in public safety
services appear to be likely
extended well beyond what several knowledgeable observers
consider to be the comfort zone, New Castle County's thin brown
line appears destined to be stretched even thinner in a couple
"We're asking folks
who are dealing with people's lives to do more with less. We're
on a collision course here," said Councilman William Bell.
"We're looking at 'unfunding' positions when we don't have
enough now. ... I'm having trouble with what I'm hearing today."
Bell made those
comments as he and his County Council colleagues spent nearly
three hours on Apr. 20 listening to presentations by public
safety officials at a hearing on their department's recommended
$80.9 million budget for the coming fiscal year. That accounts
for nearly half of the $165 million that County Executive
Christopher Coons has proposed spending on operations during the
year which begins on July 1.
Much of the
discussion focused on personnel costs, which account for 81
cents of every dollar spent to provide public safety services --
mainly police, paramedics and 9-1-1 emergency communications.
Each of the department's divisions is proposing to either
eliminate or not provide the financing necessary to fill vacant
however, had a surreal aspect in that at no point was there any
reference to possible layoffs of public safety workers which
would reduce staffing even further. Discussion of how layoffs
would affect department budgets has been ruled out of order at
the budget hearings and so far that prohibition has been
recently announced that three
unions, which represent 755 county employees in other
departments, had agreed to 5% pay cuts in the coming fiscal
year. That leaves only the two public safety unions not agreeing
to concessions to achieve Coons's target of $4.8 million in
'savings' in personnel costs to match his proposed 25% increase
in the property-tax rate.
Lynn Howard, deputy
chief administrative officer, confirmed reports that the union
representing paramedics and 9-1-1 call operators has rejected
agreeing to any concessions. She told Delaforum that the
administration is "still having constructive discussions" with
the police union.
Other than to
acknowledge that there are "internal discussions" under way
concerning how to proceed, she declined to comment on what will
happen if no concessions are forthcoming from the public safety
labor contracts, county government has no power to impose pay
cuts. Coons has said that, lacking an acceptable alternative, he
would have no choice but to lay off workers on and after July 1.
However, given that
public safety is generally regarded as the top
government-service priority among county residents, it would
seem that Coons would be between the proverbial political rock
and a hard place if he were to require any further reductions in
the police, paramedic and 9-1-1 forces.
scheduled to approve the budget and set the tax and sewer-fee
rates at its May 26 meeting. It is all but certain that Council
will approve either the administration proposal now officially
before it or an amended version that Coons would submit between
now and then.
Rick Gregory, who
is both police chief and the acting director of public safety,
told the hearing that the recruit class currently going through
the police academy had been augmented to provide enough officers
to cover normal attrition. To do that, however, it was necessary
to make on-paper transfers of vacant job slots. That, he said,
included supervisory personnel.
"I don't know how
much longer we can go on without having some consistency of
management. I don't think the colonel (Gregory) can do it all,"
Gregory said he
does not yet know how much federal economic stimulus money
allotted to helping communities maintain or beef up police
protection will be available to New Castle County. Whatever the
amount, he pointed out, it will be necessary to weigh acceptance
against future obligations. Officers hired with stimulus money
now would have to be paid for with local tax receipts in future
years when and if no federal subsidy is available.
Cartier suggested that hiring someone capable of writing
requests for federal grants would be more than justified. "There
is money out there, but you have to apply for it," he said.
Gregory said the
police force is looking at the possibility of extending
the time alloted to respond to calls for service that do not
reach a priority level. "We either eliminate responding
[quickly] to those calls or increase the number of officers
available to respond," he said.
Paul Clark suggested that it might be possible to provide a
recorded message instructing 9-1-1 callers not responded to by
the third ring to remain on the line rather than hang up. He
emphasized that would be only during surges in the number of
calls coming in. With the proliferation of cellular telephones
such surges occur when there are such incidents as motor vehicle
collisions in high traffic areas.
David Roberts, head
of the 9-1-1 call center, said recording responses are generally
considered unacceptable on what are supposed to be
emergency-calls lines. However, he added, it is "hard to get the
public to understand" what sort of calls should be made to 9-1-1
and which are better directed to the non-emergency police
number. Also, he added, a sudden influx of calls mitigates
against operators spending sufficient time with any caller to
obtain helpful information to direct a proper response to an
emergency in progress.
Lawrence Tan said that his division has sufficient staff to
maintain present level of service but not to expand to meet
growing demand for service. There was a 19% increase in the
number of calls between 2004 and 2008. In only about two-thirds
of the incidents does a responder arrive within nine minutes,
compared to the goal of responding to 90% of calls that quickly,
Also noted at the
hearing was the fact there will be a reduction in the number of
school crossing guards assigned during the next academic year.
But it was pointed out that the school districts designate the
locations where guards are required and they are financed by a
tax which is separate from the county property tax.