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Police facing cuts

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By April Wright, Reporter

A nearly $30,000 drop in this year's fiscal budget at the Galax Police Department could mean leaving positions unfilled, cutting programs or even cutting staff — a last resort — if state budget cuts continue to reduce aid to the department, said Galax Police Chief Rick Clark.

The original budget distribution for this year was set for $358,719, then reduced to $333,860 in September 2009. Now, the proposed adjusted 2010 budget appropriation set in December shows an 18 percent decline, down to $328,770 due to proposed cuts to 599 funding, which is the classification for state aid to localities with police departments.

The amount of 599 funding provided to police departments is based on population, crime rates, unemployment rates and public assistance rates. These funds have historically represented 20 to 25 percent of the department's budget. For its 2010 budget, they represent 22 percent.

The police department must meet certain state mandates to receive 599 funding, including paying $9,000 per year to the New River Training Police Academy, paying officers in training, providing travel expenses to the academy and covering officers' assigned shifts while they are in training.

Also, the police department pays $10,000 per year for support and upgrades to the automated records management software used to report crime and spends $3,000 to $4,000 for ammunition for annual firearms qualification.

In addition to state mandated expenses, Clark said the department must worry about recurring expenses such as fuel for vehicles, vehicle maintenance, uniforms, FICA, electricity, telephone services, equipment purchases and maintenance.

In the city, the police department receives the second-largest appropriation behind the school system.

In order to make up the budget gap, one administrative position is left unfilled, leaving one employee to perform a two-person job.

Officers were directing school traffic five days a week, but that service has been cut.

“Life still goes on, even with budget cuts,” said Clark. “We still have to cover accidents, act as escorts for funerals. Things have to be done. If you dial 911, someone is going to help you.”

Clark said the police department also gladly answers calls asking when the parade starts or about garbage pick up.

“If the cut stays [in the budget], I refuse to tell you that I can't do this,” said Clark. “I'm optimistic we can do it. It's just going to be hard. We have a great police department and a city council and mayor that supports us.”

The police department normally purchases two police cars per year, but will not buy any this year. Clark said the police department purchased two new cars last year, using a grant from USDA Rural Development to defray expenses. Police cars, including equipment, typically cost $25,000.

Also, no pay increases are expected, and uniform replacements — which generally cost $1,200 — are being cut back.

“We've had to cut back on equipment and supplies and even toner for the printer,” said Clark. “We're looking at everything we can do.”

Clark said no one is eligible to retire from the police force this year. The department is made up of 24 sworn officers, 16 uniform patrol officers, a school resource officer, three detectives, one court room security officer, a sergeant and four dispatchers.

“But the city is dedicated to maintaining the employment level here,” Clark said. “We are trying to be as frugal as we can.”

The only effective deterrent to crime, Clark said, is the visibility of police officers. This year, the city's crime rate went up — including property crime, embezzlement, theft and burglaries — mostly do to the economy, he said. But if budget cuts continue, it could be much worse. “We will have to make some difficult decisions.”

Clark said there is no way the police department can make reductions in E-911 communications. In 2009, the police dispatcher received 40,000 calls, and it takes at least three others to run the regional call center and quickly answer phone calls.

“If we had to make cuts, it would have to be in law enforcement,” said Clark. “But we're working hard to maintain the staffing standard.”

As a service to the public, police officers provide security during street festivals, such as the fiddlers' convention, Smoke on the Mountain, Leaf & String and Groovin' on Grayson — but this may have to be limited if the budget cuts continue.

“There are some things we have no control over,” he said. “Just like everyone else, our electricity bill went up.”

To be more fuel efficient and save money on gas, the police department buys six-cylinder Chevy Impalas instead of Crown Victorias or Chryslers.

Clark said the department is doing everything it can to not cut school programs, such as drug awareness program DARE and the gang resistance program.

“Cutting these programs, I don't think that is something I can morally do,” said Clark.

State representatives, he said, are working on amendments to restore budget cuts, but “I don't think that it can fully be restored. It's just not realistic.”

Clark, who is on the state's executive board of police chiefs, met with his colleagues a couple of weeks ago to discuss budget cuts.

“No police department is immune,” he said. “The large cities just have more cuts than we do. When you have cuts, it affects safety and you have officer safety issues.

“But I'm optimistic that we can make it. We will have to become as lean and as efficient as possible.”