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Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016 12:13 am

A fiscally stressed city has to prioritize

 The Springfield mayor and city council should be commended for discussing a variety of needs facing the city. Infrastructure, a city planner, Hunter Lake and the mansion block, to name a few. The bottom line, unfortunately, seems always to be a lack of resources to make anything happen. Initiatives need to be discussed and prioritized, but so do current expenditures. Police and fire funding totals $86 million, about 72 percent of the corporate fund. Both are way beyond the norm of comparable cities. Bloomington spends about 48 percent of its corporate fund on police and fire, Champaign about 58 percent. Annual Springfield police and fire pension demands have grown to roughly equal total city property tax revenue.

There is good news and bad news on police and fire pensions. The bad news is annual pension payments have doubled in the past 10 years to $21 million. As they double over the next 10 years, significant and critical city services will be curtailed. And that doesn’t address nearly $300 million of unfunded liability. The only real option a city has is to cut the number of police and firefighters heading into the retirement stream.

 The good news is Springfield seems to have substantially more policemen and firemen than almost any other comparable city. A recent review suggests that Bloomington/Normal combined (127,318 pop.) have 195 police officers, Champaign/Urbana combined (120,273 pop.) have 172 police officers, Naperville (143,557 pop.) has 173 police officers. In contrast, Springfield (117,383 pop.) has 249 police officers.

The 2008 Blue Ribbon Committee pointed out that the Springfield Police Department, at 2.38 officers per 1,000 population, was significantly overstaffed compared to an average of 1.97 for other major downstate cities. The recent Citizens Efficiency Commission recommended discussion and study of the potential of combining local municipal and county law enforcement in Sangamon County.

The 2008 report also found the Springfield Fire Department was overstaffed and overfunded compared to peer cities. Currently, the once highly regarded Class 1-rated Springfield Fire Department has morphed into an obscenely expensive emergency medical response group and dropped to a Class 3 rating. The millions that taxpayers paid for years to keep the Class 1 rating were apparently meaningless. Fire-related calls now account for barely 3 percent of total calls. A couple of years ago, in a rare taxpayer-friendly move, smaller units were utilized for many emergency medical calls, substituting for fully staffed fire engines. In a decidedly taxpayer-unfriendly move, these new units are apparently being taken out of service.

In a December 2015 article in Illinois Times, Bruce Rushton reviewed minimum staffing requirements, the number of high-ranking firefighters in non-fire positions, and the inability of the city to hire a chief outside the department. During last century, when fire departments existed to fight fires, certain agreements made sense, but not today. Different contractual agreements and different service delivery options are required.

A State Journal-Register article from June 2014 quotes Joe McCoy, legislative director for the Illinois Municipal League, responding to local fire department issues. “Considering the onerous labor mandates that have been approved by the state and imposed on local government, along with the heavy financial burdon created by the pension obligations, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more communities exploring service delivery options.” The SJ-R took issue with a “minimum manning bill” in April 2014, and in October 2015, pointed out the drastic reduction of fires nationwide and locally.

Last year the Springfield corporate fund budget was $118.1 million, with police ($45.8 million) and fire ($37.1 million) totaling $82.9 million. The current corporate fund budget is $118.2 million, but now police ($47.7 million) and fire ($38.2 million) totals $85.9 million. This is disastrous budgeting, and if continued, i.e., spending $3 million (and it will be more) for police and fire beyond any increase in corporate fund revenue, in 8-10 years there will be no dollars for basic city services, probably not even for mayor and city council salaries.

Springfield has to explore new and different options for police and fire protection and emergency medical response. We need serious discussion on how many police we would like to have, how many we need and how many we can afford. Fire protection and emergency medical response present a different challenge. A first-class fire department for fire protection and certain emergencies is a critical necessity. Emergency medical response activities, however, need to be divorced from the fire department. The trauma centers at Memorial and St. John’s hospitals, the private ambulance companies and the city could design and implement a state-of-the-art emergency medical system at a fraction of current expenditures.

In the next budget cycle, police and fire budgets need to be frozen at the current amount. Any required increases, such as increases in pension payments, should come out of that amount. That would create at least some fiscal discipline in the departments. The result of business as usual will become very obvious in six to eight years, but then the only option will be the abrupt firing of 20 to 30 percent of the police and firefighters.

Springfield spends a lot more on police and fire than almost any comparable peer city. Probably $15-$20 million more. That simply cannot continue. Nothing about this problem is easy, but there does need to be a plan.

Bob Gray is president of the Citizens Club of Springfield. These “president’s comments” were sent last month to club members.

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