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Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015 12:01 am

Where can Springfield look for money?

 The proposed 2016 operating fund (corporate fund) for the City of Springfield is $118.1 million. The Springfield Police Department ($45.8 million) and the Springfield Fire Department ($37.1 million) account for 70 percent of the fund. Any organization, private or public, attempting to balance a budget under tight fiscal restraints has to look closely at where most of the money is being spent.

The 2008 Blue Ribbon Committee pointed out that the SPD, at 2.38 officers per 1,000 population, was significantly overstaffed compared to peer Illinois cities – Peoria, Decatur, Rockford, Champaign, Bloomington, Normal, Urbana – with an average of 1.97 officers per 1,000 population.

A more recent review reinforces that conclusion. Bloomington/Normal combined (127,318 pop.) has 195 officers; Champaign/Urbana combined (120,273 pop.) has 172 officers; Peoria (114,557 pop.) has 218 officers; Naperville (143,657 pop.) has 173 officers; Springfield ( 117,383 pop.) has 249 officers in the new budget. (Population figures are 2010 census data; police officers are 2013 website data.)

Comparative data can be unsound, or even misleading, but it tends to be a good place for a discussion to start. Current and prior indicators suggest the SPD might be overstaffed by 30-40 officers. If that were true, it is not much of a stretch to suggest that the City of Springfield Police Department’s budget is $4 million to $8 million more than it should be.

The recent final report of the Citizens’ Efficiency Commission, following an extensive review of local law enforcement in Sangamon County, recommended a thorough analysis of Springfield Police Department/Sangamon County Sheriff’s Office consolidation. The 26 other municipalities in the county should be included in that analysis. This could successfully address the multiple issues of the smaller municipalities losing police departments, the lack of sheriff coverage in the county, and freeing up funds for other critical City of Springfield needs.

The Springfield Fire Department presents an even better opportunity to find money for other city uses. The 2008 report also found that the SFD was overstaffed compared to the same peer cities, but there is a much bigger issue. Fire calls are less than 5 percent of all SFD calls. The vast majority of calls are for emergency/medical response. Many could be handled well by a paramedic in a Prius. Changes in building techniques, materials and fire prevention, as well as demographics of the population dictate that business be done differently. The city certainly demands the continuation of an excellent fire department, but the current emergency/medical response system is simply fiscally irresponsible. Many communities have designed state-of-the-art emergency/medical response systems through a public/private partnership or even total privatization.

The Citizens’ Efficiency Commission recommended that the City of Springfield engage in a comprehensive program review of the fire department. A small work group of experts and lay citizens might well discover that about half of the current proposed budget could support a very good fire department and perhaps half of the rest an excellent emergency/medical response system. This could provide an opportunity to identify a significant amount of money that might be available for the city’s critical needs.

A major potential benefit of movement toward some of the above suggestions is the lessening of the budget impact of the fire and police pension funds. In the long run, that may be the best reason for a serious program review.

The City of Springfield will soon begin a new term for mayor with a city council having at least five new members, and coupled with a new sheriff and previous endorsement of the Citizens’ Efficiency Commission Final Report by the Sangamon County Board, this seems a perfect time for imaginative discussion that results in much more efficient and effective local government in Springfield and Sangamon County.

Bob Gray is president of the Citizens Club of Springfield and a former member of the Citizens’ Efficiency Commission.

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