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By Lynn Horsley and Christine Vendel
Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Too few cops on the streets. Too many high-mileage patrol cars. Vietnam-era helicopters. And an alarming spike in homicides.
Those are just some of the factors propelling the Kansas City Police Department to seek a $45 million increase in next year's budget to help pay for 54 new officers, more jailers and 911 call-takers, crime lab upgrades and more.
"These are what we consider necessities," said Maj. David Zimmerman, fiscal division commander.
But this may be the worst possible time to be asking for a 20 percent increase.
The request for $270 million - up from $225 million this year - comes as some City Council members and budget analysts say the city's revenues are stagnant and other costs are exploding.
"Public safety is our No. 1 priority, but we have no money," said Councilwoman Deb Hermann, finance committee chairwoman. "It may be tough to just hold steady on what was funded this year. We hope the economy will recover quickly, but no one is saying that."
Mayor Mark Funkhouser, who serves on the police board, was even more blunt.
"They have asked for a huge increase," he said. "That's obviously not going to happen."
While police are asking for more money, the city also faces pleas for more dollars to deal with trash removal, streetlight repairs, abandoned houses, sewer upgrades and other programs that people demand.
Still, some say that with violent crime escalating, the city has no choice but to free up more money for police. August was the deadliest month in city history, with 21 homicides. The city tallied 111 homicides as of Tuesday, on pace for 2008 to be the worst year this decade.
"The problem with underfunding the police one year is that you have an even bigger need the next year," said Councilman John Sharp. "I think we need to significantly increase funding for our Police Department."
In a letter to the City Council, Police Chief Jim Corwin acknowledged that the city cannot address all the department's needs, but he said it is his duty to request what he believes is required to do the job. Among the top priorities:
• 54 new officers and their equipment. The City Council promised in 2002 to pay for 20 additional officers each year but did not fulfill that commitment last year. To make up the difference, the department is asking for 40 new officers next year, plus 14 additional officers to fully staff the new Northland patrol station and add detectives to investigate violent crimes. The cost: $2.4 million in general taxpayer dollars, not counting grant money already on the way.
• 14 new 911 call takers, six new dispatchers and 10 jailers. The department says the 911 staffers would improve call waiting and response times and reduce high turnover from burned-out workers. The new jailers would free up officers manning the detention facility. The cost: About $1.3 million.
• More than 400 new police vehicles. The department says it needs about 300 new cars to replace high-mileage or broken-down cars, plus 100 more to make sure officers do not have to wait for a car when they start their shifts. Cost: $10.5 million.
• A new rescue helicopter, plus maintenance and replacement engines. The department's three current helicopters are Defense Department surplus from the Vietnam War, and replacement parts are worn out. Cost: $2.4 million.
• New crime lab staff and equipment. Corwin says upgrades are needed to increase the number of crimes investigated forensically, including property crimes. The low property crime prosecution rate leaves residents frustrated and fearful. Cost: $1.2 million.
Veteran police board member Karl Zobrist said these and the other items that add up to the $45 million increase constitute "a realistic budget," especially to improve patrol and investigation operations.
"Police are asked every day, 'What are you doing to fight crime?' " he said.
Sharp agrees the department needs additional officers and more resources for its 911 center and crime lab to deter the violence and burglaries.
He suggested the city could free up funds for at least some of the police needs by reducing costs in the city's health insurance program and possibly by using a portion of the city's rainy day reserve fund.
But Sharp said he also doesn't want to just throw money at the problem. He wants more information on just how the department would effectively use the new money for investigations and more effective deterrence.
At a recent council committee meeting, Maj. Anthony Ell, commander of the department's violent crime division, offered some answers.
He said lab upgrades will expedite DNA results and prosecutions. In addition, more patrol and investigations officers will help the department focus on individuals, gangs, drug houses, bars and other locations where disputes may erupt. He said there are numerous strategies the police are deploying to improve intelligence and prevent retaliations.
City Councilwoman Cathy Jolly agreed the city needs additional police resources to address the crisis. But she said city officials also need to work with churches, schools, mediation advocates and other community organizations to address the longer-term problems of truancy, poverty and lack of job opportunities.
Jolly said the city budget is affected by tough economic times, but those tough times also contribute to the crime rate, and government has a role to play in alleviating that.
Not everyone favors more money for police, however. Evaline Taylor, who lives near Swope Park and serves on Kansas City's Neighborhood Advisory Council, said she didn't see the need for new police cars. She also said that before the department hired new officers, it should provide better training to the officers already on board.
"They have to be trained to deal with different cultures of people," she said. "A lot of things have to be corrected before we grant them more money."
Funkhouser said that in the next two months he wants city leaders to come up with a comprehensive strategy to improve public safety. Police are a piece of that, he said, but prevention programs are just as essential. So the council will have to choose carefully which police requests to fund.
"We want to fund the right stuff," Funkhouser said.

Wire Service
 
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