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Phoenix police funding on brink

PHOENIX — After residents fought to hold on to their police department last year and passed a public safety levy not long before, city officials are hopeful citizens will warm up to a new surcharge in coming weeks.

From his standpoint, Police Chief Kurt Barthel has spent six months rebuilding a formerly dysfunctional police department.

Hired months after the arrest of former police Chief Bob Kershaw, Barthel has focused his efforts on providing proper training for officers, replacing high-mileage vehicles and planning for future needs of the department.

Although he's effectively juggled funding — such as using funding for unfilled positions to purchase mandatory safety gear — a citywide shortfall is expected to leave Barthel's department, the fire department and public works without money for day-to-day operations.

A public safety levy, which provides $600,000 of $750,000 needed annually, will sunset in two years.

The City Council and a citizen-based subcommittee have been brainstorming possible surcharge amounts in recent weeks, ranging from around $14 per month to four times as much; though residents and business owners are divided over which group should pay more.

Of the proposed surcharge's $700,000 in revenue, $330,000 would go into the general fund to provide basic expenses and salaries for police, fire and streets; an additional $50,000 each for police and fire would fund a fraction of capital improvements; $170,000 would fund some street repairs and another $100,000 would set aside for a permanent City Hall facility.

City manager Dale Shaddox told residents last week that failure of the city to implement a surcharge almost immediately could find the city's balance sheets in the red this summer.

By law, a city cannot carry a negative balance and it must provide a minimum of five municipal services or it could be disbanded.

Barthel worries that, after a hard-fought battle to establish even a basic standard for the department, all could have been in vain.

Without adequate funding, Barthel says vehicle leases that end could not be renewed, leaving the department without vehicles, and officers would go without updated radios and other technology.

"What I'm hoping to get across is no matter what happens, whatever decision is made, we'll do the best we can with what we have," Barthel said. "But at some point we're going to have things we need. We'll have to find the funding by squeezing somewhere else, like overtime budgets or training. We're still providing bare bones facilities as far as training is concerned."

Shaddox said Friday he hopes residents realize the predicament the city is in. The shortfall has developed over the past decade, or for longer, as revenue failed to keep up with increasing costs.

A negative balance would put the city in violation of its charter requirements and, without resolving the situation, could be disbanded, Shaddox said.

"It's a drastic conclusion to make, but unfortunately it's true," he said. "I could describe the ideal scenario for savings and for cash flow to provide good service. And it would be a very, very large dollar amount "¦ . That's our real assignment — and every city should be doing that.

"What we have here is a completely different problem in that we haven't had a history of looking at our finances strategically. We're only talking about being able to fund the bare minimum level of services."

Thus far, Shaddox said having wrapped his mind around the severity of the city's funding situation, he hadn't begun to consider what would happen without a surcharge.

"I'm not even thinking on that side of the equation. My thinking is it will get approved and that the council and community will realize it's necessary for us to move forward and remain as a city," Shaddox said. "I have great empathy for them because we as a community should not be in this position in the first place."

Barthel said he's taking the optimistic route as well.

"I don't want to paint a picture of all doom and gloom," Barthel said. "The department is in better condition right now than it's ever been in ... . We're holding out hope that we'll be able to maintain that. We certainly don't want to lose what's been done."

Reception by residents to the surcharge in recent weeks has ranged from acceptance to frustration.

A study session is set for 6:30 p.m. Monday in the city public works building. For more information, call 535-1955.

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.