“Let’s Raise Taxes for More Police”: We Saw this Movie in 2006

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Last week it was suggested that Houston voters should agree to pay more in property taxes in order to hire more police.  We have already done that once, in 2006.   Perhaps before we rush to allow the City to increase property taxes by more than the 4.5% annual amount the City charter now allows[i], we should take a look at how that 2006 increase worked out.

As most of you know, in 2004, Houston voters amended the City charter to keep the City from raising property taxes by more than the sum of inflation and population increase.  In 2006, the City came back to voters and asked for an additional $90 million above that cap, in perpetuity.  That is to say, $90 million would be added to the calculation of the 2004 cap each year in the future.  That extension of the cap has now been in place for 11 years, so Houston taxpayers have forked over nearly a billion additional dollars over the original cap for “public safety.”

How much additional public safety has our nearly one billion dollars bought us?  Turns out, not so much.

FY2006-2007 was the last year before the City began collecting the extra $90 million each year.  According to the City’s annual reports, since 2007 the City added a whopping 20 employees to the police department’s payroll, a three-tenths of one percent increase (0.3%). [ii]  Seventy police officers and forty-five cadets have been added, but the number of civilian employees and cadets have fallen by ninety-five, meaning that more officers have been transferred from patrol and investigation to administrative jobs.

Of course, the HPD budget has risen significantly, going from $576 million in 2007 to $827 million this year, a 44% increase.  The budget for personnel has grown from $535 million to $782 million, a 46% increase.  The average per-employee personnel cost (salary plus all benefits and insurance) has grown from $85,253 to $123,553.  (Click [here] to review 2007 and 2018 HPD budgets.)

Based on any objective measure I can find, there is no evidence that these added expenses have made the police department more efficient.  The number of arrests made by HPD fell from 122,000 in 2007 to just under 52,000 last year, a 57% decrease.  It issued 544,000 fewer tickets last year than in 2007, a 58% decline.  The City only started reporting clearance rate in its budgets in 2012.  That year, HPD cleared 18.6% of “Part I” offenses (all violent crime plus burglary and auto theft).  In its budget request this year, HPD estimated it had cleared 13.4% in FY2016-2017.  HPD estimates of its response times have not changed significantly.

Nor is it true that HPD is significantly understaffed compared to other cities.  According to a 2016 Governing Magazine study, the ten largest cities in the US have an average of 25 officers per 10,000 residents.  Houston has 22 and is, therefore, 12% below the average.  However, there are three cities, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia which are significantly above the average at 42, 43 and 41, respectively.  If you drop those three out, the average of the remaining cities is 21, slightly below Houston.

Of course, it is patently absurd to compare Houston to New York in terms of police staffing because of the special risks New York faces, e.g., the United Nations.  Chicago and Philadelphia have violent crime rates that are roughly equivalent to Houston’s, indicating that their larger forces have not accomplished much.  It is also worth noting that these three cities have the largest negative net deficits of all U.S. cities.  So, they should hardly be examples by which we should manage our city.

The next five largest cities in Texas have an average of 15 officers per 10,000, well below Houston.  Among the five, only Dallas is higher at 25.

So, does Houston need more police officers?  Probably.  But I am fed up with throwing more money at the police department with no accountability.  I mean, have you ever heard anyone at the City ask why arrests are down by 57% in the last ten years, including a 16% drop last year?  Have you heard anyone ask HPD why the violent crime clearance rate is down by nearly 5% in the last six years?  I certainly have not.

Communities all over this city are already coming out of pocket to hire constables and private security companies to patrol their neighborhoods because they cannot get HPD to do so.  Does anyone really believe that if we allow the City to raise property taxes, patrols will suddenly appear in their neighborhoods.  And after the City used the drainage fees to pay for employees and pet projects, does anyone believe this money will really be used to hire police officers?  Until we have some demonstration that the City can more efficiently manage HPD and that it can keep its promises on how it will spend our money, I am not voting to give it another dime.

[i] The charter amendment is based on a formula.  Since the adoption of the amendment, City property taxes have averaged increasing 4.4% annually.

[ii] There are some HPD personnel that are paid from “special funds.”  Since these funds come from various sources and are unaffected by the City’s property tax receipts, I have not included them in this analysis.  From 2007 to 2017 the number of HPD employees paid from these funds increased from 95 to 173.

4 Comments
  • Toni Lawrence
    Posted at 15:15h, 08 May Reply

    One of Houston’s biggest problems with police budget is anytime an officer, lets say one who has served for 5 years, gets a raise the Chiefs get a raise!

  • Jay Jarahan
    Posted at 20:29h, 10 May Reply

    Great points and well-supported by data. Now, will the voters take notice and draw the line? With you 100%, Bill.

    Jay K

  • Houston
    Posted at 00:13h, 11 May Reply

    Mr. King, please keep in mind that no one involved with HPD leadership has ever pledged to run an efficient operation, nor have they ever engaged in anything other than the most basic of statistical analyses by people not versed in how to do them at that. The most re-structuring that has ever taken place in the department is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, never mind making wholesale changes needed to insure the public’s safety. As a side note, when using pre-stock market crash data, it is important to factor in that when police pension benefits were cut in 2004, then-mayor White provided a three year window for employees to retire without losing benefits so many hundreds of additional officers retired, the same thing happened to a lesser degree last year during the second round of cuts.

    It is also important to remember that those other cities have police departments that are structured differently than Houston, one quick example is that the Harris County Sheriff’s Department handles many of the functions some of those departments incorporate that HPD does not, so the problem is worse than you may think. The current leadership of HPD wants more manpower but is unwilling to state how it will be used, Police Chief Acevedo hinting it will be to dress things up with his version of community policing, the kind where attending community meetings and events is more important than solving crimes. While warm and fuzzy for proponents, it ignores the fact that crime levels are largely driven by population demographics, not the number of officers.

    While using quantitative metrics to measure efficiency or productivity have their place, consider further than things like how many tickets are written really doesn’t say much unless someone is willing to follow up with exactly what type of ticket, there being a huge difference between expired stickers and red light violations or speeders. The atmosphere of de-policing is in full swing too, officers being told to take it easy because hard workers are not valued under the current regime nor those in recent years. The more you work, the more you will face inquiries driven by disgruntled suspects, the administration more interested in pleasing the inmates than sensible policies. So when officers are told to no longer arrest drunks in public but to shuffle them to a holding tank in the middle of downtown, or instructed to let those possessing pot go but still have to do all the work tasks tied to the crime, or any number of other policies designed to lower productivity, you have to look at the changes in organizational culture as a factor too.

    Ultimately, many citizens share your views here. If the city is not going to properly use the manpower it already has, why do we want to hire a great many more in addition to what we already have? Chief Acevedo plays fast and loose with data that is independently verifiable by other sources yet no credible media exists to call him on his embellishments, none of them want to be on his bad side because then their newspaper or TV station will be excluded from stories. I could see lifting the cap to pay off existing debt on the condition that changes were made for new employees but given how quickly compensation increases for most public safety employees, do we really want to see what the cost of those rookie firemen or police climbs to in 5 or 10 years, all with little to show for it?

  • MD West
    Posted at 22:54h, 12 August Reply

    one more piece of trivia, I am pretty sure it was 1975. A one percent increase of City Taxes was approved (Mayor Louis Welch) specifically earmarked for HPD officer. Worked out nice for two years then went into the general fund via reprogramming. 50 years of same OH same OH.
    Count on it occurring w/both Harris Cty flood Bonds and Sylvesters openPurse Bonds.

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