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10/6/2008
NCCo wants to beef up police - News Journal

NCCo wants to beef up police
Bold plan could cut crime, but cost would mean tax hike
BY ANGIE BASIOUNY • THE NEWS JOURNAL • OCTOBER 6, 2008

New Castle County officials are proposing a bold public safety plan aimed at reducing overall crime by 10 percent by adding more than 120 police, emergency communications and support personnel over five years.

The move also would put enough new officers on the street to help ease a workload that officials said is keeping the department from active "community policing," which has long been considered a key to reducing crime by a significant amount.

But the plan is costly and would likely trigger a property tax increase. That's why elected leaders said they want to shop it to residents first.

"I think in this case there is no way to get around this except having to raise additional revenue," Council President Paul Clark said. "I will be going out to talk to the public about what's an acceptable time frame. I know that nobody wants to hear this because it's a tight economy, but that additional cost won't cost each individual a lot of money."

The extra personnel, training and equipment would come with a price tag of $1.7 million for the current year and $3.5 million each year after that.

The amount needed is equivalent to a 4 percent property tax increase, or another $16 on the average yearly tax bill of $402.

Some civic leaders said they could be persuaded to spend a few more dollars if the county could guarantee the money would be spent strictly on public safety.

"I believe the public would not put up a fuss for a tax increase provided the funds were used for that purpose and not spent for a park project over in Timbuktu," said Bill Wheatley, a Brookside resident who co-founded a citizens' crime prevention team in the Stanton area.

Carolyn Marsh, president of the Simonds Gardens Civic Association, agreed.

"I don't like a 4 percent increase, but we do need more police officers," she said. Her neighborhood, along the Del. 9 corridor near New Castle, is a hot spot for drugs and prostitution.

"I think they do a good job with what they have, but it's dangerous out there for them," she said. "If I could see my money going to that and just that alone, I would do it."

Chief Administrative Officer Jeffrey Bullock said it is unlikely the cash-strapped county could find enough money to fund the plan without a tax hike.

Falling revenues

For the last several years, the county has been grappling with a spending deficit and dwindling revenue streams that threaten to bankrupt the government.

Despite multimillion-dollar budget cuts and tax hikes in 2006 and 2007, the county has been using up its cash reserve to bridge the gap.

Officials estimate the reserve, which will be down to $37.5 million by next year, will be tapped by 2011.

"It's kind of an awkward time to be coming before you to be asking for anything," Bullock said recently to council members, who would have to vote on any tax increase. "Because you only have to turn on the television or read the newspaper to understand these are tough times for governments. We are actually losing revenue, not gaining revenue."

Bullock and county Police Chief Rick Gregory put the proposal together after months of evaluating the department and collecting data.
They found plenty of good news: The department is above the national average in solving every major category of crime: burglary, thefts, homicides, assaults, sex crimes and robberies.

Officers also have an average response time of 7.2 minutes to emergency calls.

But low-priority calls, such as a burglarized car or a complaint about a neighbor playing loud music, often go unanswered for more than two hours.

Gregory said officers are so busy running from one 911 call to the next that they have little time for community policing. That involves building relationships with residents, reaching out to at-risk youths in tough neighborhoods and using problem-solving techniques to cut down on budding crime trends.

The plan would have tangible results, Gregory said.

His proposal would add 129 new positions by 2013, including 95 more patrol officers, 22 more investigators and 12 more support personnel.

It also calls for a restructuring to move sworn officers out of some support jobs and replace them with civilians.

Overall crime would be reduced by 10 percent, response times to low-priority calls would be reduced by 50 percent and officers would have more "uncommitted time" to pursue community policing, he said.

An expanded investigations unit would reduce caseloads, which now average 300 to 500 per detective per year. Gregory said the boost would help cops close the books on more unsolved murders, robberies and other crimes.

"It's not that we don't have good detectives. It's not that we don't have good forensics," he said. "It's that we have such a horrendous caseload that at the end of the day we work on the cases that have a high probability of being solved, or that are a part of a trend in a specific area."

David Roberts, chief of the county's 911 operations, said he also will restructure his department and add positions.
The price for the public safety plan includes those additional jobs, though Roberts could not immediately release the number of new positions he is seeking.

"The pressure on our public safety services is going to continue to increase," Bullock said. "We're in good shape now. We're not in an emergency or a crisis. But we can see the handwriting on the wall."

Cops vs. sewer system

Councilman William Tansey points to the department's good record of service and said the county must weigh priorities -- including the pressing need for money to fix the sewer system -- before deciding to spend more on public safety.

His district includes Greenville, Hockessin and other low-crime neighborhoods that don't burden the police department. Those same residents also provide the lion's share of county property taxes because they live in higher-priced homes, Tansey said.

"Is it more important to get our sewer system in order so we don't get fined by the [Environmental Protection Agency], or do we want to put more cops on the street?" he said. "Bottom line -- the jury is out."

Chuck Landry, president of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, a civic umbrella group, said the question illustrates just how tough the spending choices have become for the county.

"It's no longer a choice between higher priorities and lower priorities. It's a choice between many high priorities," he said. "There is no easy answer."

Landry, who describes himself as fiscally conservative, said a tax increase seems inevitable.

"I think we're going to have to bite the bullet and say yes," he said. "I don't like higher taxes, but I believe the government should do certain things and this is one of the things that is fundamental."

Contact Angie Basiouny at 324-2796 or abasiouny@delawareonline.com.

 

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