In the red again

Minneapolis Police Department has an estimated 2007 budget hole of $5.9 million

After surprising the City Council with a $3.4 million budget overage last year, the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) is once again strapped for cash.

The department expects to exceed its roughly $120 million 2007 budget by $5.9 million this year. An unrealistic budget that lacks dollars in overtime, jail fees, technology and other expenses is largely to blame, said Assistant Police Chief Sharon Lubinski.

Though finance officials said the process for developing the police budget in recent years has involved the chief and assistant chief, Lubinski contends that the Police Department hasn’t had enough say in the creation of its budget in the past, which has led to the current problems. The city added a chief financial officer to the department’s ranks this year to help manage the budget and police are working more closely with the finance department to prevent future overages.

“Until this year, we’ve not really been fortunate enough to be in on the building of our budget for the next year,” Lubinski said. “And because of the problems last year we asked that we be much more involved in what our budget is, what it’s going to look like so everyone knows up front — both us and finance — what’s going on.”

This year’s anticipated overage wasn’t as much of a surprise to the City Council as last year’s since its Ways and Means/Budget Committee has required regular budget updates from Lubinski. Council Member Paul Ostrow (1st Ward), chairman of the committee, said the amount the department was over budget was higher than expected, but the council has made solving the problem a top priority.

To reduce the existing overage as much as possible before the year’s end, the Police Department has cut unnecessary training and overtime significantly and scrounged up savings in other areas. Lubinski said overtime is still needed for mandatory court appearances and the unpredictable nature of crime.

The department’s new Chief Financial Officer Gaynell Schandel said the department is also looking to save money by using alternative funding for some items. The department is seeking a grant to pay for new shotguns, for instance.

But some expenses, such as jail fees paid to Hennepin County, cannot be reduced or covered with alternative funds. Lubinksi said she expects the department to be $1 million over budget in jail fees this year. Schandel said the department’s budget for jail fees hasn’t kept pace for several years.

She said the department has to work at being financially prudent and staying within the budget its given, but noted that the budget should be based on historical funding and spending patterns.

Ostrow said several expenses, including jail fees and new technology, need to be better accounted for.

“We have to start conforming the budget to reality,” he said.

Ostrow said he’s hopeful the department can reduce this year’s overage because the city doesn’t have the cash needed to bail it out as it did last year. The city has about $2 million in its contingency fund, he said. If that goes away, the Council would have to dip into the general fund.

Fattening the police department’s budget in coming years will prove challenging, Ostrow said. If the city can’t get additional funding from the state, the Council might have to look at moving funds from other budgets, he said.

“We’re going to have to look harder than ever at other budgets,” Ostrow said. “Given that public safety is the highest priority.”

The City Council is placing heavy pressure on the Police Department to deal with its budget problems proactively.

“This year the issue isn’t so much that there is a surprise. The issue is that they still haven’t been able to get their budget issues under control,” said Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward), adding that there isn’t a simple solution to the department’s financial problems. “There has been a lot of pressure inside City Hall to make sure we’re delving into ‘What are all the reasons for this?’”

The council has been strictly holding the department to its proposed budget for this year. When Police Chief Tim Dolan requested that 11 officers not be transferred to the traffic unit as planned, a large majority of council members denied the request because it would have left a $440,000 revenue gap that traffic officers bring in with ticket fines.

Council Member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward) said the department is making good-faith efforts to get its budget under control. Now that the department has two years of information showing that certain costs are not being budgeted for accurately, Hodges said, it must carefully reassess its budget assumptions for 2008.

“If you know your car insurance premium is $800 every year and you budget $400 … that’s going to create a problem,” Hodges said.

Glidden said department leaders should be engaged enough in their budget to look at trends in expenses, look at the items in the budget and make sure that they are getting enough money to cover what they need.

The Police Department has not been subject to cuts as deep as other departments in the cash-strapped city system.

“Could we use more money in the police department? Yes,” Hodges said. “We could use more money in every department.”

Glidden said while there are some instances in which officers can’t help using their overtime — such as when they’re called to the scene of a crime and can’t just leave or when they’re called to court — there are also some cases where there could be better management of when officers use overtime.

She said the Police Department should advocate for its needs and she will do what she can to help it succeed.

“This is part of an honesty with the public as well,” Glidden said. “This is why we’ve asked the Police Department to report publicly to us every month so that both we know and the taxpayer knows that there are some serious problems here and we’re working hard to address them.”