As the Tacoma City Council prepares to vote on the city’s spending plan for the next two years, some council members are ramping up for a fight to get more money for police and fire, which they argue haven’t been adequately restored after deep budget cuts in the wake of the recession. Thinkstock photo
As the Tacoma City Council prepares to vote on the city’s spending plan for the next two years, some council members are ramping up for a fight to get more money for police and fire, which they argue haven’t been adequately restored after deep budget cuts in the wake of the recession. Thinkstock photo

Politics & Government

Boosts to Tacoma police and fire budgets aren’t enough, some council members say

November 13, 2016 08:22 AM

UPDATED November 14, 2016 02:12 PM

As the Tacoma City Council prepares to vote on the city’s spending plan for the next two years, some council members are mounting a fight to get more money for police and fire.

Councilmen Robert Thoms and Conor McCarthy say the city hasn’t done enough to restore funding those departments lost to deep recession-era budget cuts.

Thoms said he and McCarthy will ask for roughly an extra $3 million for public safety funding through a budget amendment. That figure would include more than $800,000 to hire five additional police officers, he said Friday.

He’s also requesting that a fire station on the Tideflats be restored, at a cost of about $500,000 to reopen it and $1.2 million per biennium to run it with round-the-clock service by a three-person engine company. In his proposal, fire station 13 in Proctor would get two more full-time positions to make it a 24-hour engine company, which would cost an additional $400,000, he said.

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“We’re supposed to do the things that are critical, that we need, and then try to do the other stuff people want,” Thoms said at last week’s budget study session.

I’m pretty sure when we bring it up it’s going to be hard for people to vote against it.

Councilman Robert Thoms

Their amendment is the first sign of council discontent over Tacoma City Manager T.C. Broadnax’s proposed 2017-18 budget. Council members largely have lauded the plan — both for what it added (17 new positions in the Police Department and eight in the Fire Department) and for what it didn’t cut (library branches). Public reaction has been muted — few people have shown up to hearings, and several who did gave positive reviews.

Broadnax has touted the proposal as being structurally balanced, with ongoing revenues supporting ongoing expenses and one-time money paying for one-time capital needs.

“We’ve made great strides. We’ve added back some resources, we’re actually funding things this city has never done,” Broadnax said in defense of the budget at last week’s study session. “I will do whatever it is you ask me to do over the next couple weeks to answer your questions, but I cannot create money.”

But the combined 25 new positions in the Police and Fire departments aren’t enough, Thoms and McCarthy have argued.

The Police Department has about 161 patrol officers, said Chief Don Ramsdell during a budget presentation weeks ago: Minimum staffing is 160, and the desired number is closer to 175. That means during certain times, like the graveyard shift, there are 22 patrol officers on duty in all of Tacoma, and when officers are placed on light duty or maternity leave, the department has no buffer. Property and other crimes — including aggravated assaults, robberies and car prowls — are up, Ramsdell said. The department overall is down about 60 officers from its peak of 398 in 2008.

About $3 million in additional funding to be requested for police and fire

4additional police officers

2 additional full-time firefighters at Proctor fire station

$1.2 million to run a fire station in the Tideflats

$500,000 to reopen the fire station in the Tideflats

While the 17 positions are a good start, “we could use additional resources in our detective bureau, which would include forensics,” Ramsdell told the City Council. “My own personal opinion, I know what we have is what we have, but if you were to ask me, which you are, what I feel should be our staffing, I would say we could definitely use an increase in staffing.”

The picture is similar in the Fire Department. In his budget presentation, Chief James Duggan said the department has lost its accreditation because of lackluster response times in Northeast Tacoma and a lack of department resources.

To meet accepted firefighting standard of responding to calls within four minutes, the department would need four more fire stations, Duggan said, including two on the Tideflats. And as firefighters work to do more with less, call volumes for emergency and nonemergency medical services are increasing all the time.

Thoms pointed out that the Port of Seattle has its own police and fire department separate from the city’s. He said Broadnax should seek money from the Port of Tacoma for fire safety on the Tideflats, especially as the liquefied natural gas plant planned for the port gets closer to breaking ground and as the port’s portfolio moves away from containers and toward petrochemical uses.

“I’m pretty sure when we bring (the budget amendment) up it’s going to be hard for people to vote against it,” Thoms said.

Thoms said he plans to suggest trims in the budget to pay for the police and fire adds.

His recommended cuts include postponing an expensive computer software upgrade to the next biennium, reducing the scope of the roughly $21 million in proposed Tacoma Dome renovations, reducing the number of city minimum wage and parking enforcement employees and possibly diverting some marijuana tax dollars to law enforcement.

“We’re going to offer some places in the budget that make some sense that we don’t have to spend the money right now. But I’m not going to dictate to (Broadnax) — he can go talk to the port about putting money in,” Thoms said.

The city is already planning to add $500,000 in spending to the 2017-18 budget, thanks to improved projections on the liquor excise tax, Broadnax said last week. Of that, $150,000 will go to the Police Department to help it hire officers more quickly.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud