Can We Afford So Many Officers?

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The Payson Police Department is poised to hire six more officers as soon as it can get them through the Police Academy. If those hirings all go through, it will boost the current manpower by about 25 percent.

We’re not so sure that’s a good idea.

The police department remains the single biggest cost the town faces — followed closely by the fire department. Please note, the town recently also added a third fire station — and hired six new firefighters, thanks to a big, but short-term federal grant. In about two years, the town will have to come up with more than $600,000 to cover the costs of those added firefighters — or shut down the third station.

Now, granted, the 23 police officers still on the force have done a great job of coping with the vacancies in the ranks. Moreover, Chief Engler has shouldered the burden of operating effectively without a second in command. After a rash of retirements and firings, the remaining officers have had to work a lot of overtime shifts. That’s hard on officers and their families alike.

Still, the police department already consumes a third of the general fund budget — even with all the vacancies. The empty slots help account for a $300,000 savings in the budget this year. Without that savings, the whole town budget would have plunged into deficit.

Perhaps more importantly, the state faces an impending crisis when it comes to public employee pensions and benefits, which remain badly underfunded by many estimates. That’s especially true when it comes to public safety employees. Those long-term costs pose a real threat to the fiscal health of many cities and towns — even if the economy recovers.

In Payson, the town’s budget remains only precariously balanced, with sales tax receipts stubbornly stalled. Even if ASU comes to town in 2013 or 2014, we won’t need extra cops on patrol to keep an eye on the flush of new businesses and facilities for a year or two.

Moreover, so far public safety hasn’t suffered. Many major categories of crime have declined — along with the town’s population. No doubt, some of the decline in reported crime could reflect a shortage of officers on patrol. While the overall number of accidents has declined — the number of injury accidents has risen sharply. That might reflect the reduction in traffic patrols. But then — why has the accident rate declined overall?

On the whole, lots of officers still show up for the big cases — with backup from the Gila County Sheriff’s Office.

Now, it’s also true that it takes time to find qualified police officers — and months of training before they’re ready to patrol on their own. Clearly, we need to keep looking for strong recruits. But we don’t think the department has yet made a case for adding six new officers all at once.

So we hope the town council will take a hard look at the cost — and timing — of bringing the force back up to its full authorized strength. If they don’t, we may find ourselves back in

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