The Worcester Police Department

Back to the future or moving forward?

By Worcester District 4 City Councilor Barbara Haller

Want to get the latest information on Worcester Police Department’s handling of the economic melt-down? Come to the WPD’s City-Wide Crime Watch Meeting on Wednesday, March 18th, at 6:30pm, at the WPD Training Room.

Fears that a lengthy recession/depression will translate into less police and more crime are reasonable. But, public safety is also one of the Council’s highest priorities and the commitment to explore all options is secure. Perhaps most importantly, our police chief remains committed to community policing and the Community Impact Division.

When we read things to the effect of “police class fired as soon as they graduate” or “traffic police may be a thing of the past” it adds to the doom and gloom cloud that seems to be following a lot of us these days. It makes us fearful that we are going back to the future – fewer police just when crime is most likely to increase. Some of us get angry, some of us get depressed. All of us get concerned.

I meet monthly with Chief Gary Gemme and he has assured me that he intends to keep the CID alive and active in our neighborhoods through this year and next, barring some dramatic budget hit beyond what we know. We lost the police recruit class for now and with vacancies not being filled, WPD is close to 50 officers short of the 382 we were budgeted for. So things are definitely serious. We had hoped to beef up traffic enforcement and the Community Impact Division. We had hoped to increase crime data access to neighborhood associations. We had hoped to start up a precinct office. All these are on hold for now. But the basic structures will remain and the public will be served.
Budget issues are never easy. Think of your own budgeting. You try and identify what you think you need money for – the basics of housing, utilities, food, medicine, transportation, childcare and the “must-haves” of clothes, shoes, school supplies, birthday gifts, vacations, girl scout cookies, and mad money. Then you compare it with what you believe you will have for income and adjust up or down.

And then you live your life hoping that all goes as you have predicted. Of course life rarely happens as we predict. When the car dies or the rent gets raised or fuel costs increase or the winter is colder then usual or there is a higher gas tax or the dog gets sick or your hours are cut or you lose your job or … then you have to go back and recalculate all those expenses and income and come up with a different plan.

The City does it budgets much this same way – more categories of expenses and revenue than we have in our personal life. But the bottom line is the same – if there isn’t as much money as we expected or if things cost more then we thought they would or unexpected emergencies occur then we have to cut. And if all these things pile up we have to cut big time.

And this is exactly what has happened this year in our fair city and what will continue to happen into next year and beyond. Some call it a perfect storm – lost funding from the State, lower revenues from permits and fees, increased and unbudgeted increased costs for snow removal, the beetle, pension funding, health insurance. And it gets worse: the best information tells us that we haven’t hit bottom yet and the financial stress will continue into 2012

Unlike your personal finances, the City’s budget is discussed in public – it is taxpayer money after all. And so as substantial unexpected things happen the City Manager must inform the City Council. City Manager Michael O’Brien has done exactly this. On top of this year’s budget woes, it is also time to do the FY10 budget deliberations. As the news changes the Manager provides updates and he has been doing this nearly weekly. Because of the projected multi-year impacts, the City is responding by eliminating all possible expenses now, including not filling vacant positions or bringing on the police academy graduates. The soon-to-graduate Fire Department class is likely to be in jeopardy as well.
My message is – “Don’t despair – but stay informed, prepare, and participate.”

Firstly, it isn’t over till it’s over and I can assure you that it ain’t over yet. Each day brings new information and predictions. The City is looking to reduce the impact in three broad areas:

• new money (Federal, State, increased user fees, plus maybe some private funding),
• reduced government (layoffs, early retirements, not filling vacant positions, no new public safety classes, furloughs), and
• reform in City employee benefits (health insurance reform, wage increases)
The City’s success in all three areas will determine how much local services will be impacted. Just this week we were awarded nearly $800,000 in police public safety funds. That will help. We have 50+ vacant positions that will not be filled. That will help. The non-union City employees reluctantly accepted higher health costs and a wage freeze. That will help.

Each newly secured funding source or expense reduction means more preservation of City services. The original $30,000,000+ shortfall is now down to $17,000,000. (This is still a very big number and if it stands may result in well over 300 layoffs. Make no mistake, if this happens services will be hurt heavily.)

Secondly, we have been very busy over the past ten years or so making our local government more efficient. Think Neighborhood Associations, think Property Review Team, think Community Impact Division of the Worcester Police Department, think S.A.V.E. Our Neighborhoods, think Inspectional Services, think Worcester Senior Center, think Keep Worcester Clean, think mandatory sprinkler systems, think reduced ignition cigarettes, think Worcester Tree Initiative, think reorganized Fire Department, think illegal dumping cameras, think abandoned vehicle and shopping cart programs. These programs will continue – many may be scaled back but the core will remain.

Thirdly, our neighborhoods have learned how to watch and report problems. We are the eyes and ears of the WPD and we know how to connect the dots. In District 4 alone we have nearly 2 dozen active groups or groups that will kick into action when they need to. Neighborhood leaders know how to get information to the right people. This will not change.

We have all experienced hard times; many are having real problems now as the economy shrinks. By staying informed and committing to working together we can reduce the negative impacts and figure out ways to deal with the problems that remain. Please know that, much like our own financial picture, uncertainly rules. But I assure you that the City Manager and his leadership team and the City Council are fully engaged in protecting services and making the hard choices where necessary to do so. No rabbits out of hats. No secret funds. These are challenging times indeed.

Stay in touch.

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