Gardner City Council members debated hiring three additional police officers in 2012. The extra manpower would add $198,900 to the city’s bottom line and increase property taxes 1.5 mills, according to a city staff proposed budget.
Council members failed to reach a consensus on the issue during a budget work session on June 27, although Police Chief Ken Francis made his case for new officers at the meeting.
“We know it’s tough times,” Francis told council members. “If you can help us, we appreciate it. If you can’t, we’ll know you tried.”
Francis made the request because Gardner’s number of officers per thousand residents declined following the merger of part of Gardner Public Safety and Johnson County Fire District No. 1 last year. The merger stripped the local department of nine, cross-utilized fire and police specialists.
When discussions started to merge the county fire department with a portion of the local public safety department, Francis said it appeared the manpower concerns would kill the deal.
“The view was it probably couldn’t be done because we’d need to add more officers,” Francis said. “That’s how it started, but that’s not how it ended… We said at the time that we could open the police station without missing a beat. We probably didn’t assert ourselves enough. I’ll take whatever responsibility for that.”
Also, last year, one officer was dismissed and another resigned, and the two positions were never filled due to budget constraints. The departures left the Gardner Police Department with 1.35 officers per thousand residents. According to Francis, between 1.8 and 2.2 officers per thousand residents is considered standard. The Gardner Police Department would need to add 11 officers to reach the average for the Kansas City metro area.
“We try to make sure we have enough people to handle two calls at one time, and a supervisor,” Francis said.
Things get tricky when more than two calls come in, or when an officer is pulled away to write reports, appear in court or attend mandated annual training. During those times, Francis said police officials rely on backup from the county and other law enforcement agencies, a volunteer reserve officer program, and overtime.
Though the additional staff wouldn’t dramatically decrease overtime, they would provide flexibility, Francis explained. Police protection is one of the most important things council provides citizens, he said.
“If you had a lot of money sitting in the bank, I’d probably really be dancing a lot harder,” Francis said. “No one wants to raise taxes.”
The extra help is important enough that Francis said he’d rather have more bodies than new police cars.
“Maybe we can put off by one year buying new cars,” he told council. “With the condition we try to keep our cars, we could hedge. I do believe we need (new officers) that bad.”
Council member Kristina Harrison offered other solutions to fund new officers without hiking property taxes. She said forgoing new cars would save the council $114,000 next year, and cutting a proposed $75,000 comprehensive plan update would get the council even closer.
However, Interim City Administrator Melissa Mundt cautioned the council that those items are one-time expenditures while the new officers would need to be funded beyond just next year.
“I want to caution against the short term focus on a long-term project,” she said.
“But it does buy us some time,” Council member Brian Broxterman said.
Council member Chris Morrow also suggested cutting the comprehensive plan update as well as a proposed dump truck replacement.
Council member Larry Fotovich said whatever the council decides they should not raise taxes.
Mundt said she’d like council members to carefully consider the proposal and how it might create challenges in future budgets. She said she’d hate to hire three police officers in 2012 only to have to lay off five people in 2013.
Council must determine what items they will retain in the proposed 2012 budget in time to officially publicize the information during by mid-July. A final budget must be approved and sent to the state no later than Aug. 25.
In other business, council members:
• heard budget presentations from directors of parks and recreation, finance and public works. The proposed budgets for all three departments are relatively flat.
• heard a presentation from Johnson County Fire District No. 1. The fire district responded to more than 550 EMS and fire calls between January 2011 and May 2011. Their response time averaged 3.6 minutes. According to lease for services contract between the city and the fire district, fire officials are required to keep call response times under 5 minutes.