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Councilor asks police commission to shave budget


January 13, 2010
BERLIN — Councilor Mark Evans asked the police commission to reduce the police department budget for the next cycle on Thursday.

"I'm definitely not here to order you to do anything," Councilor Evans said, but the council would appreciate if the police commission followed the same budget directives the rest of the city departments follow. Last year the directive was for a 7.5 percent budget reduction; it's unclear what, if anything, any directive will say this year.

Councilor Evans made the request at the commissioners' monthly meeting. He said he was speaking only on behalf of himself, but he hoped to avoid the friction that resulted over last year's budget.

Last year the school department and the police department were the only two departments that did not comply with the 7.5 percent reduction directive. They are the only city departments not under the direct control of the city manager.

The commissioners listened to Councilor Evans' request, but they said they would be uncomfortable submitting any budget that would risk officer and public safety.

"We'll present a budget along the city manager's directive," said Steve Griffin, chair of the police commission, "but we will not condone it."

That's what happened last year, he said: the commission submitted two budgets, one reflecting a 7.5 percent reduction and one that was essentially the same as the previous year.

Councilor Evans said that because the commission made it clear they were not in support of the reduced budget, council only saw the flat budget. He said he would prefer the departments all submit reduced budgets, and then the council can determine what to put back as opposed to what to cut.

"Every department has to submit a budget that looks like a disaster," he said, but it's a first draft the council will then adjust.

But if the department submits a slim budget and the council doesn't increase it enough the department and the city could be in trouble, Mr. Griffin said. The department is required to maintain a certain level of response, he said, and he would be reluctant to submit a budget that wouldn't allow the department to maintain that level.

"There's a shooting on Thanksgiving eve," he gave as an example, "and we can't get there."

He said he doesn't want the city to approve a disaster budget.

But lean budgets are important to keep property taxes from rising, Councilor Evans said, and every department has to get on board. Unless the police commission and school board agree to toe the same line as departments under the city manager, however, these cuts impact departments disproportionally. "The effect is that the police department and the school department don't share an equal amount of the budget reduction."

He said he'd like to see the commission submit a budget that reflects the directive, even if the commissioners have to attach a note saying they aren't comfortable with the budget. The city council can then be saddled with the responsibility of addressing safety concerns, he said, and that way the city can ensure taxes don't go up.

"I like to start with the idea we don't raise taxes," he said.

Commissioner Jerry Nault said he didn't agree keeping taxes flat over several years was the most important thing because it can result in a large tax hike down the road.

"When I look at my tax bill, candidly, I expect a modest increase," he said.

Councilor Evans said that for every modest increase another property owner walked away from his building, leaving one more derelict property for the police and fire departments to worry about. As to the danger of a sizable increase in the future, "we don't know the answer to that question," he said. "We're going to find out."

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