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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Public safety spending consumes Cincinnati's strained budget

As Cincinnati faces a $51 million operating budget deficit for 2010, with the chance of the deficit worsening in 2011, many Cincinnatians and local leaders are looking for ways to close the gap without further cutting into already slim programs elsewhere.

Cincinnati's 2010 General Fund Operating Budget totals $393.8 million of which public safety departments make up $181.9 million or 63 percent of the annual operating costs. A large chunk of that $181.9 million is made up in payroll costs for 1,135 police officers (3.4 officers per 1,000 residents). The question that must be asked is if other operations have continually been cut over recent years, then how can we close a $51 million budget deficit?

For comparison purposes, the City of Columbus has more than twice the population of the City of Cincinnati with 773,277 residents spread out over a much larger land area. Compared to Cincinnati though, Columbus has only 1,876 police officers (2.43 officers per 1,000 residents) and a Part 1 crime rate 4 percent lower than Cincinnati.

The objective data seems to indicate that a more robust police force alone is not necessarily the path to lower crime rates. But since 1974 while Cincinnati's population has decreased 26 percent the police presence has increased 36 percent. Over that same time period public safety's portion of the annual General Fund Operating budget has increased from 31 to 63 percent, and has seen spending increase 124 percent while non-public safety spending has decreased 43 percent.

The data is alarming. While the City continues to cut essential programs in order to balance a budget in a shrinking city, public safety programs continue to see expenditures increase with virtually no public opposition or discussion about the need for these expenditures. Of the more than 1,100 police officers only 698 are used for patrol purposes. The Cincinnati Fire Department meanwhile saw 86 percent of all fire runs in 2009 go to non-fire events.

"Police visibility in crime hot spots and enforcement of nuisance properties actually prevent crime, but in Cincinnati much of our approach is responding to crime in a defensive manner," said former City Council member Greg Harris. "This reactive approach will never lessen crime and we will never have enough cops to make it effective. As a result, we have to implement proven crime fighting strategies built on greater police visibility."

Public Safety related spending has risen 124% since 1974 while non-Public Safety spending has decreased 43% [LEFT]. In 2010, Public Safety related spending accounts for 63% of Cincinnati's 2010 General Fund Operating Budget [RIGHT].

In Cleveland, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) have begun rejecting calls for minor ailments such as toothaches or hemorrhoids, and as a result has been able to reduce its ambulance fleet by three vehicles in an effort to help close their own glaring budget deficit. The difference between Cincinnati is even greater as Cincinnati EMS also sends fire trucks on these calls.

Reductions in Cincinnati's public safety budgets could very easily help close the budget deficit for 2010 and offer long-term cost savings for the city. The comparisons to Columbus and Cleveland are only so useful as each city is unique, but they do offer an interesting insight into Cincinnati's budget discussions especially when current budgets are examined with past budgets.

The answer for Cincinnati seems to lie in more efficient public safety operations, as with Los Angeles' or New York's high-tech crime mapping strategy, where the police force is managed to operate in a proactive way that helps reduce violence long-term and fire fighters are used to fight fires and not to respond to 911 calls for toothaches. The question now is whether or not our political leaders will have the courage to stand up to the police and fire unions and make these decisions.

Cincinnati Police photograph by Ronny Salerno.


5chw4r7z said...

Or the city could do something crazy and outside the box like increase revenues.
Maybe by, oh, I don't know, building a streetcar?

BBrown said...

I would agree that cuts need to be made in public safety but I think it is cheaper to run an engine to a EMS call first and then call for transport if needed.

Cincinnati has 6 basic life support squads and 4 advanced life support squads, compared to 32 in Columbus and 22 in Cleveland, all of which are advanced life support squads. Also, in Columbus all 31 engines are medic engines with paramedics and advanced life support equipment aboard, compared with only 13 medic engines in Cincinnati. The other 13 engines and 12 ladders in Cincinnati are all staffed by firefighters with EMT certification and are equipped for basic life suppport. In Columbus and Cleveland engines are still dispatched with ambulances on serious calls (heart attacks, strokes, unresponsive patients, etc) to provide the man power necessary to treat the patient properly. Sometimes the engine is dispatched anyway because they are closest to the call because and an ambulance is on another run. With only 10 ambulances in Cincinnati many times the ambulances are unavailable on other runs so they are called mostly to transport patients unless it is a serious call. Most runs are not serious and can be handled by an engine or ladder.

Cincinnati lacks way behind Columbus in this category because of how many paramedics they have that can bear down on a call. If Cincinnati were to switch to this approach it would need to purchase at least 10 more advanced life support squads and train more paramedics. Also, because many of Cincinnati's firehouses already have full bays new buildings or additions would have to be built to accomodate the new apparatus. And engines and ladders would still have to go on runs.

What Cincinnati does now is probably a lot cheaper than Columbus' system but it is not nearly as good or effective at patient care. Sorry for the lengthy response.

Randy Simes said...

Thanks for the reply BBrown. This is an interesting issue, because while there are obvious inefficiencies here, there are also reasons behind the things that are currently done. I wonder how Cincinnati might be able to most effectively use its EMS and fire department in a way that sends the correct people to the correct calls without overlap. Any ideas?

BBrown said...

Its not so much the factor of going to the right calls per se. Any calls that come in are legitimate calls (I don't know how Cleveland distinguishes between relevant calls while dodging the liability bullet).

The problem with overlap is that each station has its defined area. If a call goes out in a stations area, units respond from that station and adjacent stations cover for that unit until it returns(which could mean over an hour with a run to the hospital). The only definate solution I could see to this problem would be the oversaturation of medic units which is not financially feasible. Columbus has at least one medic squad at each station and still other medics and engines from other stations have to cover that area. Medics at busy stations can have over 24 runs during their 24 hour shift.

In dire situations(trauma, heart attacks,etc) You really need to have at least 4 medics on some scenes to properly treat a patient and get them to the hospital with the best chance of survival. As an example on average one person is able to perform only two rounds of chest compressions effectively during CPR. So medic engines will always be needed for support because squads only have 2 medics.

As a healthcare provider, patient care comes first to me, but in government you need to find the proper balance. I don't think there is a panacea to this particular problem but I believe Columbus' system works the best for its citizens although probably at a higher cost.

Randy Simes said...

Doesn't it appear to be wasteful when you have highly trained fire fighters spending 86% of their time going on non-fire related calls?

If we're using our fire fighters to respond to EMS calls then maybe we're not sending to appropriate personnel. If we're sending them in addition to the appropriate personnel then it seems to be wasteful.

I understand what you're saying about Cleveland walking a fine line, but they do seem to call out an issue with sending highly trained personnel to calls for minor concerns. Obviously we should not be sending the same personnel to a heart attack call as we do to a toothache, or as we send to a house fire.

BBrown said...

Some cities like Cleveland,Chicago, and New York have EMS services seperated from the fire department. But I don't know if this is cheaper or not. You still need the man power for serious calls but you would have multiple EMS teams respond, leaving your fire department free to respond to fires.

Having said that the level of firefighters would probably not go down because so many firefighters are needed to cover a certain amount of square miles. Cincinnati would potentially cut 20 firefighters per shift or divert them to a new EMS division.

The other option which should be looked into is having a private ambulance company perform the EMS branch which would probably cheaper.

theargylist said...

I don't think these expenses reflect policy. They are the result of Ohio's collective bargaining law for public employees. Public safety employee contracts are determined (absent an agreement) by an arbitrator during conciliation. The arbitrator's decision is binding. Thus, regardless of what the City wants to implement cost savings, it is handcuffed by Ohio law. This applies to all areas of the contract--including wages and benefits (good) and overtime minimums, call in pay, minimum staffing levels, employee discipline (bad).

This has only recently been covered in the media--overtime abuse, comp time abuse, etc. If we want real change in this arena, we need public sector collective bargaining reform.

theargylist said...

And to clarify my point--you state the City leadership should stand up against the FOP/IAFF. True, but whether they give in is largely out of their hands. Regardless how firm a position the City takes, an arbitrator can incorporate wasteful provisions in the contract, and the City is stuck with them.

Unknown said...

Interesting discussion on EMS/Fire response that should probably be looked at more closely...but, the main point of the article seemed to be increase in police to population ratio without a return on investment. And, that current budget cuts would further decrease preventative strategies. Logically, with reduced prevention you get increased crime, increased court costs and the costs for additional prisons-which no one wants in their back yard.

So, thank you for bringing this up!

Leiflet said...

To me, it just points out that Greg Harris should have been a shoe-in to city council. Sad that he has lost more than once while people like Lakeeta Cole can vacation in Hawaii before the election, come back and then pack up for State Government.

$200 million could be spent much better every year.

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