and already over budget
by being told the county police force is under strength and that
budget constraints have delayed training a new group of
recruits, County Council moved to quickly find money to rectify
Public safety director Ernest
Frazier reported 16 vacancies among 'front-line' officers, five
serving on active duty with the military and three on long-term
sick leave. He said a police academy class scheduled to begin in
late November has been put off until at least March. The force
has an authorized strength of 363, of whom 341 hold the rank of
senior sergeant or lower, making them available for patrol and
He said that the Department of
Public Safety spending is currently running $1.2 million
over budget and that it is experiencing a higher-than-usual attrition rate.
There also are vacancies in police administration, the
paramedics force and the 9-1-1 communications operation.
Council president Paul Clark
proposed and his colleagues agreed unanimously at a public
safety committee meeting on Oct. 9 to form a special
committee to confer with the administration to determine "what's
needed to fund an academy [class] sooner than March."
Michael Strine, the county's
chief financial officer, said the department was held to the
Coons administration's edict that all departments come up with a
fiscal 2008 budget that was no more than 96% of what was spent in
fiscal 2007 and elected to do that by "accepting vacancies"
rather than eliminating positions. Overtime costs and
severance-pay obligations are primarily responsible for
higher-than-budgeted spending in the first quarter of this
fiscal year, he explained.
William Bell, chairman of
Council's public safety committee, responded: "I don't believe
any other department in the county [government] has gunfire
hitting homes ... [or] a serial rapist on the street."
a time to sit back and not respond," said John Cartier
"We keep playing games with
money," committee co-chair Jea Street said. "It's no problem to
declare an emergency for a busted service." That presumably
would authorize tapping the county's 'rainy day' reserve fund to
finance the current shortfall and possibly increasing the
department's authorized spending for the rest of this fiscal
year, which ends June 30, 2008.
George Smiley, who chairs
Council's finance committee, said he would be willing to dip
into the county's general budget reserve. "Without public
safety, my constituents don't feel safe going to that library or
that park or that event," he said.
"The issue becomes Council's
willingness to raise taxes to pay for it. ... You can have what
you want, but you have to be willing to pay for it," Strine
responded. He said that the 17% increase in the property-tax
rate which Council enacted in May was not sufficient to finance
public safety at its present level, let alone increase it.
Police chief Rick Gregory said
there is an ample supply of applicants to provide the
approximately 20 recruits that a typical class has and that an
unspecified number of them are in various stages of the
screening process. However, he said he would "need more lead
time" to form a class than is available to meet the original
late-November target date for beginning training.
Police training normally takes
six to nine months, including classroom work and on-the-job
mentoring by experienced officers.
At the public safety committee
meeting Frazier received a much sharper-than-customary grilling.
All 13 Council members sit on its committees and all were
present for the session.
It took several questions before
he provided information on the specific number of vacancies and
he responded with a muted "yes" when Bell demanded to know
whether "funding is the sole reason the academy [class] we
expected to start in November was put off."
Mitigating the vacancies somewhat
was Frazier's report that the department has hired an already
trained officer from another jurisdiction and has four more
'ready cops' in the hiring process. Also, he said, there will be
a net gain of eight officers when the new Middletown force
becomes operational at the turn of the year.
An officer brought in from
elsewhere requires about four weeks of classroom training and
four to six weeks of mentoring before being considered up to
speed with the county force's policies, procedures and
standards, Frazier said.
Clark said he is still waiting
for an accurate explanation of why a stronger effort was not
made to retain the contractual relationship with Middletown under
which the county police provided service. "I've heard different
things. ... Was the county losing money and, if so, how much?
... Were we willing to negotiate?"
A county police lieutenant has
been hired to be chief of the Middletown force. Frazier
indicated that other county officers have gone there, but was
not specific about how many.
Smiley and some other members
took umbrage when told that the department's authorized strength
is exactly the same now as it was a year ago. "We were told that with
this budget there would be more officers on the
street in New Castle County than there has ever been in the
past," Smiley said.
When Council was asked to approve
the current budget and the tax increase "we were told that all
front-line public safety positions would be filled," Bell said.
Clark referred to differences
between authorized and actual strength "a game -- a way to
manage the budget."
Street and others called for a
review of the practice of having one county police officer in a
car on patrol in high-crime areas.
foolishness is going on with the calculations needs to be
stopped with all deliberate speed," Street said.
Joseph Lavelle, president of
Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, the union bargaining
agent for county police officers, told the committee that the
force should number at least 400 and that some comparable urban
jurisdictions have as many as 500. He said increasing authorized
strength is an issue in contract negotiations and offered to
provide the committee with data to back up his point.