Police budget conflict boils

Smithfield may cut 911 responses

ccampbell@newsobserver.comOctober 31, 2011 

Police say they'll stop responding to some 911 calls and stop investigating misdemeanors if the town doesn't increase funding for gasoline - the latest episode in a standoff between the police chief and Town Council, which is trying to save money.

It's also the latest sign of how tight municipal budgets are impacting services throughout the Triangle.

On Tuesday, the Smithfield Police Department will present dire predictions of how an austere budget could leave police cars in park.

Police Chief Michael Scott will ask the town council to let him use $30,000 of office supply and equipment repair money to pay for gas. He says his department has already cut patrols, halving the numbers of cars on the street at certain times.

Scott said three recent crimes might have been prevented with more patrols - the armed robbery of a convenience store, the theft of tires and rims from a car dealership and a major cocaine bust.

"Those things can all be directly related to patrol issues," he said, adding that he's gotten complaints about the reduced patrols. Some callers have asked if they should buy guns to protect themselves.

Law enforcement agencies around the country have seen budget cuts this year.

Here in North Carolina, the state Highway Patrol is coping with an $8 million reduction, and they've stopped training new cadets as part of a hiring freeze. The city of Raleigh recently delayed police and fire academies by six months.

Smithfield's cuts went beyond personnel, with fuel funding down $10,000, or about 14 percent, from last fiscal year. Scott said that even with reduced patrols, the department will be out of gas by February.

This month, council members in the Johnston County town balked at Scott's proposal to shift funds in his budget. They asked the police department to study alternatives to the plan.

The alternatives that police will present Tuesday include unprecedented cuts to stay within the current budget. Department leaders say detectives will only investigate felony crimes, dropping misdemeanors after the initial report is done.

The new plan also calls for ignoring 911 calls from hotels and pay phones when callers hang up, "as a very high percentage of these calls are errors in dialing." And police would stop responding to burglar alarms, since they're often a false alarm. Also, officers wouldn't patrol the western or southern ends of town, since most crimes there aren't violent.

Councilman Perry Harris said town leaders won't let that happen. "There's no question that we need to provide them with the tools to keep the safety of the town," he said.

But with enough gas money to work through February, Harris wants the department to look for other money-saving measures first. Since the town recently bought 10 new squad cars, he thinks 10 older vehicles could be sold off. "I think we need to uncover every rock and every stone to see other areas where we could save some money," he said.

Campbell: 919-836-5768

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service