Rio Rancho’s police force is seriously understaffed, 40 percent of its cars have more than 100,000 miles on the clock and pay rates for officers aren’t competitive with nearby jurisdictions. “I believe we’re in crisis right now,” said Police Chief Robert Boone, who believes his department is perilously overstretched as it struggles to meet the demands of a swiftly growing but financially strapped city. “I’m concerned about being able to provide the quality of service that this community expects to receive from their police department,” Boone said in a recent interview. He’s concerned that statistics showing the city’s crime rate rose 14.9 percent between 2011 and 2012, after years of holding steady, may be a reflection of the department’s numerous challenges. Already, the department sometimes has to put priority calls on hold as early as 4 p.m. as they scramble to respond. They often pull officers away from one area to respond to an incident miles across the spread-out city. “That’s usually a 911 call that comes into us that ‘I’m being beaten’ or ‘there’s a burglary in progress,’ that ‘there’s somebody who’s threatening me or my property,’ or something, and we want to get there in a hurry,” Boone said recently.
Low staffing ratio
Rio Rancho’s population has grown about 72 percent since 2000, or from 51,765 to 89,320 in 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Over the same period, the number of officers rose by 27 percent from 102 to 129, Boone said. The city says there were 93 law enforcement positions in 2000, not counting the chief, deputy chief and training positions. Boone says Rio Rancho now has the lowest police-to-resident staffing ratio of any large community in the state. A presentation he gave to city councilors in early 2012 showed the city had 1.46 officers per 1,000 residents, compared with 2.02 in Albuquerque and 1.97 in Las Cruces. He wants to bring staffing up to between 170 and 180 officers, or adding around 40 officers. Boone believes pay factors are luring away experienced people. The Rio Rancho Police Department competes directly with agencies in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County, which pay significantly more. Starting pay for cadets is $16.03 an hour in Rio Rancho, $18.24 in Albuquerque and $17.75 with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office. After one year, officers earn $18.85 per hour in Rio Rancho, $25.18 in Albuquerque. After 18 months, BCSO deputies earn $24.05, which will increase to $24.54 on July 1. “If we can’t pay our people and they can drive seven miles to the city line and make $5 to $7 more an hour, it’s hard to compete,” said Sgt. Tim Robey, who oversees recruitment and training.
Even with the addition of new cars last year, 59, or 40 percent, of the department’s 148 vehicles have more than 100,000 miles on their odometers, according to a recent police memo. Boone and Robey have talked to the mayor and city councilors about their growing concerns. But the city has struggled with slumping tax revenues in recent years, and it faces other costly headaches such as a decrepit waterline system and deteriorating roads. City budget figures show a new squad car costs about $37,000 and an extra officer costs about $70,000 a year. At those rates, adding 40 new officers would add $2.8 million in recurring expenses to the city budget. Replacing the 59 vehicles with more than 100,000 miles would cost $2.2 million. Four city councilors, Lonnie Clayton, Tim Crum, Mark Scott and Chuck Wilkins, have spoken repeatedly about the need to enhance spending on public safety. Crum would like to see the quarter-cent gross receipts tax that was instituted in 2010 be devoted solely to public safety. Currently, it goes into the general operations budget. Wilkins said that tax is still needed to help the city balance its budget. He believes the city needs to prioritize spending on public safety, waterlines and roads. “I don’t want to see another tax,” Wilkins said. Mayor Tom Swisstack recently called for an independent study to assess manpower needs to help create a plan for boosting public safety funding in a sustainable way. “I want to find out what the staffing ratio should be and how to make it occur. I don’t want to have to compromise other departments in the city. They are equally important,” Swisstack said. He has asked city staff to schedule a workshop to explore the city’s public safety needs and ways to meet them.