By Jared Jacang Maher, FACE THE STATE
Aurora’s 2011 budget includes a line item that has become a rarity among municipalities these days: new hires.
Despite a $7 million budget gap and a planned furlough day for all city workers, Aurora is planning on adding 13 new police officers to its books next year. Though the city can scarcely afford the additional $1.1 million in annual salaries, Aurora Budget Manager Jason Batchelor says they have no choice. A law passed by Aurora voters in 1993 mandates that the city maintain two police officers for every 1,000 residents.
“Each year we do an estimate for what our population is, and we adjust our population for officers accordingly,” he says.
The police staffing mandate, reportedly unique in the U.S., was controversial even in good fiscal times. But since the recession, officials have struggled with the conflicting tasks of closing budget deficits while simultaneously appropriating money for more police. Since 2007, Aurora has collected an average of $9.2 million less from taxes and fees. But in the meantime, the city has added 20 cops to meet hiring requirements , which is a big reason why the police department’s annual budget has grown by $8.2 million over the same period.
The result is a budgetary vise that puts the “squeeze on all of the other departments because of the growth of the police department,” says Bob LaGare, a former Aurora Council member who has long criticized the the 2-per-1,000 mandate.
So far, most of the cost reductions have targeted the library system, which saw its budget slashed a whopping 75 percent between 2009 and 2010. That year, Aurora closed four libraries, laid off 34 employees and eliminated nine vacant positions from the department. The closure of the Mission Viejo library in Southeast Aurora prompted the homeowner’s association of the surrounding subdivision to file a lawsuit accusing the city of violating the terms of a 1973 contract that stated the library would be open for 50 years. In response, the City Council last week appropriated $208,000 from a special risk fund to reopen the library four days per week.
Even so, visitors to Aurora’s three remaining libraries can expect “longer patron wait times, longer intervals between materials return and re-shelving, and waits in excess of one hour for public computer use,” according to the 2011 budget analysis.
In the meantime, Aurora has more uniformed police officers than it knows what to do with. Some positions that would normally be staffed by civilian administrators or private security contractors have been replaced by commissioned officers who make an average of $80,000 per year. In a 2003 legal settlement with the Aurora Police Association, the city agreed that paid police recruits would no longer be counted toward the 2-per-1,000 mandate for sworn officers. Police Chief Daniel Oates has complained in past years about having difficulty lining up viable recruits to keep up with the staffing mandate.
With the soon-to-be-released population results of the 2010 census, budget officials are warning that Aurora could be in for a repeat of the last census, when a dramatic increase in population forced the city to hire 52 officers to maintain its ratio. In anticipation, the police department currently has 58 recruits in the training pipeline. Already, budget director Bachelor is predicting a deficit of $6.4 million for 2012.
“I don’t think the Aurora citizens at large, nor the general voter population, really understand what’s going on there,” says LaGare. “It’s a problem and it’s only going to get worse. It’s more of a political problem at this point because the elected (officials) have to go out and explain to the voters why it’s a bad policy.”
But advocating for less cops on the street — even if it means again funding libraries, swimming pools and other city services — is not the kind of soapbox that wins elections. This summer, council members abandoned an effort to revisit the 2-per-1,000 ratio on the November ballot for fear of a tepid voter response.
“I think a lot of council members recognize the problem, but they’ve taken the position of, ‘You can never change it because you can never get the voters to say that we need fewer cops,’ ” says LaGare, who lost a re-election bid to council last year. “But time will take care of it because eventually voters aren’t going to have money for anything else, except cops.”