The Indianapolis Star * Dec. 4, 2005


Emergency situation: Keep police on streets with creative solution

Our position: Finding a way to avoid laying off 48 police officers is the first of several crucial steps the city must take to better protect public safety.


If City-County Council President Steve Talley successfully resurrects the proposed merger of the Indianapolis Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff's Department, it will go a long way toward bringing efficiency and better police service to the entire city.


But for members of a bipartisan task force assembled last week at the behest of Mayor Bart Peterson, a new vote on the merger may not happen in time to deal with the immediate dilemma: scrounging up the $4.4 million needed to avoid laying off 48 IPD officers.


Armed robberies in the IPD service district have increased 12 percent this year. A spate of murders has bloodied the city's streets. So taking officers off the beat is not an acceptable option.

Yet as pointed out by city Controller Bob Clifford, who will present alternatives to the committee on Monday, there aren't many sources of money to keep the officers on the payroll.

Tapping the $7 million expected in the city's "fund balance,'' or reserves, could help. But city leaders already plan to use some of that money in the police budget. Subtracting another $4.4 million from the reserves would create a deficit.


The city also could float bonds backed by revenues from the second phase of the increase in the county-option income tax. But doing so not only would mean costly future interest payments, but also would delay the much-needed overhaul of the criminal justice system.


The city could nickel-and-dime its way to more money by hiking parking fees. But City-County Council members such as Republican leader Phil Borst, who notes that the council has approved nine tax increases so far this year, might object. Charging police officers for off-duty use of squad cars would raise less than $1 million and would stir the ire of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Yet, all or some of these approaches, painful as they are, could be needed to keep the 48 officers on the street.


Another possible move is to merge some of IPD's administrative functions with the fire department's and the Department of Public Safety's. Further collaboration between IPD and the Sheriff's Department, as suggested by Sheriff Frank Anderson before the first vote on the proposed merger, also would yield additional savings down the line.

Those steps, however, would be only temporary fixes for Indianapolis' broken public safety system.


The possibility of layoffs could have been averted if only one Council Republican or Democratic Councilwoman Sherron Franklin had reversed their opposition to the merger last month. The fact that Peterson, who originally threatened layoffs before backing down last month, didn't have a backup plan in place has left the city scrambling now.


The patchwork approach to public safety unfortunately has been common in Indianapolis for many years.


Payments from the pre-1977 police pension-- a problem that was well known but long neglected by city leaders -- have increased 10 percent since 2004, forcing the city to draw down its emergency cash. Even with proceeds from a $100 million pension obligation bond, only $263,000 will be left in its fund balance this year.


The sheriff's ranks have been reduced by 23 deputies since 1990 -- and requests for additional staff have been rejected -- even as the population has increased. The department is still three months behind on payments to the city for filling its cars with gasoline.


All of this points to the need for a long-term strategy that reaches beyond the immediate need to keep the 48 officers. Convening another bipartisan panel, one that includes public safety officials, would be a good start. So would a comprehensive review of all government expenses projected for the next five years, a suggestion floated by Council Republican leader Borst.


Dealing with pension and health care costs, both of which continue to rise, also must be a priority. Working with the state to merge the pre-1977 pensions with the more financially sound statewide plan, an idea suggested to Borst by former city Controller Jim Steele, also should be pursued. Asking police officers to shoulder a larger portion of their health care costs (the city currently pays three-quarters of those bills) as part of upcoming negotiations with the FOP would be difficult to ask but must at least be considered.

Indianapolis has taken a patchwork approach to public safety for far too long. The effort to avoid police layoffs is an opportunity to launch a thorough overhaul of this most important of public services.