Police take biggest hit in initial budget cuts

Don Hunter

Fewer new cops this year and somewhat slower snow removal are some of the likely fallout from an initial round of $7.3 million in budget cuts announced Friday by acting Mayor Matt Claman.

In a memo e-mailed to Assembly members Friday morning and in a press release, Claman said he consulted with department heads and asked for advice about how to tackle an anticipated $17 million deficit in this year's city budget.

The reductions Claman outlined Friday will result in about 10 employees being laid off. Another 50 vacant positions will go unfilled.

The police department takes the biggest hit -- almost $2.5 million -- and Claman and Police Chief Rob Heun said that means a police academy scheduled to start in May will be pushed back until 2010.

Other big cuts include reductions of just more than $1 million in maintenance and operations. Claman said that means four pieces of heavy equipment will be surplused, "which will result in slightly slower response to major snowfall events."

Public bus service will be curtailed on three days that usually see the fewest riders -- Presidents Day, Veterans Day and the day after Thanksgiving. Hours will be shortened at a new Eagle River branch library and municipal grants to some nonprofits will be reduced. Cutbacks are in store for the Recreation in Schools program.

In a telephone interview, Heun said delaying the police academy was his idea.

An academy already in progress will put 33 new officers on the street this year, he said, and pushing back the May academy, which would add another 13, will save money in several ways.

"We figured if we postponed the academy there would be cascading reductions that could be realized ... indirect savings on vehicles, ammunition, individual equipment, instructor pay, and overtime (for instructors)," Heun said.

Plus, the department is recruiting nationally, and this is an election year. Heun said he didn't want to uproot families from the Lower 48 and bring them to Anchorage in uncertain times.

"Who knows how the new mayor, whoever the new mayor is, would deal with whatever budget crisis remained?" Heun said. "I want the situation to stabilize. That's just the right thing to do in dealing with people."

Claman's announced budget cuts -- there will be more to follow -- come ahead of a series of workshops and special meetings on city finances that the Assembly plans to start next Friday. Claman said approving the budget is the Assembly's job; deciding where to make cuts and what not to spend is his responsibility. And delaying the reductions for weeks or months would only make closing the $17 million deficit more painful, he said.

Assemblyman Bill Starr, one of Claman's most persistent critics, called the layoffs and frozen positions "reckless" and "foolish," especially in light of a round of executive pay raises that took effect just before former Mayor Mark Begich resigned to become a U.S. senator.

Claman said those raises will be on the table as he considers where to find another $10 million in savings. Many of those "executives" are actually managers who work at the pleasure of the mayor, sometimes side by side with union-represented employees with guaranteed increases who have similar responsibilities.

"I have to look at those a little more carefully before deciding where to bring those back and where, perhaps, not to," he said.

Assembly chairwoman Harriet Drummond said Claman is right when he says it's his job in the city's strong-mayor government to decide when to spend and when not to spend money the Assembly has set aside for services.

The police and fire departments together account for almost half the overall budget, so it's reasonable that police should take a big hit, Drummond said. The Assembly will go ahead with its meetings, questioning city executives and the mayor, and offer advice, she said.

Assemblyman Mike Gutierrez agreed that making cuts is the mayor's job, but "it's still appropriate for us to look at this." Gutierrez also chairs the Assembly's public safety committee; he said he's a little worried the police cuts may mean more overtime for officers on the street.

"These are cuts that are gonna hurt, although I'm not sure he had much choice," he said.

Find Don Hunter online at adn.com/contact/dhunter or call 257-4349.