Call 911: City Cuts Police Department

Posted: July 7, 2011 in Budget
Tags: , , ,

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the furloughs which will soon shut down the entire Alto, Texas police force.  Here’s the gist of things:

City Council members sent the police home when they decided they couldn’t afford them. On June 15, the police chief and his four officers secured the evidence room, changed the passwords on their computers and locked the department’s doors for six months—longer if local finances don’t improve by then.

For now, the Cherokee County sheriff’s office, based 12 miles north in Rusk, is policing Alto, a city of about 1,200. Sheriff James Campbell said the extra load would strain his 25 deputies and reservists, who oversee a 1,000-square-mile territory. The sheriff is already responsible for the nearby city of Wells, which has a population of about 800 and earlier this year shed its only police officer. Crime went up initially, he said, but has stabilized.

This will provide an interesting case study in the effectiveness of police forces and the impact on communities of either privatizing or cutting local law enforcement units.  Will crime skyrocket, remain constant, or fall somewhere in between?  Will this have a larger (if any) impact on violent or non-violent crime rates?  An examination of the incentives at stake would be interesting: is there a moral hazard within Alto because it knows Cherokee County will lend some security because Alto is “too big to fail” or worried of contagion?  How will private businesses and residential communities react?

Of predominant interest to me is the town’s budget.  If the City Council is cutting funding for the police department, what are they not cutting?

I skimmed through the city’s budget and saw a couple interesting areas.  The city spends $6,600 on cell phones and $7,800 on landlines.  I’m not sure who has cell phones, but perhaps there could be some consolidation and removal of landlines.  There was  the possibility of closing the library, which would have saved a single job for the police staff, eliminating animal control (a paltry $2,000), and that was about it.  The police department was the third biggest expenditure besides city gas bills and administrative costs.  Water and garbage service combined was barely more than the police budget.

As someone who believes in a less robust role for government and a larger role for markets, I often am skeptical of any claims that government is as small as it should be.  Certainly some privatization could occur in this town, yet it is remarkable how little the town provides in terms of services.  There is a difference between large governments and big budgets just as there is a difference between small government and a small budget.  Within this city, certainly government is small.  Whether we are ready to throw ourselves and others into complete privatization when government dangles shiny objects bought through coercive taxation in front of those unwittingly thrown into the fire is an interesting question.

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