David Hoppe

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:: Public safety shortfall

Paying the piper

By David Hoppe

The city's Super Bowl success created quite a sizzle. It seems hardly a week passes when there isn't some gathering of bright folks to talk about how we should capitalize on the Big Game's momentum.

Like the visions of sugar plums dancing in the heads of excitable children on the night before Christmas, ideas are bubbling up around town to revitalize the corridor along 38 th St., make the most of our waterways and, as always, do something about public transportation.

I happen to love all these ideas. Any one of them would raise the city's game.

But something always seems to trip me up on my way to Indianapolis, the Super City. The city itself keeps getting in the way.

Last week news came down the shoot like a load of wet laundry that Indianapolis' public safety department is short $15 million. That's not all. The Marion County Sheriff's Department is running almost $17 million in the red. Taken together, city services intended to protect us are behind the 8-ball by some $32 million and the year is young.

Public Safety Director Frank Straub says he could be forced to close some police district outposts in June.

Surely, you say, the city's general fund has some wiggle room for a contingency like this. Not so much. There's just a $2.7 million reserve.

That's not even enough to cover losses already incurred by the Fire Department, let alone the cops. The IMPD is in the hole due, among other things, to costs associated with its aging fleet of patrol cars, about half of which have logged 100,000 miles. Then there's the issue of aging police officers.

Indianapolis currently employs the bare minimum of police officers as mandated for a city its size by the federal government. To qualify for a 3-year, $11 million grant from the Justice Department, we are supposed to employ 1,643 cops. Last year, Mayor Ballard got to this number (1,644, actually) by declaring that 18 park rangers were part of the force.


But this numbers game doesn't begin to describe the real need Indianapolis has for a strengthened police department. Mayor Ballard based his first mayoral campaign on the idea that the city needed 750 new officers. He promised to add that many during his term in office. Didn't happen.

Since 2008, IMPD has been able to hire about 50 new cops a year. If it weren't for that Justice Department grant which, by the way, expires at the end of 2012, new hires would have been even lower than that. Cuts to income and property tax revenues have reduced the city's budget for public safety to where it was in 2008.

Meanwhile, cops continue to retire or resign.

This creates added pressure for cops to work overtime. As a recent report by WISH-TV has shown, public safety budgeted $8.7 million for overtime in 2008, $9.9 million in 2009 and $9.7 million in 2010. You have to wonder what an event like the Super Bowl did to those numbers.

Whatever they might be, these figures only begin to indicate the larger issues facing the city's public safety shortfall. The hard fact is that this is just the tip of our fiscal iceberg. A city is a complex and expensive place. Everything, from an urban greenway to the cops who keep it safe, has a price tag. The money has to come from somewhere.

Indianapolis takes great pride in its volunteer spirit. We like to boast about our citizens' willingness to pitch in, with sweat equity and cash, in order to make things happen.

But volunteerism and philanthropy can only go so far. They exist to enhance a place that is able to get and keep its house in order. No amount of volunteers can make up for a shortage of cops. I haven't seen any sponsorship logos on our policeman's uniforms. Not yet.

We like to promote our low cost of living, as if this was a strategy we've concocted to give us an edge over other cities. The awkward secret behind this seemingly good news is that Indianapolis is capitol of a cash-poor state. Our cost of living is down because our average incomes are below the national average. This, in turn, depresses what we can expect to raise in taxes.

Greg Ballard, you will recall, defeated the previous mayor, Bart Peterson, because Peterson had the temerity to call for an increase to the local income tax. Peterson wanted the revenue to hire more cops. But this tax increase, on top of our already sky-rocketing property taxes, pushed voters over the edge. Ballard won his upset.

Well, property taxes have been capped since then. Income tax revenues are down. Oh, and the federal dollars that have been paying for new cops are going away. You want a Super City? If you think the investment we made in getting the Super Bowl here was hefty, hold on. Making Indianapolis livable 365 days a year is going to be expensive. We need to dream a little less and talk more about what this really takes.