Groups, unions express doubts about tax hike to bolster New Orleans Police Department _lowres

 

New Orleans voters next month will decide whether to impose a property tax increase designed, in part, to pay for an aggressive expansion of the New Orleans Police Department’s depleted ranks.

Setting aside the opposition that any new tax inevitably generates, it would seem to be an easy sell in a city frustrated over slow response times and nearly daily reports of another life lost to gun violence.

But the plan is being met with skepticism by some public safety groups, analysts and even police unions, all of whom say City Hall has done little to prove it can meet its goal of bringing at least 185 new officers onto the force next year, extra tax money or no.

Many argue it’s an overly optimistic goal for a department that had been shrinking for years before notching its first, minor success last year, expanding by a few dozen officers.

“I certainly cannot in good conscience not support more funds for the Police Department, for any venture for the Police Department,” said Capt. Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans. “But that being said, I have no confidence in the plans that they have articulated and the rationale for it.”

Officials with the Mayor’s Office and NOPD say a streamlining of the department’s recruitment process, eased hiring standards and higher pay for officers all will help the city meet the goal.

“Just last year, we beat our attrition rate. That’s why we’re confident that we’ll hit our 150 this year,” NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said.

The new NOPD millage is one of two that will be put before the voters in a combined ballot measure on April 9. The NOPD portion amounts to an increase of 5 mills, which is expected to bring in about $17.7 million in its first year.

The ballot measure also includes a 2.5-mill increase for the Fire Department, expected to generate about $8.9 million a year. That money would be put into the department’s pension fund, freeing up money to pay a decades-old, $75 million judgment covering long-overdue back pay. The increase would remain in effect for 12 years, the amount of time needed to pay off the money owed to the firefighters.

The NOPD portion of the tax will cover most — but not all — of what the city is expected to need next year if the hiring drive is successful; another $3 million for staffing and equipment will have to come from other funds. The city is also counting on a continuing rise in property tax revenue because of higher assessments.

“The (new) millage only really gets you through the first year of hiring at the expanded rate,” Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni said. “You need the millage plus the additional growth that can be expected at 2 percent a year.”

Still, the question is whether the city can attract enough new officers to meet its goals in an environment where departments nationwide are having trouble recruiting.

The NOPD grew to more than 1,600 officers in the late 1990s and remained near that level until after Hurricane Katrina, when its ranks dropped below 1,500, according to FBI statistics.

A hiring freeze Mayor Mitch Landrieu instituted after taking office in 2010 in response to deficits he inherited only dug the hole deeper, as officers continued to leave the force. Even with aggressive hiring in the past few years, the total number of officers kept falling until 2015.

At the end of that year, the force had grown by 31 officers to 1,163, including 34 recruits who started training Dec. 30.

The city’s $601.7 million budget for 2016 includes an increase of more than $10 million for the NOPD that, in part, is aimed at paying for 150 new officers this year. NOPD officials estimate they will need to hire 185 officers a year between 2017 and 2020 to reach the 1,600 goal. Those estimates include assumptions that every year 80 officers will leave the force and 10 recruits will leave before becoming sworn officers.

The city has tried to improve police hiring by boosting pay by 15 percent and scrapping requirements that officers live in the parish and have a certain amount of college education. Changes to the recruitment process already are yielding some positive results, officials said, allowing applicants to take the necessary exam on their own schedule and get through background checks more quickly.

While applicants previously would have to wait about eight months before entering the academy, some have now gotten through the process in less than four.

Jeff Asher, a crime analyst who writes the “Behind the Numbers” blog for The New Orleans Advocate, said the department still faces an uphill battle; its goal would have it grow far faster than departments elsewhere in the country.

“It is difficult under the best of circumstances, and right now does not seem like the best of circumstances, either in the city or nationwide,” Asher said.

There’s also the question of getting recruits through the process. The most recent academy class started at the end of last year, which means making this year’s goals will require beginning four or five new classes in the next nine months.

The court-mandated reform plan for the department puts its own limits on recruitment, capping new classes at 30 each. The city is seeking to ease that restriction.

New Orleans is not alone in struggling with recruitment issues, said Will Aitchison, a Portland, Oregon, lawyer who represents police unions and studies national trends in police employment.

One reason was the 2008 recession, which led many departments to freeze hiring, pay or benefits; another factor is increased scrutiny of officers, which may be turning some away from the job, Aitchison said.

“Applicants are now voting with their feet; it’s a huge national challenge,” he said.

The board of the Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s other police union, has not yet weighed in on the millage. But spokesman Donovan Livaccari said the group has yet to have all its questions about the proposal resolved, even after meeting with administration officials.

Both Livaccari and Glasser said changes the city has implemented do not address problems in the department that may turn off potential recruits, including what they said is a lack of a path for advancement and salary increases once officers are hired.

Livaccari also raised concerns that if the city doesn’t meet its hiring goals, the money could simply be used to replace other funds already going to the Police Department — which, in turn, would be used elsewhere in the city’s budget.

Recruitment may prove to be a difficult issue to solve, he said.

“If the Police Department gets this millage money, it doesn’t change the fact that they need to keep recruiting and keep hiring,” he said.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.