The Blue in the Red

Can the Minneapolis Police Department plunder the city's pocketbook?

Violence is expensive. That truism took on a sobering, dollars-and-cents significance on February 5, when two top cops from the Minneapolis Police Department went before the Ways and Means Committee of the City Council and acknowledged that it would require nearly $7 million to balance the MPD's 2006 budget.

Specifically, newly appointed Chief Tim Dolan and Assistant Chief Sharon Lubinski informed flabbergasted lawmakers that the department spent $5.1 million more than was budgeted for 2006, while incurring a revenue shortfall of $1.78 million. A portion of the overrun can be blamed on the $700,000 settlement of a union grievance involving officers in the homicide division. Similarly, the MPD underestimated the expense of adopting new technologies such as neighborhood cameras and the "shot spotter" gunfire detection system.

Yet the vast majority of 2006's budget blowout can be attributed to overtime pay, as an understaffed police force tried to cope with the rise in violent crime. From January through May 31, 2006, violent crime in the city rose 36 percent over 2005 figures. As the MPD continued adding 70 officers to the force in the second half of 2006, that climbing rate slowed to an 8 percent increase, year over year. But despite the uptick in staffing, the MPD spent close to $7 million on overtime pay last year, far beyond the $2.5 million allocated for it in the budget.

"That [spending] relates to not having enough officers on shifts compared to our call load," Lubinski told the council.

"As many as seven or eight squads are typically involved when there is a homicide or a shooting," Dolan added.

When that happens, overtime pay must go both to officers staying late on the scene and others called in to pick up the patrols of those waylaid squads. In all, approximately 7,600 hours of overtime went to officers staying for "late arrests," and another 8,400 hours for "late priority-one calls." The $1.78 million revenue shortfall can also be traced back to these staffing shortages, as officers who were slated to issue parking and other citations landed "on the street" to help reduce more serious crime.

Back in November, the MPD went before the council to report what was then a $3.4 million budget shortfall. In response, lawmakers allocated more than half of the city's $2 million contingency fund as an emergency measure to staunch the red ink. Councilmember Betsy Hodges from Ward 13 (who later told City Pages she was "shocked" by the final 2006 numbers), said to Dolan and Lubinski, "We were told in November that the gap would get smaller. Instead it got larger."

"We said we would try to get it smaller," Dolan replied.

Ironically, a reputation for strong fiscal management was one of the selling points that helped Dolan earn the chief position just last month. "I had the budget for about three years, but not last year," he confirms in a phone interview. "I was about $2 million under budget three years ago because of a large gap in our projected fuel costs. You don't want that; you want to utilize the money you are given to do the best possible job. Most years [I did the budget] we were just about right on, we were fine."

But for 2006, Dolan says, "our budget projections were set by a budget officer, using a formula. We were not involved on the front end. That is something that is going to change."

Ever since the state Legislature enacted steep cuts in local government aid to help eliminate its own $4.3 billion deficit in 2003, city departments have dealt with dwindling resources. But, Dolan adds, "the reality is that the city attorney's office or public works or other departments manage [cuts in] their budget by maintaining vacancies. The police department can't have any vacancies."

So how will the city compensate for the hole the MPD knocked in its 2006 budget? According to Tara Barenok of the city's budget office, options include tapping the rest of the contingency fund and looking for remaining surpluses in other department budgets. If necessary, the city could raid the general fund reserves, generally set at about 15 percent of the general fund budget. Taking from those funds too often or too liberally would risk lowering the city's bond rating, but no one seems to think the current situation will result in anything that drastic.

One possible remedy that seems to be off the table is using part of the MPD's 2007 budget allocation to pay off excessive spending from 2006. By all accounts, the city will proceed to hire 43 new officers this year.

"By the end of 2007, we will be back up to the same number of officers on the street that we had before the LGA cuts," Hodges says. "That is an extraordinary commitment by the city, and an expressed priority of the mayor and the council."

In the meantime, it is incumbent on the MPD to earnestly promise that it won't have to dip into the city's wallet again. After the first multimillion-dollar budget shortfall was disclosed last fall, Mayor R.T. Rybak made room in the city budget for a finance director in the MPD who is a civilian rather than a sworn officer. This staffer is specifically charged with keeping tabs on the department's budget.

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