Elected officials come and go, and with that so do certain priorities. It seems that with every budget cycle, certain departments have to prove their worth and their existence. For example, San Jose spends less than half (as a percentage of budget) on information technology (IT) than other cities its size. Strategic investments in IT have the potential to improve efficiencies and save money.
Last year, I proposed in a budget memo to allocate $400,000 in one-time monies to replace the legacy Centrex ATT phone system with a VOIP system, which would save approximately $1 million each year going forward. I hope we can implement this in the coming year.
Financial support for other departments ebbs and flows as well. For example, after 9/11 no city in the USA could spend enough on fire departments. However, looking at data and day-to-day concerns from residents, we know that the fire department cannot be the number one priority when its function is narrow and limited.
Funding for police can change based on crime rates, a tragic single incident covered by the media, an incident of alleged police brutality or rising pension costs. We know police are a major factor in maintaining peace and tranquility within city jurisdictions among other factors, like the local economy, education and race relations. But why should support seesaw when something is so important as the Social Contract?
I recommend that the city should commit to a specific police budget each fiscal year. San Jose should allocate a fixed percentage of the budget to the police department that is higher than the 34.7% today of an $885.8 million general fund budget. If the budget grows then more money will flow to the police department. If the budget declines then the department has to live within its means. In a growing budget, opportunities may arise for increased staffing, increased salaries and technology purchases for officer efficiency. With a budget that declines, choices become narrower but police would always be the top priority.
An increase in police staffing could mean less individual hardship, like an officer having flexibility to take a vacation—which would not only reduce overtime but also angst. A larger police force may also lead to the potential of creating more flexibility on shifts.
As a result, no longer would a core service be reduced, as it would be locked in. The only thing asked in return is that the police force work hard and do their best each shift. An increased police force may mean not only suppressing major crimes but also returning to managing quality of life crimes and doing more investigations on child pornography, as I wrote about two weeks ago.
The city should explore and gather data from other comparable cities to determine what that fixed percentage could be. Ultimately, a fixed percentage of the police budget will require changing the city charter and the only way to do this is with an election. A fixed percentage for police would also give San Jose voters reassurance that future tax increases will make sure a certain portion of their tax dollars are spent on police.
The choice is ours if we are willing to ask the question and deal with the trade-offs. I am willing. Are you?