Sunday, August 13, 2006

Where Are The Savings?

I want to know where the city seems to find any of this savings.

Phil Borst and the rest of the City-County Council want to know exactly where the savings is coming from. The numbers don't match up. The police force will still be down 30 some officers and the city is in dire need of more protection.

Next year's fire and police department mergers in Marion County will save even more than originally estimated -- nearly $18 million per year, according to new figures from the Indianapolis mayor's office.

With savings of nearly $10 million from the Jan. 1 consolidation of the Indianapolis police and Marion County sheriff's forces alone, the city plans to restore 42 of 78 police positions reduced last year. That will bring the newly formed Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department to a combined strength of 1,604 sworn officers.

That budget also forecasts a savings of nearly $8 million from the merger of the Washington Township and Indianapolis fire departments. As a result, the city plans to restore two of the 44 firefighter positions cut last year, giving Fire Chief James Greeson a combined force of 865.
The savings were projected in Mayor Bart Peterson's proposed 2007 spending plan, which was released last week.

"To be put in a position where we don't have to make the draconian cuts we made last year is a good thing," the Democratic mayor said.

City officials did not itemize how the mergers would save $18 million. Instead, they compared the 2006 and 2007 budgets, subtracted new costs and said the difference is a result of merger savings.

The city had said the police merger would save about $9 million and the fire merger would save at least $2.3 million.

Republicans were skeptical about the new numbers.

Phil Borst, the GOP minority leader of the City-County Council, said the city's methodology did not break down what elements of the merger produced a savings.
"I think they still need to go back and show the comparison clearly," Borst said. "They haven't shown me where the savings are."

Rep. Phil Hinkle, R-Indianapolis, called the projections "fleeting fantasies."
He said the experience of Louisville, Ky., and other cities that have merged police forces shows that it doesn't produce any savings.

"I think this is really a shell game," said Hinkle, who led opposition to the mayor's consolidation plan in the legislature the last two years. "All we're going to do is stall this fiscal crisis with the illusion of savings today."

Suzannah Overholt, Peterson's transition director for the mergers, was confident the additional savings would be achieved.

"The proof will be there," she said. "That's what we propose as their budgets; so if they (the Police and Fire departments) can live within that, it's a real savings."
She said merger officials found savings opportunities in part by using civilians in the place of sworn officers who hold desk jobs. The change also would make more sworn officers available for street patrol.

Civilians generally cost about 30 percent less than officers, she said. The total cost -- including training, uniforms, cars, benefits, pension and salary -- of a sworn officer comes to around $100,000 per year, according to Overholt.

Most of the projected savings from the mergers will be dedicated to offsetting rising costs for fuel, health insurance and pensions.

Without the savings, residents' property taxes would likely have climbed to cover these costs, administration officials said.

While the city hasn't been able to calculate tax rates for next year yet, Peterson said spending by the city and county would not trigger a tax increase.

However, because they lie outside city control, the budget considers separately $156 million in spending on state programs such as child welfare and juvenile justice. A $33 million increase for these two programs next year will cause taxes to increase by $62 for a home valued at $100,000, Peterson said.

Merger critics, meanwhile, continued to question why the city never stopped to determine the cost of the different parts of the Sheriff's Department before the merger. If that had been done, they said, the total cost of the merged parts of the Sheriff's Department could be more clearly measured against the expense of the new department.

Only the sheriff's law enforcement and investigation divisions will be merged with the Indianapolis Police Department. The sheriff's budget, which includes the costs of running the county jail, has never broken down costs by division.

In any case, city Controller Bob Clifford said doing so wouldn't have provided a better estimate of savings. He said his budget calculations take into account an array of costs that offer the clearest view of the merger's financial impact.

Other critics, meanwhile, called on Peterson to fully restore the city's public safety forces. Clifford said the city hopes to restore the remaining police cuts of 36 positions by 2008.

Isaac Randolph, a Republican council member and Indianapolis firefighter, last week called on Peterson to fulfill his promise during police merger negotiations and restore all 44 firefighting positions lost.

"For me, it's very real," Randolph said. "If I get trapped in a fire, I want to know there's another set of hands to help get me out."

Mike Reeves, the president of the city's fire union, said he has faith in the chief's projected needs for the merged department.

"My position is that every apparatus should be fully staffed, and the city has committed to that," he said.

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