Gady A. Epstein February 27, 2001 Tuesday Final Edition Copyright 2001 The Baltimore Sun Company All Rights Reserved The Baltimore Sun February 27, 2001 Tuesday Final Edition
(BALTIMORE) -- The bill is coming due for the city's war on crime: The Police Department is projected to be $15.9 million over budget this year, most of that because of overtime costs.
That, combined with smaller cost overruns at the Department of Public Works and the Fire Department, leaves the city a projected $19 million over budget in expenses -- though all but $5 million of that can be paid for with higher-than-expected revenues.
The city's budget picture could be worse. Most agencies have had a general hiring freeze in place since November, and with the help of further belt-tightening since then, the city expects to make up its projected $5 million shortfall and balance the budget without layoffs for this fiscal year, which ends June 30.
But fighting crime has been Mayor Martin O'Malley's top priority, and he has spent the money to back it up, with a significantly increased police budget and pay raises for officers to help the department rebuild its staff and morale. Every other city agency is being asked to cut spending.
"That's the big risk of this whole administration," the mayor said: "Whether our investments in public safety will pay off and our tax base rebound quickly enough to save us from the financial abyss."
That means that for this year and next, at least, every other department will face stringent budget controls to help cover higher costs in the Police Department, including a three-year, $30 million pay raise plan backed by O'Malley last year.
"For better or worse, we are giving the Police Department a blank check, and what we're saying to you is, 'Cut crime,'" City Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., chairman of the council's budget committee, told top police officials at a budget hearing yesterday.
The Southeast Baltimore Democrat then asked: "Where does that (spending) stop?"
For this fiscal year, the city expects the Police Department to have spent nearly $23 million on overtime, almost $15 million more than budgeted. The department is expected to be $1.2 million over budget in materials and supplies.
Deputy Police Commissioner Bert Shirey defended the expenses to council members yesterday by noting crime statistics. He said the violent crime rate in the city is down, with shootings down 30 percent last year and 25 percent this year.
Shirey said those are the kinds of results that will come with having more officers on the street and with the purchase of expensive technology to combat crime.
"That's the cost of doing business," Shirey said. "Baltimore is much safer today than it was a year ago."
Shirey said that for the first time in his memory, the department has almost no unfilled jobs -- eliminating one way the department had saved money in the past. The department has more than 3,100 sworn officers, well up from past years, and it costs the department about $5,100 to outfit each new officer hired.
Trying to reduce overtime
Still, Shirey said the department is trying to clamp down more on overtime, and is generally concerned about spending in light of the city's tight budget.
"Don't think we don't appreciate the sacrifices that other city agencies have made," he told council members.
Some of the overtime costs come from the department's attempt to have two officers instead of one in patrol cars in high-crime areas. Commissioner Edward T. Norris had tried a more ambitious policy of putting two officers in every patrol car until scaling that back last summer because of high overtime costs.
Eastern District initiative
Norris had also stepped up police presence in general in the Eastern District in a concerted -- and so far successful -- effort to reduce violent crime there.
"Bad guys don't work nine to five," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3. "Neither should we. The Eastern District initiative took up quite a bit of the overtime, but we proved it can work."
Police officials and O'Malley have been proud to note last year's 15 percent drop in homicides, which had numbered 300 or more a year for the previous decade. However, Shirey acknowledged the multiple killings each of the last two weekends, which put the city's homicide count on par with last year's.
"This is not an easily won victory, and certainly we can't declare a win just yet," he said.