by guest contributor, Ted Steinbrecher

Tough economic times have forced many local, county and state governments to grapple with providing essential government services while implementing necessary budget cuts. Cutting public safety budgets has the potential to significantly impact efforts to fight crime and respond to emergency situations, including fires. Some 25 percent of cities said they were cutting their public safety budgets in 2010 to deal with shortfalls, up from 14 percent a year earlier, according to a survey by the National League of Cities.

Cities of all sizes in all regions of the country are being affected, illustrated by the following examples:

  • Camden, New Jersey is laying off over 40 percent of its police officers and approximately one third of its firefighters due to a $26 million budget deficit.
  • St. Charles, Illinois is considering a plan that would include reducing its fire companies from four to three, which could save $2.5 million.
  • In the San Francisco Bay area, to help the city of Chico, California reconcile a $6.7 million budget deficit over the next two years, the International Association of Firefighters agreed to forego the 4 percent raises city firefighters were scheduled to receive this year. Firefighters are still scheduled to receive a three percent raise in 2012.
  • Cutbacks for Reno, Nevada police, fire and parks departments are expected to save $6.3 million and eliminate over 140 jobs from the current budget.
  • Tight fiscal times in Huntington Beach, California have forced its police department to cut back on investigating certain crimes, including those involving property, unless there are hard leads.
  • The police and fire departments in Lynnwood, Washington were initially directed to make severe reductions of their annual expenses. By the time the budget was approved, however, personnel departures, unfilled vacant positions and reducing police department front desk office hours helped avert layoffs.
  • To help make up a projected $2.4 million shortfall in next fiscal year’s budget, five police officers and three firefighters may need to be cut in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

In all instances, those in charge of managing the public safety departments alerted their elected officials that such drastic decreases would result in decreasing their ability to deliver these essential municipal services. In December 2010, the Police Executive Research Forum report, “Is the Economic Downturn Fundamentally Changing How We Police?”, contained first-hand accounts from several department chiefs on the effect the economic crisis has had on their communities. Newark, New Jersey budget cuts, for example, are resulting in more violent crime. Illinois State Police report that an increase in traffic fatalities was the result of reducing motorcycle enforcement.

Fortunately, all the news is not gloom and doom. The report also included references to how police departments have found new revenue sources. The Sparks, Nevada Police Department uses a new call verification system for false alarms, and 100 percent of the funding goes back to the department. Baltimore, Maryland takes in approximately $3 million dollars annually using asset forfeiture money. These funds are used primarily for training purposes, which were funded in the past from tax revenues.

In addition, despite the recently announced 2011 budget cuts of the Obama administration, the Department of Homeland Security, which provides various public safety-related grants, is poised to receive a slight increase of $309 million over discretionary funding levels of 2010.

Many local governments have implemented other strategies in order to mitigate the budget shortfalls. Among these are service consolidations, encouraging early retirement, even eliminating mounted horse patrols. Dispatch agencies across the nation are studying (Leelanau County, MI,  Lake Count, IN. Boone County, KY) or are combining 9-1-1 services with other centers (City of Utica and Oneida County, NY, City of Kokomo and Howard County, IN). As a cost-saving method, the San Bernardino City Council has approved a retirement enhancement program which may save up to $190,000 this fiscal year. And in Charleston SC, Newark NJ, Tulsa OK and Boston MA, mounted units have been eliminated due to the downturn in the economy.

As the country continues to struggle with the myriad effects of the economic recession, public safety agencies will continue to be challenged to maintain their service levels in the face of reduced budget resources. The true effect of this situation may not be known until crime, fire loss and similar statistics are available for 2011 and beyond. So while budget cuts may present an opportunity for departments to make changes that they wanted to make but were politically undesirable when times were good, or to look for more ways to be efficient, it seems clear that we have entered into a “new normal” in the way public safety services are delivered to the citizenry.

About the Author

Over the past thirty-seven years, Ted Steinbrecher has accumulated a unique combination of progressive experience in the public sector market. Early in his career, he served in the suburban Chicago area in municipal positions such as Assistant Village Manager and Director of Public Services.

Mr. Steinbrecher later became a senior consultant and technology solution provider/vendor to the public safety industry. He is currently president of TS & Partners, LLC, a public sector consulting firm specializing information technology.

He graduated with honors from Roosevelt University (Chicago) with a Masters in Public Administration degree and holds a bachelor’s degree in Government from Monmouth College (Monmouth, Illinois).