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GARY — The city's request that the Gary Police Department cut its budget by $1 million next year poses a detriment to a force already understaffed and dealing with outdated equipment and high crime rates, Fraternal Order of Police President Terry Peck said.

“The city is already not hiring enough to replace the officers we lose,” Peck said Friday.

Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson’s administration is proposing across-the-board budget cuts for most departments in 2019 — including decreases to public safety — as part of a long-term plan toward stable, financial footing. Many departments face cuts, she said. 

She hopes city government can match spending levels with revenue in due time through a combination of aggressive permit and licensing fee collections, department consolidation, revenue generators and economic development.  

“What we’ve done is we’ve given department heads a goal to manage to, and then they’re going to come back to us and let us know if it’s doable,” Freeman-Wilson said.

Peck: Difficult to maintain minimum staffing

The City Council approved a 2019 spending plan in November that included $11.69 million for the Gary Police Department and $12.48 million for the Fire Department, though the administration reminded them spending levels for most departments would significantly change leading up to Jan 1.

Budgeting at or near 2018 levels allowed the city to maximize tax levies until the city has a better grasp on its true fiscal condition, Freeman-Wilson has said.

Now, the administration is asking the police force to reduce its budget to just under $10.7 million, down from the council-approved spending levels of $11.69 million. The Police Department has spent $11.3 million so far this year, as of Nov. 29, according to budget documents obtained by The Times.

Freeman-Wilson said the Police Department has been asked to address issues surrounding a high number of officers on paid disciplinary or disability leave. She’s also asked the Police Department to more carefully manage overtime.

Peck, a 12-year veteran with the force and president of Gary FOP Lodge 61, argued reducing overtime is nearly impossible at current staffing levels when the department must adhere to a 12-person shift minimum.

Understaffed shifts mean slower response times, officers resorting to “reactive” instead of “proactive” patrolling, and detectives being asked to handle unmanageable caseloads for homicides and shootings, he said.  

“Overtime is really the only way to reach minimum staffing levels for shifts,” Peck said. “Even when nobody calls off, nobody is injured, and nobody is on vacation, it’s hard to meet minimum staffing.”

Even with proposed cuts, six police recruits will be hired next week, bringing the force closer to a manageable staffing level of 180, the mayor said.

She said both the fire and police chiefs recently agreed to hold staffing levels to 180, though Peck argued the opposite and that the Police Department has been consistently budgeted for 200 officers in recent years. 

Additionally, the Police Department has a new revenue source in 2019: towing release fees, that will help cover costs for routine police squad car repairs and abandoned vehicle auction operations. 

Peck said despite efforts to recruit new officers, there are too many reaching retirement age, or recruits who train at Gary’s expense but then later opt to join neighboring departments for better pay or to escape low morale.

Next year will be no different, he said.

'Crippling' police and fire

The Gary Fire Department has been asked to reduce its budget to $10.8 million when it has spent nearly $11.4 million so far this year, as of Nov. 29.

Freeman-Wilson said a working group of city staff has been meeting weekly to plan a reduction and craft a financial recovery plan. They plan to provide monthly reports to council members. 

“It’s still very much a work in progress, but we’ve asked department heads to manage to the numbers that we’ve laid out,” she said.

Gary Councilwoman LaVetta Sparks-Wade, D-5, criticized the administration earlier this year for asking the council to pass a spending plan, but with the contingency it would drastically change at the hands of the administration.

“This is the reason why budget sessions are scheduled. A budget is a plan and you can’t plan for cuts if you give me a budget that is not indicative of what you plan to spend next year. The council would have been able to give input, rather than this working group making all the decisions,” Sparks-Wade said.

Sparks-Wade said even though the city’s tax base and population is shrinking, the police and fire departments still have to patrol an area more than 50 square miles.

"We are crippling our police and fire departments if these cuts are made,” Sparks-Wade said.

Freeman-Wilson reiterated this is a working budget that doesn't necessarily mean drastic reductions if cuts are strategically made. 

The Gary fire and police chiefs could not be reached for comment Friday. 

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Northlake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.