Our View: Public safety must come first

Our View: Public safety must come first
Alexandria police officers packed into city council chamber's rows on March 12. (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

Public safety is the first function of government at every level. This necessity stems from the fact that, without protection, we live in a Hobbesian world that is “nasty, brutish and short.” At the federal level, we need armed military forces and intelligence services. At the local level, we need police, fire and EMT personnel – before anything else.

Protection, and fairly compensating those who protect us, has to be the first priority for any city budget. Like so many infrastructure items that were kicked down the road, so too has our city long lagged behind in adequately compensating its police, fire and EMT personnel. It would be nice to fully fund every item that Alexandria City Public Schools, Parks and Recreation and other city departments ask for.

But it is essential that we pay our police, fire and EMT workers wages that are fair and that keep them from departing for other jurisdictions. It’s extraordinarily short-sighted to be at the bottom of our region in compensation for public safety employees. That leaves us in the position of serving as a trainer of officers, who, just as they become proficient in their jobs, leave us for literally greener pastures.

We have several takeaways from the current funding level in City Manager Mark Jinks’ budget and the way this budget cycle is playing out.

The cynical take is that this was a calculated shorting of public safety dollars in the budget, with a predictable outcry from public safety personnel and the public for more funding.
With the budget set, the most likely way to meet this demand would be to – you guessed it – go ahead and raise the tax rate even though the city manager’s budget does not call for an increase.

We say this because, other than Mayor Allison Silberberg, no one presents deletes during the add/delete portion of the budget process – we seem to be an add-only city. Council is about to set the range of possible tax rates for the FY2019 budget. This protest by public safety officers gives them election-year cover to bump up the top end of that range.
The second takeaway is that we need to become much more serious about generating cost savings in our budgets and building projects. For starters, we need to have at least bi-annual actual full audits of our entire city and school budgets, rather than the “auditing of processes” that take place.

The joint city-schools task force that spent money on outside consultants and was tasked with prioritizing capital improvement projects did not present concrete solutions on how
to prevent the multi-million dollar cost overruns on future construction projects that are the norm in Alexandria. From Jefferson-Houston School to the Charles Houston recreation center to the new police headquarters, Alexandria has a long and sad history of excessive cost overruns on building projects. This has to be corrected, because money wasted on construction projects is money not available for police officers and firefighters.

So, our public safety officers need to be better paid. How to do so is the dilemma.