The city of Albuquerque ties up millions of dollars every year by budgeting for police officers it has no realistic chance of hiring, according to city documents and Journal interviews.
Some of the money – initially set aside for police personnel – is later used for other purposes, including technology upgrades, vehicle purchases and other expenses in the Police Department.
Most of the money, however, is returned to City Hall’s general fund at the end of the year. That makes it available, in combination with unspent funds from other departments, to help balance the general budget or to go toward one-time projects, such as capital initiatives in “ABQ: The Plan” or cultural events.
Either way, the practice of overbudgeting for police officers prevents the money from being used for other ongoing operations – from hiring extra animal and parks workers to boosting employee pay.
Rob Perry, top administrator under Mayor Richard Berry, said there’s “nothing improper” about how the city handles APD’s budget. No large organization can expect to be staffed at 100 percent, he said, and it isn’t unusual among government agencies to allow the money saved from vacant jobs to pay for other things, usually one-time capital projects.
In Albuquerque’s case, the extra money is available because the city budgets for 1,100 police officers, but it hasn’t had that many in at least three years. There were 916 sworn officers on the force as of Feb. 14.
Altogether, this year’s budget has about $124 million set aside for APD personnel. The department’s entire budget is about $154 million.
Perry contends that removing the money for the full 1,100 officers now would make it harder to put it back if and when the goal is actually within reach.
“Budgeting is a priority process,” Perry said. “We recognize that public safety is the first and foremost priority, so we want to keep it reserved in the hopes of reaching 1,100 officers.”
Disagreement on priorities
Fully staffing police departments has been a challenge throughout New Mexico, and there’s disagreement about why APD has had trouble filling its ranks.
Regardless, the inability to reach 1,100 officers has turned out to be an enormous source of savings at City Hall. Last year, for example, the Police Department set aside $128.1 million for personnel and spent $119.6 million.
That left $8.5 million available, and the department spent more than $3 million of that. It purchased equipment so officers can get Internet service to laptop-like computers in their cars and hired a service that collects and organizes data from officers’ lapel cameras so the information is easily retrievable, Perry said.
Some of the savings did go toward personnel: police service aides, who handle less serious calls, such as minor traffic accidents, Perry said. In other words, he said, APD uses the money “for critical needs that come up a little bit outside the budget.”
But the police union isn’t convinced the money is used wisely.
Stephanie Lopez, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, questions whether the city needs to hold on to lapel-camera video for as long as it does.
“This money is not being spent according to the priorities of this Police Department,” Lopez said.
More police cars, in particular, are needed, she said.
Perry said some of the personnel savings, in fact, has gone toward police vehicles, in at least one year.
The ability to free up money for capital projects is especially important now, Perry said, because the traditional bond program has shrunk, largely due to decisions that predate the Berry administration.
Not that unusual
The money set aside for hiring new officers doesn’t just help APD.
Last year, for example, the remaining $5 million the department didn’t spend was sent back to the general fund.
Other departments send back money, too, Perry said. The Department of Family and Community Services, for example, reverted $3 million last year, even though it’s a much smaller operation than APD, he said.
“You have every department probably that reverts a portion of money, both within the city of Albuquerque, within the state of New Mexico and probably in every other federal and state organization,” said Perry, a cabinet secretary under former Gov. Gary Johnson.
Reversions from city departments are swept into the general fund and made available to either help balance the budget or to pay for one-time projects the next year, Perry said.
This year’s budget has one-time spending of about $3 million available for “ABQ: The Plan,” a mayoral initiative that includes a bike- and pedestrian-path around the city and trails in the Rio Grande bosque. There’s also one-time money budgeted this year for cultural and economic-development events, such as Black History Month and a jazz festival.
Is 1,100 officers an unrealistic target?
Dan Lewis, chairman of the City Council’s budget committee, said it’s time to revisit the 1,100 officer target. The council has made a good-faith effort to provide APD with the money to reach that goal, he said, but it hasn’t happened, for whatever reason.
The 1,100-officer goal dates to the administration of Mayor Martin Chávez, whose term ended in late 2009. The city last had 1,100 officers in January 2011. If police cadets aren’t included, the city last had 1,100 officers in May 2010, Perry said.
“We think that 1,100 is a very thoughtful target as far as where we want to be,” Perry said.
Rey Garduño, chairman of the council’s finance committee, said he’d prefer the money be used on the officers the city actually employs, perhaps through pay raises. Setting it aside for more officers than the city has just creates a “nest egg” at the end of the year, he said.
Benton said the millions reverted from APD last year would have represented a huge boost if it had been made available for other programs that needed help. “Across the board, I think there are very good uses for those funds,” he said.
Lopez puts it this way: “The city administration is definitely balancing the budget off of public safety’s back.”
Perry disputes that characterization. “That might make good rhetoric, but it’s fiction,” Perry said.
The debate over how many officers should be funded will play out in coming months. Berry’s annual budget proposal is due by April 1; then councilors have two months to make changes.