July 23, 2015: Rethinking our public safety budget

July 23, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

One of the most fundamental services that Belmont provides its residents is public safety.  Public safety shows up in the budgets for the police and fire departments.  An opportunity to reorganize and improve these departments, while reducing costs, may be before us.

In its annual report to Town Meeting this May, the town’s Warrant Committee noted that “over the next three years, approximately one-third of the Fire Department’s administration will be eligible for retirement. . .”  As a result, the WC said, “the Town will be able to assess in the coming two budget seasons whether this creates opportunities to reorganize or outsource non-core duties for greater efficiency. . .”  While not identifying specific ideas in its report, the WC told Town Meeting that examining how other communities organize their public safety functions will “bring ideas, efficiencies and enhance[d] support for departmental goals while ensuring priorities are met.”

The potential benefits from fire department reorganization can be seen in the staffing and “incident” responses that the WC reported to Town Meeting.  “Fire suppression” constitutes nearly 90% of Belmont’s fire department budget.  The WC told Town Meeting, however, that out of the 4,667 “incidents” which the fire department responded to last year, 1,570 (33.6%) involved emergency response by ambulance; 1,315 (28.2%) involved “non-medical emergency response”; and 947 (20.3%) involved life support transport.  In contrast, 110 incidents (2.4%) involved fires, while an additional 725 (15.5%) involved “good intent/false calls.”  The fire department, according to the WC, does not have “supportable data” to report staffing workload by call type.  Obviously, however, not all “incidents” are equal.

Nonetheless, now may be the time to rethink Belmont’s fire department.  “Prior to the addition of new positions,” the WC told Town Meeting, “an in-depth analysis of staffing models and best practices in peer communities should be conducted to determine if there are opportunities. . .applicable to Belmont. . .”  The WC said that it would “encourage” the fire department to undertake such an assessment.

In the police department budget, the two largest areas of expenditures involve “patrol services” (57.2%) and “public safety communications” (13.5%).  Police administration is reasonably efficient, representing 6.6% of the budget (virtually identical to the 6.3% the schools spend on administration).  The WC noted that over the past five years, the police department has experienced twenty vacancies “due to retirement and voluntary separation.”  Filling those vacancies, the WC told Town Meeting, “has always been a management challenge in an environment of increasing complexity of the role of [the] police force and constrained municipal budgets.”

Any effort devoted to rethinking how the fire department fulfills its functions, therefore, should also pay attention to whether some functions are neither uniquely “police” nor uniquely “fire,” but rather “public safety.” Ways in which these functions might beneficially be combined should be examined.

Belmont faces certain financial “headwinds,” the WC told Town Meeting, that the town has “been managing for years and will continue to do so.”  The “major drivers on the expense side,” the WC said, include “increasing compensation costs” and the town’s “large pension and healthcare obligations.”   Given the large proportion of the police and fire budgets devoted to salaries, therefore, a thoughtful reconsideration of how most efficiently to deliver public safety services could be important to Belmont’s long-term financial health.

Opportunities to fundamentally rethink how the town provides an important public service are rare.  Belmont, however, may soon face exactly this opportunity for our police and fire.  In considering how public safety functions might be combined between the police and fire departments, either through physical facilities or through staffing, town officials should aggressively solicit the broadest possible public input.

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One thought on “July 23, 2015: Rethinking our public safety budget

  1. The normal method of increasing efficiency is to “do more with less.” Fire suppression is labor-intensive, and conventional wisdom tells us that improving efficiency means reducing the number of firefighters. But there is another way to reduce salary and pension costs while keeping the same number of firefighter positions. It involves assigning some of the current firefighter slots to full-time temporary employees. Those employees serve as firefighters while attending area colleges. Instead of full-time salaries, they receive subsidized or free college educations. Career and combination fire departments that do this have reduced salary and pension costs by 20 percent or more while giving residents more opportunities to get college degrees and graduate debt-free. I describe how close to 300 fire departments now do this at http://www.fdexcellence.com.

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