Finding enough money to run a city is getting harder and harder, so it’s understandable that the Minneapolis City Council is steaming over the police department’s last-minute confession that it has overshot its budget by $8 million. As always, when something like that happens, there’s a story behind the story. This time there are several.
• First, this isn’t the first time that cops have had trouble with numbers. Routinely, in the bad old days when city budgets were put together in the shadows, all kinds of fiscal trickery were tolerated. (Remember the internal borrowing to buy new squad cars and high-tech gadgetry in the ’90s that put the city’s credit rating at risk?) Finally, after yet another budget bumble in 2006, the City Council required the police and fire departments to hire financial experts to keep a close watch.
• Chief Tim Dolan, whose crime-fighting record is stellar, hired Gaynell Schandel, who some observers think is not up to the job. “She’s a lovely person who doesn’t have a financial background” is how one City Hall insider put it. “The chief made a bad hiring decision and then relied on that person and others who don’t have financial training,” said another.
• The incident reflects poorly not only on Dolan but on his patron, Mayor R.T. Rybak, who included Dolan’s phony numbers in his own budget proposal. Rybak is a leading candidate for governor. If the upcoming cuts in police operations coincide with any rise next year in the city’s admirably low crime rate, Rybak’s political chances could be damaged, probably unfairly.
• The police budget surprise reflects badly also on Minneapolis’ insanely loose City Hall structure. Without a stronger system that gives more power either to the mayor or a city manager, the lines of accountability don’t work. Dolan has 14 bosses — Rybak and 13 City Council members. The chief relies on advice from his own financial advisers, not from the city’s Finance Department, because that’s what the structure dictates.
• The Finance Department, by the way, had been warning police officials since June that they would significantly overshoot their budget. The police had counted on federal stimulus money that didn’t materialize, among other things. Finance Director Patrick Born said on Tuesday that budgets based on hope aren’t a good idea.
Council may try to change proposed cuts
The upshot is that the City Council, working now to achieve a budget, will probably step in to fix the Police Department’s mess. Odds are that council members will try to save the crime-prevention personnel that Dolan now proposes to cut, while making deeper trims elsewhere within the department.
“If the police can’t manage their budget, there’s no big appetite to punish the other departments who can,” said Council Member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward). Keeping as many sworn officers on the streets as possible will be the prime objective, she said. The council lacks the authority to fire Schandel or move her to another job, Hodges said, but it can bring pressure. “Pressure will be brought to bear,” she predicted.
A structural problem
Council Member Paul Ostrow (1st Ward), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said the situation reflects less on Dolan and Schandel than on a city structure that lacks clear lines of accountability. “The system isn’t working,” he said, and predicted an attempt to shift financial planning for police and fire to the Finance Department.
Born said that the matter should be viewed in wider perspective. The current budgeting system is far more transparent than in the past when budget surprises were almost routine. Dolan missed this year’s budget by $3 million, resulting in another $5 million trim going forward. Those numbers are set against an overall police budget of $135 million. But steep reductions in state funding have deeply affected city functions, including police, in recent years.
The Police Department consumes about a third of the city’s general fund and, not counting for pensions, about 10 percent of the city’s $1.3 billion budget.
Crime rate is low
Under Dolan, who took over as chief in January 2007, crime has fallen sharply. Through the middle of 2009, the crime rate was declining for the third straight year, and the homicide rate was the lowest in 25 years. Minneapolis’ success on juvenile crime has been nationally noted. Juvenile arrests for violent crimes have dropped by half over the last decade.
Criminologists, however, are not confident in estimating the impact of police methods on crime levels. The economy, courts, prisons and changing cultures all play a part. That’s why it would be unfair to directly tie crime statistics — if they rise — to Rybak or to the police force’s budget miscalculations.
Dolan is up for reappointment in January, but no one expects the budget glitch to cost him his job. “I want to offer my sincere apologies,” the chief told the budget committee last week.