Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Day the Law Left Town

As I have predicted in earlier posts. Cities will need to consolidate and administrations will be collapsed in order to deliver the same services with lower cost through lower overhead. Australia did not suffer when this occurred in the 90's, in fact it went on to prosper.

Aivars Lode

The Day the Law Left Town Text By ANA CAMPOY
ALTO, Texas—Folks here are bracing for a crime wave after the city put its police force on furlough.

Budget woes in Alto, Texas have forced drastic measures, including laying off the five-member police force. A newspaper's antique printing press is being moved to a museum for safe keeping. WSJ's Ana Campoy reports.
."Everybody's talking about 'bolt your doors, buy a gun,' " said Monty Collins, Alto's mayor, who was against the measure.

But Alto wasn't going to make payroll in the coming months. So the City Council made the call, and on June 15 the police chief and his four officers secured the evidence room, changed the passwords on their computers and locked the department's doors for six months—longer if local finances don't improve by then.

Meanwhile, Cherokee County Sheriff James Campbell, based 12 miles north in Rusk, is policing Alto, a city of about 1,200. Mr. Campbell said the extra load would strain his 25 deputies and reservists, who oversee a 1,000-square-mile territory. The sheriff is already responsible for the nearby city of Wells, which has a population of about 800 and earlier this year shed its only police officer. Crime went up initially, the sheriff said, but has stabilized.

"I'm going to try, but I can't guarantee you there will always be an officer in the town," he said of Alto.

With city budgets tight across the country, police departments are under the gun to cut costs. Some are disbanding special units. Some are shedding other personnel. And some small jurisdictions are doing away with their police forces altogether.

Half Moon Bay, Calif., a picturesque surfside city, is now patrolled by the San Mateo Sheriff's Office after city government earlier this month dissolved the local department to save more than $500,000 a year. Nazareth Borough, Pa., is negotiating a contract for public-safety services with a regional force. In Wenonah, N.J., voters will decide in November whether to sign up with another municipality to replace its seven officers. The move has the potential to slash around $300 to $400 from the average property tax bill of $9,000, in part by reducing employee insurance costs, according to the mayor.

Whether a county sheriff is obligated to provide public-safety services free of charge or is paid for them depends on state law. In most cases, the sheriff's office is paid, said Fred Wilson, director of operations at the National Sheriffs' Association.

The closure of small-town police departments is part of a broader consolidation of services in communities all over the U.S. Keeping the peace is rarely a revenue-making operation and is easier to outsource to county or state agencies than other city responsibilities, such as utilities, some officials say. Others see advantages in having a bigger, more professional force watch over their communities.

Proponents of local police say regional forces are stretched too thin as it is and may not have enough staff to take over security in individual cities. Outsourcing services to a bigger entity also erodes the ties between officers and the community, an essential element in crime fighting, said Mark Marshall, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and chief of the Smithfield, Va., police department.

"You get to the more reactive model that was used in the 1960s and 1970s, which was proven not to be the most successful," he said.

Alto, meaning "high" in Spanish for its perch above the wooded countryside, has been struggling. The city-owned natural-gas distribution system from which it derives most of its revenue was in dire need of expensive repairs, wiping out several hundred thousand dollars. Reduced sales and property tax collections from the sluggish economy are putting pressure on the town, where residents mostly make their living in cattle ranching, lumber and the oil and gas industry.

City Council officials calculate a budget shortfall of around $185,000 for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. It costs about $230,000 to run the police department.

"We had to do something drastic," said Jerry Flowers, councilman and hay farmer. "The police department, being a non-money-making entity, was the easiest to get rid of while we catch our breath and build up some cash."

James Green, Alto police officer, on patrol in Alto, Texas.
.Some in town, including Police Chief Charles Barron, complain that the city should have cut elsewhere, given local crime. Last year in Alto, which clocks in above the statewide crime rate, there were 39 larcenies, 23 burglaries, two assaults, one robbery and one auto theft, or 66 crimes, compared to 51 the year before, although that year included a rape and four aggravated assaults.

"Why did they totally throw public safety to the wind?" said Chief Barron. "If the city is broke as they say, I would think they can't afford anybody else either."

Mr. Flowers said the council was looking at cuts in other departments and would try to reinstate the police department after the furlough, although he thinks it should employ fewer officers in the future.

Residents are circulating a petition demanding the city government restore the force. Some business owners said they had removed valuable objects they don't use regularly from their places of work in preparation for the furlough. Others worry that the absence of local police could dissuade businesses and visitors from coming to town.

And some on the outskirts who are already under the sheriff's jurisdiction are worried, too. Because of their proximity, Alto police officers were often the first responders to crime calls until county deputies arrived.

"The thought that we could be 35 or 40 minutes from getting the sheriff's deputy here, depending on where they are in the county, is scary," said Kelly Curry, manager of the Shiloh Ridge off-road vehicle park. Ms. Curry has two guns for self-defense.

Terri Underwood asks who's going to alert citizens when something goes awry in the middle of the night, like the time water began to cascade from the front door of her downtown cafe. "It could have been a lot worse had they not called me," Ms. Underwood said of the furloughed police.

Write to Ana Campoy at ana.campoy@dowjones.com

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