October  10,  2007

Police force undermanned
and already over budget

Stunned 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 the situation.

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 detective duty.

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."

"This isn't 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?" he said.

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.

"Whatever bureaucratic 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.

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