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‘$18 million black box’: Council wants more insight into police department budget

As City Council gets ready to dig into the proposed budget for fiscal year 2022, councilors said late Monday they want more information about how the police department spends its $18.9 million budget, which is 9.9% of the proposed spending plan.

Council’s discussion followed the presentation of City Manager Chip Boyles’ proposed $190.6 million budget, and months of protests and calls from community members to reallocate funds away from the police department. As with other departments in the city, the police operating budget didn’t increase from the current fiscal year aside from an additional $187,470 for camera systems service contract — a cost already covered by the capital improvement program.

The proposed police budget is about $900,000 more than last fiscal year because of a pay increase enacted in fiscal year 2020 that is now reflected in departments’ budgets, said Krisy Hammill, a senior budget and management analyst with the city.

The 228-page budget document doesn’t provide in-depth detail about how each department spends its funds beyond the cost of salaries and operating expenses.

Mayor Nikuyah Walker and councilors Lloyd Snook and Michael Payne said Monday that they want more detail and information on police spending. Councilor Heather Hill reserved her comments on the budget proposal until Thursday’s work session. Vice Mayor Sena Magill did not attend Monday’s meeting because of an emergency.

“We get this overview, but departmental expenditures and what they look like throughout every department, we don’t get that as a council,” Walker said.

She said she wanted to see such details for all the departments and that information should be readily available to the public, and that it shouldn’t need to be requested through the Freedom of Information Act.

“That’s what I’m hoping that our city manager’s heard, the budget team is hearing, that the citizens are asking for more information, and they want that information accessible in a way they don’t have to pay for,” Walker said.

The police department has the largest budget of any city entity that’s funded by tax dollars — aside from the school division, which would receive $58.7 million from the local government under the proposed budget.

“It’s about an $18 million black box,” Snook said of the police department’s budget. “We don’t know what’s inside it and without some programmatic budgeting discussion, we won’t be able to. And the people will still be very upset with us if we can’t give them any more detail. And I say we — the city government writ large — and so we need to figure out a way to do that.”

Recent record requests by city resident Matthew Gillikin have helped the councilors find out more about the police department’s spending.

Councilors said Monday night that the documents he has received have been helpful for them to understand where some of the money is going. The 11-page spreadsheet for the current fiscal year shows line-item spending on overtime, office supplies and other expenses by the department’s different divisions and offices.

“This is interesting from a trivia standpoint, but it doesn’t tell me anything really about what decisions are being made in the police department,” Snook said of the spreadsheet and other records obtained by Gillikin.

Instead, Snook said he wanted to see a breakdown of the funding by program rather than a line-item budget detailing every expense. For example, he wants to see how much the department spends to respond to mental health crises.

“That’s the kind of programmatic thing that we ought to be talking about,” he said.

Salaries and benefits make up 82.5% of the police department’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022. The police have 155 full-time positions, according to budget documents.

The budget summary shows the expenses for different offices and divisions in the police department. The Field Operations Division receives the most money at $10.5 million.

That division consists of the Patrol Bureau, which includes the K-9 unit, Bike Patrol and foot patrol, among others.

“They are the first responders who provide 24-hour police patrol,” according to the budget. “Their responsibilities include crime prevention, problem solving, and regulation of traffic, investigation of accidents, and investigation of crime, preparing reports, and providing numerous non-criminal services to the public.

Snook said that he personally does not know of a lot of things in the police department’s budget that he would want to cut.

“I’m not sure what the right answer is, but at least part of the answer it seems to me has to be that somebody who is familiar with the programmatic budgeting in the police department should be able to answer some questions at a public meeting that get to explaining why they spend the money that they spend and why it’s worth spending,” he said. “I’ve said before, good policing doesn’t cost less; it costs more.”

Hammill said the city has different systems it could use to present the budget information in different ways, but she wasn’t sure if a line-item document would answer councilors’ questions.

“I mean, sure it’s transparent and you can see that, you know, we’re gonna pay for a copier rental and we’re gonna buy paper, and we’re going to do training,” Hammill said. “But is that really the detail you’re looking for, or is it more based on, you know, programmatic types of spending that we want to talk about, and to be more focused and more deliberate?”

Hammill added that whatever information or detail the council wants for the police department’s budget, she would want to use that process for every other department.

“So that we’re not singling out a single department and holding them to a different standard than we are another,” she said.

Payne said information about the costs of different programs, departments and functions would be more useful for him.

“I think it’s good to have access to the line items but I’m sure, like others, it’s hard to really make anything of it, especially because we were talking about programmatic changes to create, adjust, remove programs and functions, and line items alone certainly aren’t going to do that for us. … I don’t think it’s information that we should need to get from FOIA requests.”

Payne said that it’s clear there’s a desire in the community for council to begin a conversation about changes to the police department’s budget, and that at first those changes might be more modest.

“They’re certainly going to be more modest than what some people in the community have demanded, but we have to begin that process, and we haven’t yet,” he said. “Certainly at a bare minimum, I think is getting a sense of what the budget is, having it presented in a programmatic and narrative type way and then go from there. Because again, I think it’s going to be something that will certainly be complex and will take time, but we have to begin that process.


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