A month after Baltimore officials paid out $21 million to the police department for overtime pay that far surpassed the city’s budget, City Council members say they’ve had enough.
Leaders on the Baltimore City Council plan to begin holding monthly accountability meetings about the police department, focusing on both the agency’s budget and its crime-fighting strategies, officials said.
“If they’re not going to manage their budget, we will,” said City Councilman Leon Pinkett, vice chairman of the council’s budget committee. He and other council leaders plan to announce the stepped-up monitoring Monday.
Through a spokesman, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, who oversees the budget office and the police department, declined to comment.
Last month, the Board of Estimates approved the use of $21 million in excess tax revenue to pay for police overtime that surpassed the city’s budget.
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he didn’t want to see another year of police overtime exceeding the budget. With the new fiscal year starting in July, now is a good time to try to bring spending in line, he said.
“The police department cannot continue to just have an open checkbook for overtime,” Young said. “The police overtime is almost as large as the rec and parks budget.”
The police department ran well over its $16 million budget for overtime pay for the fiscal year that ends June 30. In March, Baltimore’s budget director said the police department had spent more than $36 million on overtime during the fiscal year.
The exact amount of overtime spent by police last fiscal year won’t be known until next week, according to the city’s budget office, but the agency was on pace to spend close to $50 million.
“We’re going to take a close look at everything as it relates to the police budget,” Young said.
For years, the police department has run millions over budget on overtime spending. But finance officials typically use conservative estimates to project the next year’s tax revenue and then use the excess funds to cover the overtime pay.
Next year’s budget earmarks $20 million for police overtime. Baltimore Finance Director Henry Raymond has said he is expecting the police department to live within its means.
The city law department is auditing the police department’s overtime as part of a lawsuit and a federal civil rights decree that requires the agency to study its staffing.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, who is chairman of the public safety committee, said he’s concerned that the mayor’s revamped Citistat office is not keeping as close an eye on fiscal matters as it should.
“Citistat I don’t believe is functioning at the level it should,” Scott said.
“If they’re not doing the work, someone has to fill that void,” Pinkett said.
One problem contributing to the high overtime spending is a shortage of patrol officers.
Council members are pushing the police department to expand its use of auxiliary officers and online crime reporting as part of an effort to save more than $2 million annually and free up uniformed officers for patrol.
Scott said the police department remains short of patrol officers and should rely on auxiliary police — trained volunteers — to perform some non-emergency tasks of the agency.
“The shortage of patrol officers in Baltimore has been well documented over the past year,” Scott said. “Officers are being drafted for mandatory overtime every day just to meet basic patrol needs for the city. However, despite this reality, the city has not altered the way the department operates even amidst a historic increase in violent crimes.”
City council members and union officials say the department needs 1,200 patrol officers to function effectively. But fewer than 800 officers are currently assigned to patrol.
Scott said the police department currently has 11 auxiliary police officers, but he wants to see that program expanded significantly. Scott said he’d like to see at least five auxiliary officers in each of the city’s nine police districts.
“Traffic accidents, special event traffic, monitoring city watch cameras, and taking reports of minor crimes like larceny from auto or vandalism are just a few ways auxiliary police are used,” he said. “These volunteer hours free up officers to focus on being proactive on violent crime.”
Scott is also pushing for expanded use of online reporting and telephone reporting systems for minor incidents — saving patrol officers time from taking such reports. The Baltimore Police Department announced this program in 2013, but has not fully implemented it, according to Scott.
The city could save millions a year by using auxiliary officers to staff sporting events and collect reports for minor incidents online, the city’s budget office says.
The finance department says the changes recommended by Scott could save $1.2 million annually from reporting of minor incidents through the online system; $578,000 annually from telephone reporting of traffic accidents; $235,000 from using auxiliary police to manager traffic during Ravens games and $182,000 from using auxiliary police to manage traffic during Orioles games.
“Why can’t the auxiliary police do all the games around Oriole Park and M&T Bank Stadium?” Young asked at a hearing last week on the issue. “We need our officers out on the streets.”
Baltimore police say they favor expanding the programs.
“The BPD has experienced a steep decline in the number of sworn officers over the last several years.This phenomenon has led to a multitude of problems including budgetary issues, crime control and staffing problems,” James Gillis, the police department’s chief of staff, wrote in a letter to the council. “A robust Auxiliary Police Program would help offset these problems and allow sworn officers to focus on crime enforcement. Expanded use of telephone and online reporting would help accomplish these goals as well.”
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Gillis noted that there is “no office budget or funding source for the Auxiliary Police Unit that currently exists — it is entirely voluntary.”