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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Police, fire chiefs recount budget woes

Thomas Clouse Staff writer

Spokane’s police and fire chiefs said Monday that city residents expect they will get help when they call 911. But 204 police calls went unanswered in June because the city didn’t have an officer to send.

Those incidents of “no unit available” climbed 29 percent from May to June, Police Chief Roger Bragdon said. At the same time, fewer people are calling to report crimes, and Bragdon said he believes it’s because they are losing patience.

“Friday night, there were four in-progress domestic-violence calls they couldn’t go to,” Bragdon said. “The officers know that there are citizens out there asking for their help. So it’s very frustrating.”

Fire Chief Bobby Williams said a study of response times over the past five years shows that fire crews have taken longer and longer to respond to everything from routine medical calls to house fires.

“I don’t know that anybody gets used to a lower level of service. I think the issue for both of our departments is that until you need to pick up that phone and call for help, you don’t think about it as much,” Williams said. “When you pick up the phone and call and it’s 30 seconds or a minute longer, that makes significant impact on our ability to effectively make a difference in the outcome of that incident.”

Both chiefs delivered their bad news Monday at a meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee. Following a year in which the city cut 75 police and fire positions, a cash shortfall of about $6 million could bring even deeper cuts, the chiefs said.

The prognosis also comes at a time when the city is contemplating asking voters to increase taxes to pay for public safety demands.

“Generally, the case is that we are hanging on by our fingernails,” Bragdon said. “If all stars align, we can make it through the end of the year.”

Williams praised city leaders for allowing him to rehire eight firefighters earlier this year. That action prevented him from either shutting down fire companies or closing a fire station.

But with more than 85 percent of the department’s budget going to payroll and benefits, it leaves him no choice, Williams said.

“We are looking at closing fire stations,” he said. “What many communities have done to share the burden of the reduction is what they call ‘rolling brownouts,’ ” in which stations are closed on a rotating basis.

“So we will probably bring forth options that show you closing one station permanently or sharing it among three stations, one in each of the council districts,” Williams said. “That will really be a policy decision if we get to that point.”

While calls to dispatchers have increased, the number of reported crimes is down drastically, Bragdon said.

“I can say, ‘Well, look at what a great job we are doing. The crime rate is down,’ ” Bragdon said. “But I know for a fact that the No. 1 reason crime is down is because a lot of people are not calling in reports anymore.”

Last January, public safety officials shut down Crime Check, which for 34 years had allowed residents to report crimes 24 hours a day. The new system is named the Spokane Crime Reporting Center, but because of budget cuts, it operates only from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.

Residents “don’t like the reduced hours,” Bragdon said. “They feel we are not doing enough in the area of property crimes, especially, which is why you would call into the Crime Reporting Center. And so, they are saying, ‘What’s the use? I’m not going to bother calling.’ “

However, every report is fed into the city’s criminal analysis computer, which is used every day by police officials to decide where to send officers.

“We need to know every bike that is stolen. We need to know if someone scratches your car,” Bragdon said. “There is a myth that we don’t do any property crimes enforcement. That’s not true. But we do it based on the analysis of where it’s worst at the moment.”

Unless a residential garage burglary is part of a crime spree or an organized problem, an investigation “just isn’t going to happen,” Bragdon said.

Like Williams, Bragdon said he doesn’t believe residents will stand for a lower level of service.

“Our complaints are starting to increase,” he said. “One of the things we are blessed with in the city of Spokane is that our citizens work closely with us. I think they have a better understanding of the problem. But that doesn’t mean they will accept it.”

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