By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
LINCOLN PARK – The Police Department’s staffing shortage, declining ticket collection rate and a proposed reimplementation of a traffic division to increase enforcement was discussed at a Sept. 7 City Council study session.
City Councilman Larry Kelsey said residents are concerned about drivers speeding and minibikes racing through residential neighborhoods.
“You name it, they are doing it,” he said. “(Police) can’t patrol the areas because they are three officers short.”
Police Chief Ray Watters said that in addition to having three unfilled police officer positions, two officers are out on long-term medical leave.
Kelsey said the council recently approved the purchase of laser speed detection units for police vehicles, and it would be great if they could be used on a more regular basis.
He called for funding positions for additional police officers, while acknowledging that even if the city had additional resources budgeted, it is difficult across the country to hire additional police officers.
“I think we need to do something,” Kelsey said. “There has been a lot of concern from the residents, and we need to create a traffic division to watch areas with stop signs and a lot of speeding.”
Mayor Thomas Karnes said the cost per police officer is $150,000 with benefits and other expenses, which is nearly $500,000 annually for three officers.
City Manager James Krizan said that money would have to come from the general fund.
“In order to fund this, we would either have to raise revenue somewhere, or we would have to decrease expenses somewhere else,” he said. “The general fund is balanced for the current budget year. If we were budgeting these positions, it would change that, and our budget would be roughly half a million dollars in deficit.”
Krizan said there are not a lot of ways to raise revenue outside of raising fees or taxes, or to try and decrease expenses somewhere else.
“Between public safety and pensions, we are already spending about 66 cents of every dollar of revenue,” Krizan said.
Councilman Carlos Salcido asked if it were possible to hire police officers from an area department to work part-time to do traffic patrol, at a fixed cost, which would not incur pension or benefit expense.
“They could just patrol and look for speeding dune buggies down the street, and go-karts, and spraying graffiti,” he said.
Watters said hiring part-time officers was not really an option for the Police Department.
“If you go on the Michigan.gov MCOLES website, there’s probably close to 50, if not more, police departments hiring full-time people,” he said. “You are not going to get anybody to come in to work part-time. That’s not going to be an option for us.”
Watters said if a police officer writes five tickets a day, it basically pays for their wages.
“It’s not that we are making them get out there to do that, but that is basically what they are paid to do,” he said. “It would take a lot of strain off the budget.”
Karnes asked if ticket revenue projections could be incorporated into the city’s budget for police officers.
Finance Director Lisa Griggs said that while the revenue could be anticipated, the low collection rate on tickets has created some of the city’s struggles at present.
Kelsey asked if the American Rescue Plan Act fund might take some pressure off the city’s general fund.
Councilwoman Tracy Duprey said the city needs to find ways to attract and retain police officers.
Councilman Michael Higgins questioned the legality of a “ticket quota,” which Watters assured him would not be implemented.
“We wouldn’t have an actual quota – it would be an agreement, an understanding,” Watters said. “A traffic department is out to write tickets – that’s just what they do; it’s their job.”
Karnes said, in the past, there would be afternoon and day shift radar patrols that would write 40 to 50 violations per day.
He said the police officer staff shortage is felt more by the patrol officers, who are working a lot of hours.
Watters said that during the past two years, officers responded to 63,654 calls for service, and made 6,386 arrests.
“Those guys are out there, and doing a great job,” Watters said.
Karnes said the priority is answering calls for service from residents.
“The priority is on taking the calls, and they don’t have as much opportunity to write the tickets as we would if all five officers, the two who were ill were back, and the three we haven’t filled yet,” he said.
Watters said if the Police Department could get back to the status quo, at full status, with even one police officer, he said he could slowly introduce the traffic unit.
He said 47 police officers is the department’s full staffing level.
Krizan said residents would have to authorize and override, per the city charter, to raise the city’s millage rate.
Karnes said the council recognizes the need for additional police officers.
“I don’t know that anyone is opposed to having a traffic bureau come back for additional traffic enforcement,” he said. “We should plan for at least one in the next year’s budget.”
Krizan said the city’s operating millage is at 15.33, and 3.43 is the police and fire millage, which is 18.76 mills annually, and each mill collected nets about $600,000, which totals about $10 million per year.
“Depending on the level of service we wish to go after, and what we chose to try and fund through some millage increase, that would depend on what level of increase we would have to look at,” he said. “To raise about $4 million, we are looking at probably six mills, which is an additional third.”
Karnes said the city is still a little more than half a mill under its limit, which would fund one police officer, and allow the city to start a traffic division.
He said a potential water rate increase and a millage increase is the city’s cost of doing business.
Councilwoman Lylian Ross asked about the difficulty in collecting ticket revenue.
City Attorney Ed Zelenak said modifications in the state statute, which previously provided that fines and costs were due the date of the sentence, has changed.
“One of these modifications, in the past year, the court is not allowed to incarcerate anyone, or suspend their license for unpaid costs, and, as a result, individuals have slowed down in their payment or completely defaulted on payments,” he said.
“We have sent out, on behalf of the city, hundreds of cases for collection fines and costs, and it’s a matter of time and getting everything together, and finding out where the money is.”
Zelenak said prosecutors have been instructed to use plea bargaining, with a reduction if it is paid by 3 p.m. that day or it reverts to the original charge.
“You are a victim of what all the other courts are in,” he said. “That’s a long way of explaining that you are in the same seat of government that every other community is that runs a district court.”
Griggs said the city’s court revenue was down $1.5 million last year, and this year is following a similar trend.