Kraftwerk, a German band known as innovators and pioneers in the genre of electronic music, including synh-pop, released their eighth album Computerwelt (Computer World) in May 1981. One of my first memories of hearing their song “Nummern (Numbers)” was on a late summer Friday night. I was listening to New York City radio station 92.3 WKTU while heading south on the Garden State Parkway toward the Jersey Shore town of Lavallette, where I was going to hang out for the weekend. (Snooki, JWoww and The Situation weren’t even born yet, and Pauly D was a year old.) The song’s lyrics, which are repeated in various combinations, consist of numbers ranging from one through eight spoken in eight different languages — German, Italian, Spanish, English, French, Japanese and Russian — while the musical track is pure synthesizer and drum machine.
I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “OK, Frank, where are you going with this one?” Well, let me tell ya. Over the past 12 years, dealing with the City when it comes to numbers is like listening to this song. Sometimes you understand what is being said, and at other times you scratch your head wondering, “What did I just hear?” For anyone who has been around for a while and works for the City, those of us here at the PLEA Office refer to this concept as “city math,” and there are usually two key times when it is used: during annual public budget hearings and at negotiations. In other words, initially City budget forecasts are always rosy. Those of us who reside in Phoenix read about it in our monthly water bills, hear about it via the City’s social media accounts and on Phoenix Channel 11. However, when budget meetings and negotiations roll around, suddenly there is doom and gloom about a lack of money and the perennial game of pitting public safety against community begins. Now that we find ourselves in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, City Manager Ed Zuercher is already telling department heads to look into potentially cutting 25% of their respective department’s budgets to save money. One side effect of this current crisis is that you can plainly see what consists of “essential core services” as opposed to programs and amenities the City provides but aren’t essential to everyday operations. It also reinforces exactly which “essential employees” are absolutely necessary to provide these core services.
If you want a highly trained police department equipped with the latest technology, it costs money.
Let’s discuss City departments that pro- duce revenue, including those that can’t be spent outside those respective departments, and departments that charge other departments for services. The Water Services Department is considered an enterprise, meaning that not only does it provide the services of supplying clean drinking water and treating wastewater, but it also charges fees for those services, and those monies can only be used in that department to repair, improve and replace critical infrastructure. The Aviation Department functions the same way. When you take the numbers of people who travel through Sky Harbor Airport, it shows a direct daily economic impact of $106 million! Portions of that revenue are what allows them to continually improve and update runways and terminals and expand the billion-dollar people mover 1 mile west to the Rental Car Center. The Public Works Department, which includes Equipment Management, not only collects trash and recyclables, but is also responsible for maintaining the City’s fleet of vehicles, including our unmarked vehicles and marked patrol fleet. Public Works charges residents a monthly fee for trash collection, and they also charge the various City departments for vehicle repairs. The $300 oil change and $10,000 engine replace- ment for a Tahoe you may have heard of are byproducts of that process. Talk about a racket! Now as a disclaimer, I’m not putting this on the mechanics who do the work, because without them our fleet would not run; department heads make those decisions. The South Shop used to be a 24/7 operation, so if you needed a minor repair or tire change regardless of what time of day it was, it could be done without having to take a vehicle out of service and write it up. As part of cost savings, the City eliminated third and second shift, in that order, because it’s cheaper to pay a contract tow company to haul your vehicle back to the precinct so that you can swap out vehicles and the precinct mechanics can do the repairs during their normal shift. The Parks and Recreation Department would charge the Police Department for landscaping work done at the various precincts, substations and training facilities. A few years ago, in the midst of a budget crunch, one Academy staff member found out it was cheaper to outsource the work by hiring a contractor.
When it comes to the City’s annual budget, you will often hear that public safety accounts for the largest amount of general fund expenditures. This is a factual statement because it is one of city government’s primary functions. If you want a highly trained police department equipped with the latest technology, it costs money. Unfortunately, even when the Department asks for end-user input regarding choices of equipment or software to do our jobs, sometimes it’s as if nobody’s statements counted. A prime example is the disaster known as RMS (Records Management System), affec- tionately known as “our mess,” and for good #9767 reason. Despite concerns expressed from the beginning, the City went ahead and purchased it. When it finally came online in 2015, the City spent $30 million for the initial program and necessary network infrastructure to support it. Five years later, after the initial costs and spending thousands of dollars troubleshooting and trying to fix it, it’s still a disaster. When we screw up, we have to admit it, but why don’t we ever hear that from our City leaders when they make bad decisions?
What about sworn personnel numbers? While police staffing has been a sore issue due to the six-year hiring freeze, PLEA has aggressively challenged the City regarding sworn officer staffing. At our peak in 2008, the total number of sworn personnel on the Phoenix Police Department was 3,388, and our population was 1.579 million. Shortly after the Great Recession, City leadership decided to stop hiring police officers to save money, and we didn’t start hiring again until 2015. During that time, they also decided to defer pension debt, and in 2017 the Phoenix City Council approved a plan to extend the payment plan for pension debt out to 30 years from 20 years due to unfunded pension liabilities of $2.1 billion! From 2015–2018, 12,858 people took the written test to become Phoenix police officers, 5,788 turned in background packets and a total of 1,069 were hired. Keep in mind that City Manager Zuercher’s July 1, 2018, goal was to have a total of 3,125 sworn officers because it “was what we could afford” versus what we needed for a city of our population and geographical footprint. It should be noted that we
have yet to meet that goal for two straight years! At this time last year, our population was estimated to be 1.632 million, and we had a total of 2,897 sworn employees; 80 had to retire due to DROP and 635 were eligible to retire and could walk out the door at any given time. At the time I was writing this article, we had a total of 2,927 sworn employees; 50 have to retire this year due to DROP, more than 850 are eligible to retire and, to look at the bigger picture, more than 1,200 officers can retire within the next four to five years.
The kicker: Phoenix is the fifth-largest and fastest-growing city in the country, has an estimated population of 1.66 million and has estimated unfunded pension liabilities of approximately $2.5 billion. As time goes on with the current COVID-19 pandemic, it will be interesting to see what happens since projected revenues are already down. Many of the businesses, which generate those revenues through sales taxes, have been forced to close while others have limited hours. While I did mention a slow population growth over the past decade, there is massive development going on citywide. Raw desert and former farmland are being turned into residential and commercial property, and there are infill projects all over the city. At the beginning of February in the downtown area, there were 14 high-rises under construction, with nine more in the permitting process. Many of these are residential properties, and as they are completed, we should see a massive population spike, because we have heard most of them are sold out before the interior paint has dried. At some point in time, the residents who live in these communities and the businesses they will patronize will need police services, but at the rate the Phoenix Police Department is growing, they too will be forced to get in line and wait for us to respond.