City Council Cops an Attitude on 2008 Budget

Originally appeared in Fort Collins Now

21 September 2007
Eric Fried

The City Council recently killed a proposed sales tax increase for public safety amid complaints that part of the tax was pure pork for tree-huggers. (Do tree-huggers even eat pork? Aren’t we vegetarians?) Some folks questioned how protecting environmental quality could be considered public safety. I agree with Mayor Pro Tem Kelly Ohlson: how can protecting the very air we breathe and the water we drink NOT be considered public safety? While they debated whether police services should be a core mission or require a tax increase, everyone agreed we need more cops.

Do we really?

A recent independent study showed Fort Collins lagging in police personnel per capita, and recommended hiring dozens of new officers. If hiring more police will keep us safer, it stands to reason that with our short-handed police force, we must be suffering through a crime wave. So how come the facts show otherwise?

FBI figures show Fort Collins has less crime per person than the national average – less property crime, and a lot less violent crime. Fort Collins was rated 154th out of 185 cities with populations between 100,000 and 250,000, according to the 2005 FBI Uniform Crime Report. Even as our population grows, every category of crime (murder, rape, robbery, assault, etc) was lower in 2006 than it was in 2005, according to the Fort Collins Police Department’s on-line statistics. We are doing just fine with the number of police officers we already have, thank you very much.

Here’s one idea to reduce crime: stop making so many things illegal. Calling off the War on Drugs (or declaring victory and going home) would save money at every level, and provide a more effective answer to what is really a public health, not criminal, issue. And forget about the ridiculous exterior property maintenance codes, which will require an additional code inspector. Are paint, yard and fence enforcers really more important than additional firefighters? If anyone thinks so, I have some oceanfront lots in Phoenix you might be interested in.

Yes, there are areas of fluff in the budget I think we could all agree are not high priority items in tight budget times. Do we really need median maintenance to the tune of $400,000? How about $220,000 to fight West Nile Virus, with its insufferable death toll of exactly one since 2003? Or $60,000 to study train noise when federal law mandates train whistles at street crossings in urban areas? Give me half that sum and I’ll have your study answer tomorrow!

For all the noble words about making the city budget process transparent, we regular folks can only scratch the surface. Try to drill down on-line (http://fcgov.com/citymanager/budget.php) and you won’t get very far. You can choose between items, but your possible choices have already been framed for you by city staff. Many of the budget items (like open space) have dedicated funding sources that cannot be legally transferred without a vote of the people. Other items are state or federal pass-through funds.

A budget is more than a spreadsheet. It is a moral document, a statement of priorities. To conservatives, government should protect and punish, period. Therefore, police, prosecutors, and prison guards are about all we should spend money on. The Preamble to the US Constitution, however, also lists more nurturing and positive functions of government: form a more perfect Union, insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty. There’s your justification for Climatewise, Transfort and Mason Street right there. As a society, we decide what we want to do cooperatively, and how much taxes we’ll pay to do it.

Here’s one more thing to consider: Fort Collins taxpayers are now paying about $1 million per week for the Iraq Occupation. One month of the war would pay for an entire year’s worth of the proposed public safety sales tax. How come I don’t feel more secure then?

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