October 29,  2008

Public safety expansion
is on hold but not dead

Expansion of the county police force has been delayed for about eight months, but, according to officials, both the need and the plan to cope with it are still alive despite the withdrawal of ordinances that would have authorized implementation of the first phase of the five-year plan.

The plan to increase authorized strength of the force by 22 officers and seven civilians will most likely be incorporated into the Department of Public Safety's requested budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2009, police chief Rick Gregory said after a meeting of County Council's finance committee at which Councilman William Bell announced that he and Jea Street were withdrawing their proposed ordinances from consideration.

Although the decision to do so obviously had been made earlier, Bell's announcement came after acting chief financial officer Edward Milowicki and chief administrative officer Jeffrey Bullock set the stage by telling the committee that county government is in dire straits -- even worse than had been anticipated earlier in this fiscal year.

The committee -- which like all standing committees includes the entire Council --  voted to request from the administration a "comprehensive review of every program we run," including how each is financed in order to provide a context in advance of receiving the proposed budget for next fiscal year. With that in hand, "we can start realizing what we can afford," said Council president Paul Clark.

"It's not going to go away. ... As the economy declines, crime is going to increase," Street said referring to the proposed expansion of the police force and the complement which mans the 9-1-1 emergency call center.

Bell said the sponsors were withdrawing the ordinances because of the extent of declines in the national and local economies. "We know that the need is there, but we also realize that the timing of these two proposals is not right," he said. "It's very clear a lot of folks have begun to feel the pain of the global economy."

He did not refer to the county's fiscal situation as a reason, but said the decision was made after extensive consultation with County Executive Christopher Coons and members of his administration. "We agree with the decision," Bullock said.

Obviously disappointed by what some observers viewed as a surprise turn of events, Gregory said he was grateful for the opportunity to present the department's case to the public. While he indicated confidence that it will receive due consideration as Coons prepares his proposed fiscal 2010 budget for presentation to Council in March, he said that, meanwhile, that "there are other things we can do and do less of and do in a different way."

He added that the department's priorities are to reduce the amount of time it takes to respond to calls for service, to improve the proportion of crimes that are 'cleared' by arrests or otherwise and to provide officers additional time for proactive community policing and preventing crime.

Attenders at the committee meeting on Oct. 28 could sense a figurative sigh of relief among Council members after Bell's announcement. While it was initially thought they would be hard put to vote against the expansion plan, adverse public reaction to the prospect of a 4% to 5% tax increase next year to finance it created a dilemma.

"People don't want to have their taxes raised until it hits them personally," Clark said.

Street said that will happen when someone makes a 9-1-1 call "and, instead of getting a police officer they get a case number."

Stephanie McClellan said, however, that her sense of feeling at a public meeting she had sponsored was that most people there supported both the plan and the tax increase. "We're going to have to do this sooner or later. I hope the plan comes back in the budget cycle [and] I think people will support it," she said.

Penrose Hollins said the problem with the proposal was that it was put forth -- as are some other proposals -- as individual items out of context with the overall budget.

Bullock and Milowicki told the committee that county government 'lost' $11.2 million through revenue declines during the first three months of this fiscal year. That, both of them said, effectively wiped out the gains provided by successive increases in the property-tax rate enacted in 2006 and 2007. There was no rate increase enacted this year.

Even lower than expected proceeds from the real estate transfer tax accounted for $8.9 million of the 'loss' and less activity in the recorder of deeds office added another $1 million.

While current spending is down slightly from what was budgeted, it is now projected that county government will spend $21.9 million more than it takes in this fiscal year. That expected shortfall is $9.5 million greater than originally anticipated.

And, Milowicki said, "that could get worse as we go along."

As a result of the deficit, budget reserves are now expected to drop from $64.1 million at the start of the fiscal year to an estimated $37.2 million on next June 30.

With reserves "decreasing at an accelerating rate," it is necessary to reduce the level of services without waiting for the next budget, Bullock said.

Clark said he "can see nowhere to cut more out of the budget" and that any expectation of the state General Assembly coming to the aid of the county is "a hopeless cause."

 Absent a major tax increase, "next year at this time we'll be looking at layoffs and some significant reduction of services," Bullock said. "We'll have to cut things that matter."

He was not specific about how large a tax increase will be considered necessary, but did say that just making up the revenue loss so far this year would translate into something like a 13% increase.

"This is a very serious situation," Bullock said.

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