Saturday, April 30, 2011

Public Safety Spending in Minnesota Cities

Public safety is considered to be a fundamental duty of government; however, in a day when budgets are increasingly tight, even fundamental services are facing cuts. These cuts are forcing people to make difficult decisions regarding level of service. Services included in the public safety realm are administered at all levels of state and local government and entail more than just beat cops and penitentiaries. Public safety services actually include correctional facilities, courts, human rights, law enforcement, emergency responders, public defenders, certain libraries and communications equipment, and various oversight boards. As the cost of public safety rises, governments are being trapped in a corner where cost and demand are both high.

Cities often rely on local government aid to fund their public safety programs. The federal budget deal reached by Democrats and Republicans in April of 2011 cuts $600 million from programs for police department salaries and equipment, which will likely result in cuts to Minnesota local law enforcement.[1] City governments approached the public safety budget dilemma in a variety of ways.

In White Bear Lake policing is the city’s single biggest expense at 41% of the city budget.[2] Instead of migrating cuts to other departments, White Bear Lake has decided to make public safety sacrifices. They are holding off on purchasing new patrol cars and tornado sirens, rely primarily on a volunteer firefighting staff, have foregone standard improvements to the shooting range, and opted not to put computers in city ambulances.2

Cities in greater Minnesota are experiencing great difficulty keeping their police forces afloat. In almost every single outstate Minnesota community, public safety is the single largest budget item, making it a big budget cut target.[3] Some have chosen to eliminate jobs and now nearly half of outstate programs no longer operate 24/7.3 An option that is being increasingly utilized is consolidating with other agencies or contracting out law enforcement services. According to Lebens, “over the past 10 years, 63 police departments have folded or merged.”

Minneapolis and Mayor R.T. Rybak have chosen to make public safety a priority and has cut funding in all other departments. In fact, the city increased annual spending of general fund dollars from $150 million in 2003 to $190 million in 2010.[4] Although 59 jobs had to be cut in other departments, the police and fire departments suffered no losses and actually effectively saved 103 public safety jobs by reallocating the necessary budget cuts.[5]

The City of St. Paul has used funds from Obama’s Recovery Act to maintain the safety of the city in 2010. 34 new police officers were hired with special emphasis on combating gang activity and domestic violence. The EMT force was beefed up to include “super medic” units and 18 new firefighters were brought to the department.[6] The St. Paul example demonstrates that improvements can be made even during tough times as long as public safety is a top priority.

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