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10/28/2008
NCC scraps plan for more police - News Journal

BY ANGIE BASIOUNY • THE NEWS JOURNAL • OCTOBER 28, 2008

A proposal to expand New Castle County’s public safety department was scrapped today after officials said it was too expensive to do while the county’s finances are in steep decline.

The county has lost $11 million in revenue in the last four months and budget projections for next year are nosediving. Elected leaders also said they expect to make serious cuts in services next year to avoid layoffs.

Because of that, Councilman William Bell sponsored a pair of ordinances that would have authorized spending $1.7 million in reserve cash to pay for the first year of the police plan, then withdrew them a few hours before a vote.

Residents would have been asked to pay an extra 4 percent in property taxes  each year for the remaining four years of the plan.

“We know the need is there,” Bell said. “We also understand the timing of these two proposals is not right. It’s simply not right.”

Council last year asked public safety officials to analyze staffing and report back with what they need to improve police protection for residents. The report showed county police are above the national average in solving major crimes and have a response time of 7.2 minutes for 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.

Detectives are handling 300 to 500 cases per year, and some crimes, such as identity theft, go uninvestigated because of the lack of manpower.

Police Chief Rick Gregory put together a plan that would have added 95 more patrol officers, 22 more investigators and 12 more support personnel with the goal of reducing overall crime by 10 percent and reducing response time to low-priority calls by 50 percent.

David Roberts, the head of the county’s 911 center, also asked for 16 more staffers to improve the percentage of calls answered within three rings (10 seconds) from 75 percent to 90 percent.

Council members held several meetings to gather feedback on the plan from residents. They said while most residents were in favor of the idea, they could not afford to pay more taxes during a tight economy. Many also told council members they wanted assurances that if taxes were raised, the money would be spent specifically on policing.

Councilwoman Stephanie McClellan said the county needs to discuss the public safety plan during the budget cycle so it can make decisions about where to prioritize spending.

“I think it’s not the right time because we’re not looking at it in the context of the budget cycle,” she said.

Council President Paul Clark said he wants residents to understand how the choice will affect them.

“In the close to four years that we’ve been here, somehow the public still don’t have a clue how bad our finances are,” he said. “I hope the public understands that we’re not going to touch some of those crimes anymore. When your kid’s bike is taken, you’re not going to get anything more than a case number.”

Gregory said his main priority is making sure the officers are safe.

“One of the things we’re good at is being innovative and creative in our approach,” he said. For example, he created a Special Operations unit without adding staff by grabbing one officer from each of the other divisions. The unit goes into high-crime neighborhoods to combat illegal activity.

Bell and Councilman Jea Street, who co-sponsored the ordinances, vowed to bring back the plan – perhaps when the county’s financial picture is not so dark.

County Chief Administrative Officer Jeffrey Bullock warned that may take a while.

Since the July 1 start of the fiscal year, the county has lost $9 million in real estate  transfer taxes from the housing slowdown and another $2 million from declining investment earnings, building permits and other fees.

The county’s cash reserve is projected to stand at $37.2 million by the end of fiscal year 2009. It will be tapped by 2010.
Contact Angie Basiouny at 324-2796 or abasiouny@delawareonline.com.

 

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