Payson Weighs Actual Cost Of Star Valley Deal

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How much does a police department cost?

And what should you charge to send an officer to someone's house?

That's the thorny issue likely to come up in the next few weeks as Star Valley seeks to renew and renegotiate its contract with neighboring Payson to continue providing police protection.

The issue could turn on the dance of the numbers -- with a backbeat of politics. Figured one way, Payson residents spend more than twice as much per person for police protection as Star Valley residents.

Then again, Payson's own figures also show that Star Valley residents shell out more than twice as much to get an officer to show up as do people living in Payson.

How could both sets of figures be true?

Read on.

The current $258,000-annual contract calls for Payson Police officers to respond to crimes and complaints in Star Valley only when called, without providing many of the additional patrol and support services they routinely offer in Payson.

The Payson Council has previously said it would not renew the contract beyond the end of the current fiscal year in mid-2009.

However, the Star Valley council recently directed its town manager to seek a contract extension. That came as the town confronted the substantial costs of starting its own five-man police department. Payson estimates that it costs about $100,000 to add an officer to the force, which includes salary, benefits, training and the cost of equipment, including a computer-equipped squad car. Star Valley was confronting start-up costs of more than $600,000 to set up its own police department in 2009.

The issue has gained an edge recently, due to the sharply different budget situations in the two towns. In Payson, the growth in tax revenues has stalled, prompting the town to make spending cuts in virtually every department including the police department. In Star Valley, the budget is growing rapidly, thanks to minimal public services combined with a gush of money generated by the town's twin photo traffic enforcement stations on Highway 260.

The contrasting budget situations coupled with Star Valley's long-standing criticism of its neighbor when it comes to water issues has prompted a number of Payson council members to privately say they'll oppose any contract extension.

However, Mayor Kenny Evans said he remains open-minded about the contract, based on the cost analysis. He said the town must resolve concerns about liability in providing police services.

For instance, people injured by a drunk driver in the parking lot of the Tonto Apache Tribe's casino recently sued Payson for $4 million, because the town provided backup to the casino security force. In that case, the town settled the lawsuit for $250,000 even though it had done nothing wrong, but will now likely face a $50,000 per year surcharge on the premium it pays into the state's risk management self insurance fund, said Evans.

The liability issue will likely come up in negotiations, but first the two towns will have to hash out the cost figures.

When Payson agreed to the contract two years ago, the council decided to add two full time officers to the police force. However, the department is currently four officers under its authorized total of 33 officers.

So the question becomes whether Payson makes money on the current $258,000 annual contract -- or do Payson residents actually subsidize law enforcement for their neighbor?

Depends on how you figure it -- by the volume of calls or by the overall population, said Payson Police Chief Don Engler, in a recent interview reviewing the details of the current Star Valley contract.

Calculating the costs on a per capita basis makes it look like Star Valley is getting a great deal.

Payson spends $4.3 million for police department operations and communications -- and has 16,500 residents. That works out to about $260 per resident.

Star Valley this year paid Payson $258,000 to provide protection for its 2,500 residents. That works out to $103 per resident. If Star Valley paid the same per capita rate for police protection as Payson residents, it would cost about $652,000 annually.

On the other hand, the picture changes dramatically if the calculation is based on the cost per call. Star Valley's contract doesn't include routine patrolling or many of the extra services that Payson police provide for town residents. Instead, the contract only requires officers to respond if called.

In Payson, police responded to 22,845 calls in the past year. Given the $4.3 million budget, that works out to a cost of $188 per call.

In Star Valley, police responded to 542 calls in the past year. Given a contract payment of $258,000, that works out to $476 per call -- far higher than the rate in Payson.

Star Valley officials argue that calculating the rate on a per-call basis makes more sense because the contract doesn't include many of the community policing functions that the department offers in Payson.

On the other hand, Chief Engler said making the drive to Star Valley takes more time than responding to a call in Payson.

Moreover, Engler said it's not the routine calls that really drive the cost of providing a police department. That's because a police department has to be prepared to handle the murder cases, the fatal car crashes, the drug busts and other incidents that demand the initial response of a large number of officers and then perhaps hundreds of hours of investigation and court time.

For instance, he said one recent drug bust in Star Valley involved about 10 officers and many additional hours of court and investigation time.

In essence, the true cost of a full-fledged police force represents an insurance policy against disaster, which isn't fully reflected in the day-to-day patter of routine calls, Engler said.

"It's a roll of the dice for us. One homicide case could quadruple the hours spent," said Engler.

However, none of the calls to Star Valley in the past year involved murder, armed robbery, rape or other serious crime.

The tally included several time-consuming drug busts and several aggravated assaults. The great majority of the 540 calls to Star Valley did not involve an arrest. Moreover, the current contract allows Payson to charge extra any time officers spend more than 100 hours investigating a single case, although Payson has yet to invoke that clause.

The understaffing of Payson's current police force and budget problems raise other issues. The Payson Town Council approved an increase in the number of officers from 31 to 33 to handle the Star Valley contract, figuring it would require the equivalent of two full-time officers to handle the roughly two calls a day from Star Valley.

However, the town has struggled to recruit and train enough officers to reach that staffing level. Currently, the town has 29 officers, one of which is still undergoing training and won't be on patrol for several months. The town is actively recruiting to fill those four additional slots.

Engler said the roughly 10 percent understaffing hasn't yet increased response times, but has put a strain on the force -- with each officer taking more calls.

The understaffing comes on top of a council directive to curtail overtime. Engler noted that the upcoming budget includes a roughly 5 percent reduction in overtime to about $187,000.

So if the council decides not to renew the Star Valley contract, can it cut the authorized size of the force back to 31?

"If I was allowed," said Engler, "I would still want the additional officers," even without the $258,000 coming in from Star Valley. "What we're seeing is a real stress on the organization -- we see officers working harder and longer."

He noted that at full staffing, Payson would have 1.9 offers per 1,000 population. The FBI reports a national average of 2.4 officers per thousand nationwide.

A separate study of police staffing levels in Arizona found Payson remains in the middle of the pack.

For example, Payson's 1.9 per 1,000 compares to 1.2 in Apache Junction, 1.3 in Chandler, 2.4 in Chino Valley, 3.0 in Cottonwood, 1.7 in Flagstaff, 1.6 in Prescott, 2.5 in Sedona and 2.7 in Show Low.

"If we did cancel the contract, I'd ask the council to retain the officers employed," said Engler.

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