In Minneapolis, a rift opens over who controls police budget
The Minneapolis City Council is expected to approve spending $350,000 out of the police budget to continue providing patrols at public housing sites on Friday. The expenditure comes at a time when the police department is on track to go over budget by nearly $6 million. The unexpected expense has exposed a rift over who should control spending for the police department.
St. Paul, Minn. — Public housing resident Millie Watson, 76, remembers what her high-rise building was like in the bad old days.
"You'd try to get on the elevator and gang-bangers were on there. And you don't what to do, get on or get off. So we usually would just get out of the way. That was back then," Watson says.
Those were the days before the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority began paying the Minneapolis Police Department for increased presence at public housing buildings.
The two agencies formed an eight-officer public housing unit. The authority paid for the officers' salaries, equipment and squad cars. By most accounts, the unit has been effective in reducing crime at public housing sites.
Now, the federal government has cut funding to public housing. MPHA Deputy Executive Director Tom Streitz says the agency needs help keeping the policing program alive. Streitz met with Chief Tim Dolan last year, and proposed that the city absorb half the cost of the $700,000 contract.
"That is something the chief thought was a good idea. He's seen the value of the team and believes in it," says Streitz. "We had an agreement amongst ourselves that's how we would proceed. Now, a few months ago I was made aware by the City Council that they really believe that they need to be more involved in the budget process."
Actually, Streitz received a bit of a scolding by council members. They said they should have been approached a lot sooner with this budget request, according to Councilmember Paul Ostrow, chair of the budget committee.
"The Ways and Means Budget committee doesn't take real kindly to having something off-budget foisted upon it without its approval," says Ostrow. "Because at the end of the day, the city council sets the budget for this city."
This is not the first time this year that Ostrow and other members of his committee have been upset by Police Department spending. In May councilmembers, some reluctantly, approved a $750,000 appropriation from the city's emergency fund to pay for police overtime expenses.
There's a natural tension between department heads and elected officials, according to Councilmember Betsy Hodges, also a member of the budget committee.
"I think that's magnified in the city of Minneapolis by the way our charter is set up. The mayor is in charge of the police department, by charter. But the city council is in charge of the budget, including the police department budget. And that just adds a layer of complication," Hodges says.
Police Chief Tim Dolan says his relationships with the council and the mayor are fine. But he says there are times when he feels his hands are being tied by a tight budget.
For example, Dolan says the unpredictable nature of crime makes it hard to predict overtime costs. And he says his current overtime budget is too small.
"We have, in my view, a very low funded overtime amount for a department our size. It's about $2.8 million for a department of over 1,100 employees. That's on the extreme low end," Dolan said.
City Council members want to avoid another surprise from the public housing authority next year. So they've instructed Dolan to negotiate a new contract with the authority for 2008.
Dolan says a lot will depend on how much money MPHA has in its budget. But he says the public housing police unit is effective, and he wants it to continue in some form.
- Morning Edition, 07/20/2007, 7:20 a.m.