Case stated for more officers

Durham council reviews budget

Staff WriterMay 26, 2005 

The Police Department made out well in the last city budget, receiving 45 patrol cars and 70 printers to issue computerized citations.

One year later, the vehicles are still on order and officers are giving tickets by hand because most of the printers can't be installed.

Because of a shortage of city maintenance staff, it takes a full 18 months for vehicles to be outfitted for police, right down to painting a stripe on the side of the car. As a result, City Manager Patrick Baker is not recommending funding any new vehicles in the coming fiscal year. Instead, he wants to use the savings to pay for nine new police officers and four other department positions expected to lose federal funding next year.

A majority of City Council members agreed with his recommendation Wednesday, the third consecutive day of budget deliberations. The proposed $295.8 million budget doesn't call for an increase in property taxes, though it does include an $11-a-year increase in water and sewer rates for the average consumer. A public hearing is scheduled June 6 at City Hall.

Mayor Bill Bell stressed Wednesday that the city needs to be more efficient with existing resources instead of raising taxes.

Recently, a well-heeled group of business and community leaders suggested that the city and county adopt up to a 1-cent increase in the property tax rate to put more police officers on the streets, aggressively clean up rundown properties and expand a summer program for "at-risk" youth.

Baker's preliminary budget, released this month, left out funding for nine additional police officers, among other public safety items. Alternatively, Baker recommended a 1-cent increase in the tax rate. In response, the Durham Roundtable's Committee on Crime launched an e-mail campaign, with members urging council members Diane Catotti and Eugene Brown to investigate the vehicle backlog.

Group members include Jim Goodmon of Capitol Broadcasting, former Durham Mayor Sylvia Kerckhoff and Ed Stewart, the mayor's boss at UDI Community Development Corp. At Wednesday's meeting, Bell said he was instrumental in forming the group last year to help brainstorm solutions to combat crime. In an interview afterward, committee Chairman Barker French disagreed, saying the core group predates Bell's involvement.

Baker's ideas

Baker presented his revised recommendation to the council Wednesday. He suggested delaying the purchase of 34 new police cruisers to fund more patrol officers, increasing the number of authorized positions in the department to 496. The department's vacancy rate is 2 percent, down from last year.

Police Chief Steve Chalmers, who originally requested 50 new cars, said he was satisfied with the change because the department doesn't need the new equipment until the end of 2006. Baker pledged to include the vehicles in the next budget and hire more maintenance crews to get the cars on the streets more quickly. The move gives the council an extra $426,862 to use in its general fund for core city services next year.

In the meantime, the Police Department will study its staffing situation.

"We know that we are far below what we need," Chalmers said.

The department requested $36,960 in printers last year to speed up the citation process and electronically transfer data to the clerk of court. So far, four printers have been installed in patrol cars and seven in traffic enforcement vehicles. Brown, the council member, called the backlog absurd.

While the crime committee is satisfied with the new police officers, it still plans to lobby the council to add about 100 jobs to the Mayor's Youth Works Summer Program to keep youth busy, French said.

Staff writer Margie Fishman can be reached at 956-2405 or mfishman@newsobserver.com.

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