Durham News

Police, fire needs may lead to tax-rate hike

A Durham police officer keeps an eye out for trouble as he patrols along the first half mile of the American Tobacco Trail. Chief Jose Lopez says the department has not added sworn police officer positions in seven years.
A Durham police officer keeps an eye out for trouble as he patrols along the first half mile of the American Tobacco Trail. Chief Jose Lopez says the department has not added sworn police officer positions in seven years. hlynch@newsobserver.com

A hike in the city’s property-tax rate appears more likely after the City Council heard that Durham needs to add 167 firefighters and police officers over the next five years.

Over those five years, the cumulative total cost of the added personnel would be almost $34 million, Fire Chief Dan Curia and Police Chief Jose L. Lopez told the council at a retreat on the 2015-16 city budget last week.

With the new employees’ equipment, vehicles and other capital costs – including two new fire stations in southern Durham – the total five-year spending is $55.5 million.

Cost of the 43 fire and police positions they recommended for next year would be $3.9 million: $2.3 million for personnel and $1.6 million for their equipment and vehicles.

Those figures represent spending in addition to the city’s current budget projections, which currently show expenses running $5.7 million more than revenue for the coming fiscal year.

“We get that there are more needs than there are funding resources,” Curia said. “If this is just a starting point for conversation that’s a positive step.”

Council members had not suggested a tax increase during earlier budget conversations, but raised the idea in discussing guidelines for the city staffers to use when drafting a plan.

“I can’t sit here and say ... that perhaps a penny or two increase to go specifically towards police and fire is not something we should consider,” Councilman Eugene Brown said.

“We may be pleasantly surprised with how much public support we find,” he said.

“I certainly don’t want a tax increase, but ... we ought to be open to what we might need,” Councilman Steve Schewel said.

Catching up

Lopez and Curia said the city needs more police officers and firefighters because staffing has not kept up with the city’s growth – largely due to recession-forced restraints on city spending.

Curia’s first priority was proposed adding 15 firefighters next year downtown, where about 5,000 people currently live and about 4,700 more are expected over the next two years.

He also gave high priority to a new station and staff for the area south of Interstate 40, where the average response time now is 13 minutes. The department’s goal is seven minutes.

The Police Department has not added sworn officers since 2008, when 12 joined the force, Lopez said. Currently, for every 1,000 residents Durham has 2.09 officers, which is the second-lowest ratio among 11 “benchmark” cities, where the average ratio of 2.55, he said.

Those cities include Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Birmingham, Ala., Little Rock, Ark. and Richmond, police analytical services manager Jason Schiess said.

‘A little disturbed’

Curia’s proposal to add 96 firefighters by mid-2020 was received without criticism, but Mayor Bill Bell had several sharp reactions to Lopez’s report, which called for 15 new investigators and 56 new patrol officers.

“The whole issue is how we reduce crime,” Bell said. “I would like someone to look at Durham’s peer cities and see which are doing the best job of reducing crime and how are those cities staffed relative to what we have here.”

Bell said he wanted more information on how additional officers would be used. He was also dissatisfied with the way Lopez came up with his figure of 56 patrol officers. Lopez took an average of four different systems for estimating police personnel needs. Applied to Durham, the four showed additional needs ranging from zero to 111.

“I’m a little disturbed by how we came up with these projections,” Bell said.

Assistant Police Chief Jesse Burwell said the 71 additional police positions represent current need and do not take population growth over the next five years into account.

“I was afraid of that,” Councilwoman Diane Catotti said.

“I need more information before I say ‘Yes,’ “ Bell said. He also said he wants police, especially in the East Durham area targeted for the Poverty Reduction Initiative, to spend more time on foot, getting to know residents and their perceptions face to face.

“My comments aren’t meant to be critical; you guys do a super job,” Bell told Lopez, adding that reducing crime has to involve residents as well as police.

“But to get the community involved you’ve got to have trust,” he went on. “They’ve got to feel comfortable you’re looking after their needs. ... You’ve got to get out.”

Lopez said adding the officers he requested would allow that.

“What we’re asking for is time,” he said. “Time we don’t have.”

Guidelines

How many new firefighters and police officers the city adds next year – if any – remains to be determined as City Manager Tom Bonfield works up a budget proposal, which is due for presentation at the May 18 council meeting.

Talking over guidelines for the city administration’s budgeting process, council members left the property-tax rate open to increase, while endorsing:

▪  “Pay for performace” pay raises for city employees of 3 percent to 3.5 percent;

▪  Increased dedicated funding to catch up deferred maintenance from this year’s $500,000 to $600,000;

▪  Increased dedicated funding for street resurfacing funding from $1 million to $2 million;

▪  A 3 percent cap on average water and sewer rate increases.

The city’s 2014-15 budget shows fire and police staff costs of about $70.6 million (nando.com/current). Once all 71 firefighters and police were added in 2020, those departments’ annual personnel cost would be about $10 million more.

“That’s a lot,” Schewel said. “This is something we need to take extremely seriously. We need to be watching out for the taxpayers as well as the taxpayers’ safety.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

The budget and the gap

Durham’s current budget is $389.9 million, including a $175 million general fund – the money that covers day-to-day city operations.

Durham’s current property-tax rate is 59.12 cents per $100 of valuation. The rate went up 2.37 cents in 2014 to cover debt service and park maintenance and to replace a controversial fee for residential garbage collection.

That rate increase raised the tax on a $200,000 house and lot by $47.40.

Entering the 2015 budget season, the city faces a $5.7 million gap between projected revenue and expenses for the next fiscal year. A large part of the gap – $2.9 million – comes from losing business-license fees, or “privilege taxes,” which the state General Assembly eliminated in 2014. Cities are lobbying legislators to restore the fees.

Durham Budget Director Bertha Johnson has suggested cutting planned capital spending, such as for paving dirt streets or new sidewalks, to make up the loss if the legislature does not act. Even if the legislature does somehow make up for the cities’ cost, some fund-shifting, and/or cuts in services, may be necessary to balance next year’s budget.

The budget outlook is also clouded by uncertainty over sales-tax income.

Projections that show the $5.7 million gap assume a 3.4 percent increase in sales-tax receipts in 2015-16 over the current fiscal year. But legislators are considering changing the distribution formula to send more sales-tax revenue to rural areas at the expense of cities.

State law requires the city to adopt a balanced budget for 2015-16 before July 1.

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