GALVESTON — The city spent about $346 per resident on police in 2013 and devoted 38 percent of total general fund spending to police during the same period.
And while police spending last year was down about 5.6 percent — to about $16.9 million from a 10-year high of about $17.9 million during fiscal 2009-10 — the per-resident amount, and general fund percentage, were on the high side of average, based on a Daily News review of more than 30 other cities.
But while those calculations are among benchmarks commonly applied to police departments, they have to be taken in context, Larry T. Hoover, professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University, said.
Police staffing and issues akin to it are matters of long-running debate in Galveston. On one pole are people who argue you can never have enough police; on the other, a bloc arguing Galveston already has too many. The latter argument typically is supported by the fact that Galveston has more officers per 1,000 residents than places such as League City.
That old debate was renewed in June when the police department requested an increase of about $600,000 to its $16.9 million budget to hire eight civilian support employees and four police officers.
Some of the new civilian hires would take over evidence gathering and record-keeping tasks, allowing sworn officers to be shifted back to patrol, Police Chief Henry Porretto said.
If the request were approved, the department might be able to increase the number of patrol officers by two or three, he said.
Four new officers would allow the department to increase the number of detectives in its narcotics division to seven from three, he said.
At a city council workshop Wednesday, interim City Manager Brian Maxwell presented budget documents anticipating a 2.5 cent tax rate reduction, achieved in part by cutting more than $200,000 from the police budget.
None of the new police hires was included in those initial budget documents.
Maxwell is scheduled to present a draft budget to the council Aug. 14. A public hearing on the budget is set for Sept. 4.
The central question facing policymakers is whether a city with numerous critical needs can afford to increase spending on public safety, and, conversely, whether it can afford not to.
Taken at face value, and compared, as often is done, to other cities in the county, the numbers support the argument that Galveston is devoting too much to police services.
In the current budget year, Galveston spent almost $16.9 million on police, 38 percent of total general fund spending. League City, meanwhile, spent $16.5 million, about 31 percent of its $52.4 million in general fund expenditures.
Likewise, League City’s police spending is about $180 per resident, a little more than half of the $346 per resident spent in Galveston for the same period.
Galveston’s spending also is higher than the mean average among 30 cities assessed each year by the Overland Park, Kan., Police Department.
The average cost per resident among those 30 cities was $233.56, while those same cities devoted an average of 29 percent of general fund spending to police, according to the annual “Benchmark Cities Survey.”
But ratios and averages based on population can be misleading because they often don’t account for the real size of populations being policed and ignore important differences among populations, Hoover said.
“Demand for police service in tourist destinations is always relatively high,” he said.
“The cost-per-resident statistic is more valid than officers-per-thousand, but both statistics are flawed because the denominator is people who sleep there. That’s what the Census counts. Consequently, tourist destinations are badly represented by both statistics.”
Cities like Galveston that import workers each day also are badly represented by dollars- or officers-per ratios compared to suburbs that export workers, Hoover said.
“You can’t compare a Houston to a Katy,” he said, referring to the large suburban area along Interstate 10 west of Houston.
“I think the best comparisons would be to other tourist destinations and other places with similar draws from outside.”
Compared to some of those, Galveston’s policing costs are middle of the pack.
Daytona Beach, Fla., devoted 49 percent of its general fund revenue to police in 2013; Coral Springs, Fla., 45 percent; Alameda, Calif., 39 percent; and Myrtle Beach, S.C., 35 percent, according to budget documents and the Benchmark Survey.
Likewise, tourist cities and cities importing workers tended to have higher police costs per resident.
Boca Raton, Fla., for example, spent $458 per resident in 2013; Coral Springs, Fla., spent $354; and Alameda, Calif., spent $352, according to budget documents and the survey.
Galveston imports almost 23,000 workers a day, and exports about 11,100, for a net increase of about 12,000, according to the U.S. Census.
On the other hand, League City imports about 18,000 workers and exports about 34,000 for a net loss of almost 16,000, according to the Census.
With those adjusted numbers, which don’t account for tourists, Galveston’s per-resident cost drops to about $277, while League City’s climbs to $219, a difference of $58 per resident.
Keeping the peace
Characteristics other than population size also are important, Hoover and others said.
Cities with higher poverty rates and greater population density tend to spend more per resident than others, he said.
“Residents of economically stressed neighborhoods call the police four times more often than those in more prosperous neighborhoods,” Hoover said.
“There are more crimes and more disturbances, more conflicts arising out of living conditions, from population density.
“People who are stacked on top of each other are just not going to get along as well as people living in neighborhoods with large lots and single-family residences.
“So you need more officers just to keep the peace. That’s a big part of what they do. That’s why they’re called peace officers.”
There’s a huge range of cost per resident for police services among the Benchmark Survey cities.
Boca Raton topped the list at $458 per resident; Lincoln, Neb., was the bottom at $133 — a range of $325. Boca Raton police officials declined to be interviewed.
Lincoln Police Chief Jim Peschong agreed that the nature of the community being policed probably was the main reason his department’s cost per resident was so low.
“We have a lot of white-collar jobs in Lincoln,” he said. “We have a lot of government workers, state and federal, a lot of insurance industry workers and we have a big university.
“That gives our community a different character, and I think that makes the difference.”
Galveston has many of the factors that Hoover argues predict relatively high costs for police service. More than 31 percent of Galveston residents live below the poverty level, for example, according to the Census. The statistic is 15 percent in Lincoln and 4.7 percent in League City. The percentage of housing units in multiunit structures, an indicator of population density, is 40 percent in Galveston, 32 percent in Lincoln and 17 percent in League City.
Galveston police officials also argue their budget is inflated by costs not normally carried in a departmental budget. The largest of those is $318,147 a year spent to lease space for the police department in the county Criminal Justice Center. Both Porretto and Maxwell argue it’s unusual for such a cost to be carried in the department’s operational budget.
“That really should be a general government expense,” Maxwell said. “If the city had gone out and built a police station, that cost would not be coming out of the police department budget. When the city built Fire Station 5, it issued certificates of obligation and that debt service cost is not carried in the fire department budget.”
Another $120,000 or so a year from the police budget goes to pay the Galveston Island Humane Society to care for stray animals picked up by the city.
“That would still be a cost to the city, but if we had our own shelter it would not be in the police budget, it would be in a separate budget,” Maxwell said.
The police department also carries the full cost of emergency dispatch services, which, arguably, should be shared by the fire and emergency medical services budgets, Maxwell said.
Backing those costs out of the police budget wouldn’t mean any more money for the department, but would bring its cost-per number closer to reality, Maxwell said.
On the other hand, four police department positions are paid for out of a Convention Center surplus fund. Two of those positions were vacant for part of the fiscal year. Some capital costs associated with policing parking along the seawall also were charged to the convention center fund.
Porretto argues that Galveston is at a “tipping point” at which a modest increase in police spending could help the department head off some serious problems, while a cut would cost it gains it had made in the past few years.
He said he was especially worried about a growing presence of methamphetamines on the island, which is why he’d asked to increase the department’s narcotics division.
“My research indicates that the GPD command staff has done its homework and prepared a logical and substantiated argument for staffing, especially after checking around the country for differing opinions,” he said.
“What we’re doing is working, and I don’t want to lose it.”
About this series
What you missed
June 29: The issue of police department staffing contains important civic questions about whether the city is doing right by its residents, its police employees, its other employees and its own future when it comes to public safety spending.
July 13: Among the conventional wisdoms about police staffing is that since Galveston is a tourist town, demand for police service fluctuates sharply, offering an opportunity to hire part-time police officers to augment the force during peak times. But how well do the underlying assumption and proposed solution hold up?
SSI up close. GPD leaders say the Service Standard Index shows the department’s staffing is less than ideal. What is the SSI and what does it show?
What do you want? Galveston has no shortage of priority wants and needs. Where does public safety rank among rank-and-file residents?
Costs and benefits. Policing is expensive, but can effective public safety efforts save residents money and perhaps drive revenue?
These and more, only in The Daily News.