Despite rocky times, Aurora nixes tax hike quest for now

(Image/Aurora Police Dept.)

(Image/Aurora Police Dept.)

A voter-mandated increase in police officers is taking the brunt of the blame for another round of tough budget cuts — perhaps up to $15 million — in Aurora next year. But an effort to revisit the formula was recently pulled for lack of support.

Councilman Larry Beer tabled his proposal to ask voters to lift the city’s mandatory staffing ratio of two police officers for every 1,000 residents, which was approved in 1993, along with a quarter-percent sales tax hike to pay for the additional officers, when it became clear he didn’t have the necessary support on the City Council to put a question on the ballot or the time to mount a campaign before the November election.

As Aurora hit rocky economic times after Sept. 11, 2001, keeping up with the mandate has meant diverting money from other city services, such as libraries, arts and recreation funding. Lawmakers shaved more than $10 million off the city’s 2006 budget due to funding shortages.

“I wanted to introduce the idea because we have this big budget problem that we’re running into with the need to cut somewhere between $10 and $15 million from next year’s budget,” said Beer, who added that the two-per-1,000 ratio is an arbitrary formula that many people cite as part of Aurora’s overall budget problems.

In 2008, Aurora’s general operating budget was $248 million, an increase of about 15 percent since 2004. In the same four years the Police Department’s budget increased 28 percent to $75 million.

The city’s population has grown from almost 304,000 in 2005, when two-per-1,000 was officially implemented, and is projected to hit 322,000 residents next year, according to the Aurora Planning Department. Between 1993 and 2003, the city and Aurora’s police union argued about the mandate’s technical meaning, eventually reaching an agreement through arbitration to implement the full ratio by 2005.

Hiring and equipping an additional police officer costs Aurora about $80,000 a year, according to the city budget office. Before the city implemented the two-per-1,000 ratio, Aurora had about 1.7 police officers for every 1,000 residents. In a city of about 310,000 residents, that 0.3 difference adds up to 93 officers and approximately $7.4 million annually.

Proponents of the two-per-1,000 mandate say it’s not fair to blame the cost of the additional officers and police equipment for the city’s budget woes.

Randy Rester, the president of the Aurora Fire Fighters Protective Association, said the city’s public safety forces get blamed for everything from the fall of the Roman Empire to polio, adding he doesn’t believe the city has dire budget woes.

Don James, president of the Aurora Police Association, said Aurora’s argument rests on the specious premise that this growing city would have never hired additional police officers without the mandate.

“When you start doing the math, the figures that you start using basically infer that they would have never increased the size of the police department,” James said.

Ellen Belef, a member of the Citizens Advisory Budget Committee since 1999, said the two-per-1,000 mandate has led to a reduction of city services across the board, even in the Police Department, which now uses uniformed officers to staff civilian jobs as front desk clerks at the cost of $80,000 a year per officer because the city can’t afford to hire administrative assistants for the department.

According to a report from a blue-ribbon panel asked to evaluate Aurora’s structure and budget, three civilians could be hired for the cost of two officers.

“You can see how it’s just decimating all other programs … they’ve made major cuts to every other program in the city for the past five years,” Belef said, noting a reduction in library hours and the shabby state of flower beds and ponds in city parks.

City officials said earlier this year that Aurora’s 2009 budget will be at least $5 million in the red, but sources with knowledge of the budget preparation say the final deficit — which the city won’t officially announce until later this year — will be significantly higher.

More than half of the city’s day-to-day operations are funded by sales tax revenue, like many other Colorado communities that now find themselves strapped for cash in hard economic times. As consumer confidence has been shaken by a weak economy, residents have cut back on shopping, which has meant less money ended up in city coffers.

Aurora had expected sales tax revenue to increase by 3 percent this year but is now projecting the increase to be only 0.7 percent, according to City Budget Officer Jason Batchelor. But that 0.7 percent growth doesn’t keep up with the increasing costs of health care, two-per-1,000 and a raise for city employees. Leaving a $10 million budget gap, Batchelor added.

A revenue study two years ago alerted city officials that Aurora’s revenues streams couldn’t keep up with the rising costs of services or increases in the population of Colorado’s third-largest city.

A number of alternatives have been explored since then, but city lawmakers haven’t agreed on a solution.

Last year, City Council briefly considered adding a 0.25 percent tax on liquor sales to pay for the hiring of additional police officers but quickly quashed the idea when liquor-serving establishments voiced opposition to the proposed “sin tax.”

In 2006, City Council briefly considered a tax on soda before quickly rejecting that alternative.

City officials earlier this year also considered a move to impose fees on growth before determining the controversial proposal needed more study and consideration.

Without additional revenue, and with a mandate to spend more on police officers, Aurora will have to cut back in other ways. In addition to eliminating jobs, the most commonly targeted city services in past years have been funding for libraries and recreation centers, raises for city employees, and street and facility maintenance.

Opponents of the two-per-1,000 mandate argue that those things may seem small but eventually have a big impact on residents’ lives.

“That’s the difference between a good city and a great city: quality of life,” Belef said.

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J.C. O'Connell

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