April 21,  2009

Further cuts in public safety
services appear to be likely

Already 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 of months.

"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 job slots.

The discussion, 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 observed.

Coons's office 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 unions.

Under existing 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.

Council is 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," Bell said.

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.

Councilman John 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.

Council president 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.

Paramedics chief 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, he said.

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.

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