Look for Oklahoma City to keep adding officers to the police force.
City council members said enhancing public safety is their primary goal for the 2013-14 budget. Budget deliberations begin Tuesday with a presentation by City Manager James Couch.
“Of course it's a runaway No. 1,” said Larry McAtee, who represents southwest Oklahoma City's Ward 3. “Without public safety, all the other items fall down.”
The council added enough new positions last year to bring the police department's authorized strength to 1,076, said John George, head of the Fraternal Order of Police, the police union.
About 985 of those positions are filled, he said; more will be filled as recruits graduate from the training academy and join the force.
George said he believes the “commitment is there” to increase the force to around 1,250 officers.
That would bring Oklahoma City in line with other cities and address concerns about slow response times and a lack of police presence in neighborhoods, he said.
But the city can't get there by holding funding hostage to the yearly budget debate, he said.
“We have no plan for how we're going to grow the police department,” George said.
He contrasted police funding to MAPS, the building program that receives a set portion of sales tax revenue to fund specific projects.
“I'm just saying that's the only way it's going to work,” George said. “That's what the FOP would like to see.”
Public safety will get about $78 million this year, divided evenly among police and fire, from a dedicated portion of the sales tax, but that's a fraction of the overall public safety budget.
Meg Salyer, who represents the central city's Ward 6, said adding police officers is a shared goal among council members, as is finding a sustainable and fiscally responsible way to do so.
“I've never heard an argument against it,” said Pat Ryan, who represents Ward 8 in the north-central part of the city. The question: “How do we fund them?”
James Greiner, who represents Ward 1 in northwest Oklahoma City, said all the data he's seen indicate adding to the police force is a good idea — balanced against the need to be conservative with taxpayers' money.
“I always like to round up on expenses and round down on revenue,” Greiner said. “I don't like being in the red.”
Police and fire departments were asked to submit budgets reflecting a reduction of a half-percent in spending for next year; other departments were asked to cut 1 percent from their requests.
Budget Director Doug Dowler said no department took the full 1 percent cut.
Some departments will see proposed increases when the budget is released Tuesday, he said.
Ward 4 City Council Member Pete White, who represents southeast Oklahoma City, said police is “far and away” the top priority this year.
“Everything else is ‘others receiving votes' as far as I'm concerned,” he said.