.


“Lansing is not unlike other cities in the countries,”
Wieczorek said, referring to looking at cutting public safety. “It used
to be how are we going to provide more with less? Now it’s how are we
going to provide less with less?”

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