First in a series
GALVESTON — Debate here about police department staffing is like the surf. It ebbs at times and flows at times but always is there, churning in the background.
That debate may be headed to a new high-water mark in the coming weeks as a new City Council tackles its first budget.
It’s a daunting task for volunteer policymakers everywhere and especially here, where, some would argue, years of deferred maintenance make budgeting a process of allocating too few dollars among too many critical problems.
An added issue for the 2014-15 budget planning cycle, which begins in July, is a police department request for an increase of about $600,000 to its $16.9 million budget to hire four officers and eight civilian support employees. The request also includes $550,000 in capital spending — $350,000 for a vehicle storage facility and $200,000 for a police property room.
The request comes in a year when some, including the The Daily News’ editorial board, have been urging the council to keep a vow made by predecessors to roll back a post-Hurricane Ike tax increase once the city’s tax base had recovered, which it has.
The council Thursday instructed interim City Manager Brian Maxwell to draft a budget that accommodates a 2.5 cent tax rate cut.
While there’s real angst among some city staff members at the prospect of a budget cut, the general feeling seems to be that this is only a drill, designed mostly to show the average island taxpayer how little he would save on his tax bill, compared to how much he would lose in city services.
But even if the council stands pat on the tax rate, there seems little chance the police department’s request will survive the process intact.
For one thing, four of the seven council members, sworn into their first terms just last month, have never been through a city budgeting process.
“It’s a problem with the way our election cycles fall,” Mayor Jim Yarbrough said. “You get sworn in, then step around the corner and there’s the budget waiting for you.
“People get that deer-in-the-headlights look. It’s just very hard for the council to make any sort of informed decision when they haven’t had time to get familiar with the budget and city operations.
“So, if people are thinking we’ll have a substantive, dramatic change in the budget this year, that’s probably not going to happen.
“This time next year, we ought to be able to delve into the budget and ask some questions about how we ought to reshape it.”
No matter what fate awaits the department’s funding request during this budget cycle, however, important civic questions will remain, churning in the background, 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.
In the coming weeks, The Daily News will attempt a detailed look at some of those questions in an effort to bring some clarity and objectivity to one of the island’s oldest, most divisive arguments.
The central question appears to be a simple one to answer: How many police offices and support personnel does a city like Galveston need?
Police per 1,000 residents
Some observers, including editors and publishers of The Daily News, have argued the answer is as simple as the question: Galveston has more officers per 1,000 residents than any other city in the county and many others in the state and the country, which indicates the department is overstaffed.
Others, including Police Chief Henry Porretto, argue that’s not a legitimate way to assess police staffing.
And while many groups, including the FBI in its annual Uniform Crime Reports, use police per 1,000 or 10,000 residents as a tool for assessing police departments, most seem to agree with Porretto that counting heads alone is overly simplistic.
“You have to be careful comparing cities,” Capt. Chris Kostelac of the Overland Park, Kan., Police Department said during an interview in November. “You have to make sure you’re comparing cities that are alike.”
The Overland Park department has since 1997 been producing a highly detailed annual “Benchmark City Survey,” which compiles data from about 30 police departments on dozens of measures including such things as police-resident ratios, miles of road in the service area and ratios of officers on patrol to officers at desks.
In 2013, the average number of sworn police officers for every 1,000 residents was 1.45 among Benchmark cities and about 3 in Galveston.
Does that answer the central question? No, Kostelac said.
“I wouldn’t compare these cities to Galveston,” he said. “Many are typical suburban bedroom communities. Galveston has a fluctuating population and it faces some public safety issues more like those of a larger urban area. These cities just don’t face those.”
A question of size
Even if the ratio of police to residents could answer the question, what ratio should be used?
“It’s a tricky question,” Yarbrough said. “You go to bed at night and the population is somewhere around 50,000. You get up in the morning and it’s at least 60,000 to 65,000 just counting commuters.”
The New Jersey State Police use a formula that includes both the permanent and seasonal populations to calculate an annual mean population of resort cities in its jurisdiction.
Using a version of that formula (it differs by using an annual, rather than monthly seasonal population) and the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s estimate of about 5.5 million visitors a year, Galveston’s annual mean population is a little more than 85,000, which puts its police-to-resident ratio at 1.65, which is slightly less than Texas City at 1.95 and slightly before League City at 1.32.
In the end, however, cooking those numbers is probably just an exercise, because the police per 1,000 argument just doesn’t seem to have much traction among city policymakers.
Councilman Norman Pappous, who advocated drafting the budget with a 2.5 cent budget cut, disagrees with what the police per resident calculation argues.
“I can’t say a lot with complete confidence,” Pappous said. “But I can say this with complete confidence — Galveston Police Department is not overstaffed.”
Yarbrough also had doubts about the method.
“Police officers per 1,000 population is probably not the best measure,” Yarbrough said. “It’s the simplist one, but the simplist one is not always the best one.”
Which begs the question, which is the best one? Porretto said he and his command staff already have answered that question; it’s the Service Standard Index.
The index measures such things as the average time needed for an officer to respond to and resolve a call for service, the number of calls for service, average number of officer-generated calls such as traffic stops, the average number of backup calls and the total time an officer is available to respond to calls.
The goal of the index is to identify the staffing level among patrol officers needed to achieve a situation where an officer is committed to calls 40 percent of the time and free 60 percent of the time for such things as preventive patrols, community policing, neighborhood problem-solving and traffic enforcement.
By that measure, the department is about 34 first-responders short of the ideal, according to the index. The index has been applied only to patrol officers, but the department’s investigative bureaus also are understaffed, Porretto said.
“We’re not able to really investigate anything but major crimes,” he said.
“I’m not asking for more so we can do less. I’m asking for more so we can do more.”