An annual city budget has only so much money to spread among many and competing needs. Property values and sales taxes rise and fall. Infrastructure demands pile up; everything seems to cost more, salary and service, as the population grows.
Even in Dallas, with general fund spending likely to eclipse $1.1 billion for a fourth consecutive budget, only resources are finite; needs seem infinite. Choosing among them can be a city official’s toughest job.
Dallas’ largest single line item is its Police Department. Having survived some bleak times with the crime rate, this newspaper would be loath to sacrifice hard-earned gains of the past decade. Dallas has grown accustomed to lows in violent crime unseen for generations. Much credit must go to past councils’ determination to bolster Police Department staffing to the 3-officers-per-1,000-residents standard.
Admittedly, there’s nothing magic about that ratio. Still, hiring officers in excess of attrition — about 200 per year more than the number that left — reflected a city’s commitment. At the risk of overstating a causal relationship, the numbers argue that it worked.
Then, as the crime rate went down each year, 3-per-1,000 started to seem more luxury than necessity. No one wanted more crime, but other budgetary concerns — and a national recession — elbowed ahead in line.
The police budget, as a percentage of the city’s, peaked in 2010, at 40.5 percent, after steady annual increases. The subsequent decline to less than 40 percent in the last five budgets reflects a philosophical shift. Police Chief David Brown said he wanted to be a team player, even as his options constricted.
A sharp spike this year in violent crime refocused everyone’s attention. To his critics, Brown noted that instead of a growing department, he commands about 3,400 officers — or 200 fewer than when he took the job in 2010 — with fewer civilian workers to fill gaps.
We’re encouraged to hear Mayor Mike Rawlings and other council members acknowledge the need to boost hiring. City Manager A.C. Gonzalez also sounds open to adding sworn officers and civilian police employees.
That’s only one part of the answer. Dallas also must do a better job of keeping the officers it trains for duty, another money question that could mean improving the pay scale.
Most importantly, before council members vote on the next budget in September, they should review past budgets, particularly fiscal 2007-08. It “reflects and supports a clear commitment that reducing crime in Dallas is our most important work in the upcoming year.” This budget statement formally launched the 3-per-1,000 effort.
Given Dallas’ competing and urgent needs, particularly streets and other infrastructure, it’s not realistic to expect a hiring boom as we saw in the previous decade, but prioritizing the Police Department with a similar plan is essential.
Council members can’t have it both ways: If they continue to find budget “savings” from the police line, they should prepare to explain this to constituents increasingly feeling less safe.