Where to cut the city budget
Spending for police and fire is out of control
The city of Springfield’s pending financial disaster is much more a problem of priorities, and less a problem of revenue. Informal comments already suggest that there is nothing left to cut, but they mean “other than police and fire, there is nothing left to cut.” A review of past budgets shows that in fiscal year 2000, police and fire departments cost the city $38.6 million, while the budget for everything else paid by the corporate fund cost $30.7 million. By 2018, the budget for police and fire combined had grown to $85.9 million, an increase of $47.3 million. Meanwhile, the budget for everything else paid by the corporate fund had grown by only $5.9 million, from $30.7 million to $36.6 million in 18 years.
The numbers are actually worse than that. Last year, and in the current year, revenue is far short of the projected budget. If FY 18 ends up $10-$12 million below projection, making up for the shortfall will come primarily from other than police and fire.
In 18 years, police and fire funding will have increased almost $50 million, while the rest of city government supported by the Corporate Fund will astoundingly be funded at, or less than, it was 18 years ago. This is not a good plan.
Comparisons with other communities certainly have limitations, but some sense of reference is necessary. Aurora (200,000 pop; 189 firemen; 9 fire stations), Naperville (145,000 pop; 190 firemen; 10 fire stations), Bloomington/Normal (130,000 pop; 180 firemen; 7 fire stations), and Champaign/Urbana (125,000 pop; 176 firemen; 10 fire stations) all have smaller budgets, fewer policemen, fewer firemen and fewer fire stations than Springfield (118,000 pop; 211 firemen; 12 fire stations). Rockford (150,000 pop; 11 fire stations) has a higher budget and more firefighters, but lower than the 25 percent population advantage might suggest.
In the 12 months of calendar year 2016, the Springfield Fire Department responded to 507 fire calls (about 250 actual structure fires) and 10,317 emergency medical calls, but the department is operated, managed, funded and equipped as if it responded to 10,000 fire calls and 500 emergency medical calls. Meanwhile, three private ambulance/emergency medical companies with considerable equipment on the streets 24/7 are responding to most, if not all, the same emergency medical calls.
There are numerous indicators that Springfield spends significantly more money on police and fire, perhaps $10-$15 million, than is needed or than it can afford. The administration and city council understand this, but will not initiate any action unless the community and the media begin to indicate some support for change in direction.
Functioning as the capital city of the most dysfunctional state in the union is a continuous challenge. Actually, city leadership for the past few years has done a commendable job of staying afloat under very trying conditions. Springfield revenue for FY 19 will be lucky to hit $110 million. If business as usual continues, nearly $90 million will be committed to police and fire. No city in the country operates that way. Springfield has clearly reached the “tipping point” previously predicted. There are no good options, but some kind of plan needs to be discussed. Beginning FY 19, at least one fire station should be closed, followed by one a year for the next three years. This would not be disruptive to city fire protection, and seems more in line with other communities. It would, of course, mandate a public community conversation on what an affordable, state-of-the-art Emergency Medical Response system might look like.
A couple of starting points:
• With a working agreement between the city and the private emergency medical/ambulance providers, perhaps a bit subsidized, Springfield could easily close 4-6 fire stations and reduce personnel by 50-75 firemen.
• The only solution to keep the police and fire pensions (probably $22 million this year) from bankrupting the city is to reduce the number of active personnel, thereby slowly reducing future pension liabilities.
I hope that there might be a serious public dialogue on how much we need to spend, and how much we can afford to spend, on these very critical public services, and yet also provide the needed support for a vibrant and progressive city.
Bob Gray is president of the Citizens Club of Springfield. This article was sent out to club members under the heading “President’s Comments.”