Police and Fire Departments Struggle as Local Budgets Tighten

Police and fire departments nationwide are hit by budget cuts
Police and fire departments nationwide are hit by budget cuts

Sean Duggan, the assistant chief of the Scottsdale Police Department in Arizona, is doing more with less while keeping his customers -- the taxpayers -- happy. That job is about to get more difficult as the department grapples with enforcing the state's controversial immigration law, which takes effect next month.

"Our dept is 8% smaller than it was 20 months ago," Duggan says in an interview. "When people left we did not fill the vacancies in our department."

Scottsdale is hardly alone. Police and fire departments across the U.S. are getting hit hard as municipalities face huge cuts in state aid as money from Uncle Sam dries up. This is resulting in layoffs, salary cuts or freezes and reductions in benefits including uniform allowances.

Willing to Cut Budgets for Public Safety

As states face a deficit of $200 billion for the fiscal year starting July 1, local governments are overcoming their reluctance to cut public safety spending. A recent survey by the National League of Cities found that 22% of cities say they are planning to cut police and fire-protection budgets, usually one of the biggest-ticket items for local governments.

"There are more fights over police and fire budgets this year than there were last year," says Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank, in an interview, adding that the nearly $300 billion given to local governments from the federal stimulus bill isn't available this year. "They are looking at real deficits without having Washington come rescue them."

Officials estimate that there are more than 30,000 fire departments and about 18,000 police departments in the U.S. Pressure also is growing on fire departments and police departments to merge or share some services. Officials are also trying to change pension rules that allow first responders to retire after 20 years of service while they are still in their 40s. Many fire departments are staffed by volunteers. Police departments, on the other hand, are expensive to maintain because of the personnel costs involved. They are also a point of civic pride.

"Most of those agencies have 10 or fewer officers," says Greg Ridgeway, director of the Rand Corp.'s Center on Quality Policing, in an interview. "A lot of communities -- they just don't want to give up their police departments."

Rising Obesity Rates Cut Qualified Applicant Pool

Police departments -- which are the single most expensive part of a municipal budget -- are finding it increasingly difficult to find qualified applicants because of rising obesity rates, among other reasons. That's why departments are reluctant to fire officers outright and will instead cut costs by not replacing cops who retire or resign.

The budget-cutting is a real challenge for local officials because too steep a reduction may leave communities vulnerable to rising crime rates and slower response times for emergency services. Yet, James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, sees no end in sight to the budget pressure. "They are looking for every area to cut where they can," he says.

Lori Moore-Merrell, research director of the International Association of Fire Fighters, points to other reasons for the increase in budgetary fights including the referendums passed by towns for no new tax increases. She expects the animosity to continue through 2012 as fire departments find themselves responding to every call for emergency services not related to a crime.

"Typically, local governments lag 12 to 18 months behind the rest of the economy, and so recovery for this level has yet to be seen," she says.

Big City Budgets Aren't Immune

Big cities are feeling the budgetary ax particularly hard.

  • The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that deep cuts are being proposed to the San Francisco Police Department's overtime budget and the fire department's command staff.

  • In St. Louis, firefighters are faced with the stark choice of taking a pay cut or face layoffs, while another $4.6 million may be cut from police overtime, education and related costs, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says.

  • First responders in Dallas will take five furlough days under that city's proposed budget for the next fiscal year. "Those services cannot be off-limits for reductions, but will have no uniform layoffs," according to a briefing prepared for the Dallas City Council. City officials are meeting with unions to work out an agreement on wage cuts and other concessions.

  • Earlier this month, police commanders in Philadelphia were told to cut another $6 million on top of an earlier $6 million reduction, according to CBS 3.

Though local officials take pains to argue that the cuts won't affect public safety, experts say it's difficult to prove such an assertion. The public remains adamantly opposed to tax increases even if it's for services that protect them, their property and their loved ones. First responders shouldn't be given a blank check by elected officials, but nickel-and-diming people in stressful and dangerous jobs will only encourage them to quit.

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