June 26, 2013 in City

Vestal: Pitch to add police officers must come from the top

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Shawn Vestal
(Full-size photo)

We need more cops.

This is old, old news. We needed more cops last year, when the mayor decided that what we needed was a tax freeze. We needed more cops several years ago when the police department announced a free pass for property crimes because of a staffing shortfall. And we needed more cops when the department walked that back furiously, all while blaming – who else? – the media. We needed more cops when the mayor and police chief announced their nifty new reorg, which we need less than we need more cops.

Our police department is staffed at levels comparable to the 1970s, when the population was around 40,000 fewer residents, and the city was physically smaller. We have 100 fewer cops than Tacoma and 10,000 more residents. We have a much higher property crime rate (87 per 1,000 residents) and more crimes per officer (72) than any of the larger cities in Washington, according to statistics compiled by The Spokesman-Review’s Jonathan Brunt and published Sunday.

We need more cops, and we’re going to need to pay for them. To get there, we need leadership at City Hall to make the case – forcefully, without equivocation, and without score-settling antagonism toward the Police Guild or attempts to leverage negotiations. We need leadership at City Hall that places that single goal – more cops – at the top of the priority list and does not attach a bunch of strings to it.

Instead, what appears to be happening again is that we’re all wrapped up in strings. The guild and the administration of Mayor David Condon are locked in negotiations that have dragged into mediation, the details of which are not public but which are almost certain to be framed around concessions the city wants to pry from the guild.

Condon has said he cannot go to the public with a bond proposal to raise taxes to hire more cops until those negotiations are settled. He has hinted that we may need to just cut other city services to hire cops, because our something-for-nothing attitude toward government services is bottomless and no leader has ever gone wrong pandering to it.

“How do you go to the public when you don’t know what you’re going to be paying for and say, ‘Will you please pay for more cops?’ when we don’t know how much more cops is going to cost us?” Condon told the S-R.

May I suggest a way? Estimate. Just like you do in every projected budget. Just like you do with every projected budget shortfall. Just like you do in every finalized budget. Just like you do in every budget as it proceeds – the estimates change, sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. Given the unpredictable nature of the money flowing in and the unpredictable nature of the money flowing out, it’s the only way government operates. Responsible, conservative estimates, with clear boundaries, are not only possible, they are an essential, routine part of governing.

Consider the 10-year street bond we passed in 2004. It is often presented as the gold standard of responsible taxation, by Condon and others, because it was specific and limited; it outlined a plan of attack on fixing the streets in a detailed way. Citizens knew, this line of argument goes, exactly what they were getting.

Except that the street levy was based on estimates, estimates which have proven to be sometimes right and sometimes wrong and which are shifting more or less constantly.

The 2012 report on the bond’s progress is a minefield of unmet budget projections: work on Hatch Road went 30 percent over budget; work on Mission came in almost 25 percent below budget; work on Wellesley was 25 percent over budget; work on Nevada was 14 percent under; and so on. Overall, the projects are on time and under budget, and that is thanks, in part, to the unforeseen and unforeseeable benefits of the recession driving down costs.

But the wonderful thing about the street bond is not its budgeting; it is that the streets are getting fixed. A chief priority of the citizenry is being accomplished, it is being accomplished because most of us agreed to pay for it, and the city is managing the project and adjusting.

Our need for more cops is no different, and I suspect we city residents might vote to raise our own taxes to accomplish it. There would be any number of ways to safely and responsibly arrive at a proposed number of new cops that we could hire in a public-safety levy, and to place that program under a transparent light – just like the street bond. If the package were estimated conservatively, the city could manage the contingencies of the negotiations – and possibly even hire another few cops later if negotiations go the city’s way.

Clearly, more certainty would be preferable. But do we need so badly to nail down that number that we will accept the number zero for another year? Of course not. The only reason to do nothing is to put pressure on the Police Guild, which buries the top priority under secondary ones.

It’s not the guild that needs more cops the most. It’s the rest of us. And we need leadership to get us there. For an example, we might again look backward to the street bond of 2004 – which was a triumph of leadership for Mayor Jim West.

West did not go around town asking for a show of hands at the Rotary Club to see who wanted to pay more taxes. He formulated a plan, and he sold it. He made the case to the public, and the public listened.

He led.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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