Mayor’s Comments On Budget Cuts, Benefit Reductions Leads To Hiring Freeze In Police Department
There are two open positions in the West U. Police Department, but Police Chief Ken Walker has instituted a hiring freeze after reading comments from Mayor Bob Kelly concerning possible budget cuts and retirement benefit reductions.
The comments stem from a recent e-mail from Kelly concerning a new police department. In the e-mail, Kelly asks City Manager Michael Ross to find a way to pay for a possible new police station without a tax increase – specifically naming budget cuts in personnel expenses as a way to do so.
“Please find a way for the City to pay for it without a tax increase….i.e. cuts in the existing budget (I realize this may have to come from some employee expenses since that item is a major part of the City’s budget) and/or additional revenues,” wrote Kelly. “I will have a hard, if not impossible, time supporting anything that calls for a tax increase. I realize this will be difficult, but with the recreational facilities expenses, we will not be able to get citizen support for a new Police Station if we have to increase taxes to do so….regardless of financing method….i.e. bond election or not.”
Kelly is referring to the $13.8 million bond election passed last November for the new West U. Rec. Center and Colonial Park pool. A new police station is estimated to cost around $6 million.
“I can’t believe there isn’t a way we can do some budget cutting and I would hate to go to the taxpayers and increase taxes at this point after we already did that for the Rec. Center,” said Kelly in an interview with InstantNewsWestU.com.
Kelly also told Ross that employee retirement benefits should be carefully examined during budget discussions, including contemplating reducing the city’s matching policy of 2 to 1 and discussion of leaving the Texas Municipal League retirement plan and exploring municipal versions of a 401K.
Kelly said he does not think a reduction in benefits would inhibit the city from hiring qualified personnel, especially considering recent economic changes.
“The fact that the city is even matching at all is very generous,” said Kelly, who added that many cities are lowering how much they match or eliminating matching altogether. “I think West U. is a very attractive place to work – couple that with the economy right now, there are a lot of people looking for jobs. I don’t believe it would be hard to find good, qualified people to replace anyone who decided to leave if they decide to leave on the basis that some f their benefits were reduced.”
The e-mail led Walker to discontinue the search for a new officer and new dispatcher, citing an already lean department and the ethics of decreasing benefits once an employee is hired.
“Hiring a new employee and then being forced to cut the position would destroy our credibility with all applicants and be devastating to the person and their family,” wrote Walker in an e-mail to Ross. “It is less traumatic to cut an open position than eliminate a position that is filled. Also, hiring an applicant then reducing the benefit plan after the person is on board is unethical. Therefore, I have instructed our staff to cease the hiring process until we have a clear picture of what the Council will propose for the 2010 budget. Because we are so lean, not filling the positions could put us in a very difficult position should we experience increased turnover. The process to fill a police officer position can take a long time.”
Kelly said he was unaware that a hiring freeze was in effect, and also questioned the necessity of one.
“It is my understanding…that the city is allowed to change its compensation system any time it wants to,” said Kelly. “So, I don’t see the fact that it may be contemplated that there might be a change would preclude us from hiring someone. I don’t see how they equate to each other – everybody would like to know what they are going to be paid when they come in. If we knew for sure there was going to be a change in the works, you would tell them – but at this point, nothing is fixed.”
Kelly also said the police department has gone two years without filling those positions, and said he has asked Walker to attend a special council meeting Monday night to address that issue. Walker says that while the city may have had a position open for two years or more, it isn’t necessarily the same position, as turnover in police departments is high. Walker said the city recently hired for two positions, then one employee moved, leaving another position open.
Kelly says he is unsure where budget cuts could be made, but they likely would not come from personnel positions. Kelly says the city is already “lean and mean” when it comes to staffing, and will actually need to hire more employees once the new West U. Rec. Center open in 2010. Ross says eliminating staff at this point would likely result in a reduction of services to residents.
Although all of the e-mails surround the subject of a new police station, Kelly says he is not certain the city even needs one.
“That’s the first issue I am going to raise –do we really need one?” said Kelly. “There have been stories of problems with air-conditioning – air conditioners can be replaced. I think even more telling is whether or not there are really structural problems with the building and space limitations. I think basically we have to get through that – I think council has to be convinced we need that.”
Kelly says he has not seen the 2002 report by Brinkley Sargent Architects on the police station, although Ross provided the report to council earlier in July.
Brinkley Sargent Architects did a “needs assessment” of the facility in 2002, and estimated a cost of $4.5 million to $5 million to build a facility that would meet the future needs of the department. That cost is now estimated at $6 million.
“The police department has outgrown the available space within the facility and the building shows signs of structural and roof problems,” according to the 2002 report. The current building, built in 1984, is 5,600 sq. ft. Brinkley Sargent recommended a 16,300 sq. ft. facility to provide enough space for the next 25 years.
“All areas are in need of space,” read the seven-year-old report. “Several staff members share many of the offices with inadequate areas for general office and supervisory functions. The space for processing and storage of evidence is severely undersized and not properly ventilated…the vehicle sally port is extremely small…the facility does not meet current ADA or Texas Accessibility laws.”
The recent heat wave has exacerbated recent air-conditioning issues, with the room housing the city’s DirectLink alarm monitoring system climbing to 99 degrees near the end of June. Earlier in June the city’s 911 equipment sounded a temperature alarm, and is now cooled by two portable fans. The building is also prone to flooding.
“We’ve had problems in the summer before, but we haven’t had the frequency of the problems we are seeing now,” said Walker recently.